There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).
I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.
Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.) You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.
Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.
There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.
Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?
Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.
I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.
The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.