Fire at Sea (4 stars)

Fire at Sea

Powerful and poetic documentary from award-winning filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi

Gianfranco Rosi’s latest documentary – winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, to add to the Golden Lion he won at Venice for Sacro GRA a few years before – might have been an unbearable chronicle of misery. Instead, he has shaped a deceptively simple, impressionistic work in which he contrasts everyday lives with the life-and-death struggles of migrants trying to reach Europe. Both play out against the vast sea and sky, and the cumulative effect is both poetic and powerfully affecting.

We are given a few facts to get on with. The small Italian island of Lampedusa is an austere home to poor fishermen and has a native population of only 6,000. But its location between Sicily and North Africa has made it a major destination for refugees, 400,000 of whom have reached it in the last 20 years. Many thousands more have died in the Strait of Sicily trying to get there.

There is no commentary and there are few interviews, so initially it is hard to get a handle on how gentle vignettes of island life – families living largely as they would have done 100 years ago, a DJ at the local radio station, a kindly GP giving a child a checkup – intersect with rescues at sea and life in the refugee centre. Much of the focus is on 12-year-old rascal Samuele, who has difficulties learning seamanship – his preferred pastime is crafting slingshots, with which he hunts birds by night.

When Rosi isn’t tailing Samuele he captures tragedies unfolding nearby, as Italian patrols carry hundreds of desperate, dying and dead people from crammed, dangerous vessels. The images say it all, as do the faces of grief-stricken women, traumatised children and men too far gone to move or speak. At the centre, relieved survivors excitedly play football in national teams: ‘Go Syria!’, ‘Go Eritrea!’. One English speaker charts an epic odyssey of flight from civil war, across the Sahara, into the clutches of IS in Libya until ultimately: ‘We ran to the sea. That was the journey of life.’

Finally the link between the two groups is established as the family doctor, who treats the rescued and handles the dead, and who weeps describing the awful things he has seen that give him nightmares. And when he cries, ‘It’s the duty of every human being to help these people,’ we’re right there with him.

Selected release from Fri 10 Jun.

Fire at Sea

  • 4 stars
  • 2016
  • Italy / France
  • 1h 54min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Gianfranco Rosi
  • UK release: 10 June 2016

Documentary about the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is a major destination for refugees, focusing on a 12 year old boy and a local doctor who treats the people rescued from boats.