2016; directed by Gianfranco Rosi; 114 mins
If nothing else, this is the movie that proves how much fun kids can have with a cactus, a catapult, a knife and some explosives!
Winner of the top prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), gives us many tales of the tiny island of Lampedusa which lies between Sicily and the northeast African coast. We follow the everyday lives of various islanders including a local DJ, a doctor, a diver, an old lady and a young boy (Samuele) as they get by day-to-day. Concurrent with these is the quiet, unfolding horror of the refugees coming in every day on tiny, crowded boats, escaping not just their home countries but their entire continent.
This is a film about dignity, the brilliance of which is that everybody is given their fair share. There is no judgment in this film – of individuals, at least. It simply presents the situation in a quiet manner with little brushstrokes of life building towards a much broader, much more intricate portrait of a major international crisis. Early on the camera looks out at the evening sky from the bridge of one of the many warships which patrol the coastline daily, searching for immigrants. Over the radio, we are privy to a distress call from a sinking boat, which the Italians are trying to locate. In the next scene, we are informed, via the local radio, that the boat sank and all it’s occupants (some 250) are dead. We hear this whilst watching an old woman preparing a meal and listening to the local news. “Poor souls” is about the best she can do in this situation.
We see little of the immigrants in the beginning but so very gradually, the film reveals first them, then the process of settling them for however long, their stories and how they get by in their compound and then finally, the new boatload and the human cost. It is that perfect kind of documentary storytelling that pushes out all the bullshit and just shows us the people and the places at the centre. In one incredible central scene, a Nigerian refugee tells of his horrific journey across the Sahara, through Libyan prisons and across the Med, whilst all around him his countrymen sing so that his story appears to be told as if part of the song.
At no point, though, does Rosi indulge in local-bashing. There is the doctor who speaks of his anger and frustration at having to deal with the tragedies on a daily basis and the comings and goings of other residents for whom the reality must now be commonplace and thus we just see them carrying out their usual chores and activities. The real standout, though, is 12 year-old Samuele who you begin to think of as less a child than a small bloke. He begins the film, constructing a catapult to knock holes in cacti and telling his friend that he must have “passion” to make a catapult aswell. He seems never to complain about anything which makes you wonder if the island’s children are brought up with a keen awareness of the migrants’ suffering and are maybe taught to be more content with their lot.
The film has no musical score aside from old Italian hits played in people’s kitchens and in the radio station and this is part of the film’s strategy. Music is not there to provoke our emotions, much like The Wire, it uses music as a part of life and living.
Rosi’s cinematography is atypically stylish for what is an observational documentary. Normally, we would have much more handheld camerawork than we get here. Very often, Rosi locks off the camera or uses very careful, very stately panning across rooms, ships or clifftops. The scenes mostly play out in one or two extended takes, allowing the protagonists to reveal themselves. What he does so well is to have the camera capture the compositions, much like Kelly Reichardt, that the landscapes and towns already provide. There are so many beautiful shots, such as the diver searching the shoreline under a dark, stormy sea or Samuele sat perusing old photographs on his Dad’s boat whilst the world bobs up and down outside.
This is the kind of thoughtful, sensitive, dignified and worldly filmmaking that makes documentary easily the equal of drama when it’s so very rarely treated as such.