Fire at Sea: film captures Europe’s forgotten refugee crisis

New film by Italian director sheds light on refugee plight at Istanbul Film Festival

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Director Gianfranco Rosi attends a press conference to promote the movie 'Fuocoammare' (Fire at Sea) at the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany February 13, 2016.

Before Lesbos, Idomeni and Macedonia became synonymous with the European refugee crisis, a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean was already grabbing headlines. Lampedusa sits nearer to Tunisia than Sicily, and has been a magnet for mostly African, and some Middle Eastern, arrivals for more than 20 years. 

Over that time, hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers have landed on its shores, often on crowded, unseaworthy boats. In the 113km of sea that separates North Africa from Europe, thousands of refugees fleeing poverty and conflicts have perished.

Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, 52, whose documentary “Fuocoammare” or “Fire at Sea” won the Golden Bear for best movie at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, arrived on Lampedusa in the autumn of 2014, and spent the next eight months documenting on camera its residents and temporary visitors. 

His film is now showing at the Istanbul Film Festival which runs until April 17.  Rosi also won the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice International Film Festival for his work, “Sacro GRA”.

Lampedusa was a foretaste of a crisis that is now threatening to tear Europe apart. In one of the worst incidents, a fire on a boat en route to the island in October 2013 killed more than 360 people, mostly from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana. In April 2015, about 650 refugees were feared drowned as their boat capsized south of Lampedusa. But the reasons for the refugee exodus remain largely the same, Rosi says: political persecution, insecurity, starvation and torture. 

Rosi describes the death of thousands of people who have lost their lives at sea as one of the biggest tragedies of this century. “They’re victims of war, victims of smugglers. It’s unacceptable that we let people die (this way),” he says. More than 3,700 refugees died crossing the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Rosi spent 45 days at sea with an Italian military ship, which patrolled the waters off Lampedusa and intercepted boats before they reached the island. He shot dozens of landings. After living on Lampedusa for six months, authorities allowed him to film inside detention centres.

Rosi was a one-man team: his own camera, lighting and sound-man. “It creates an intimacy that you can’t have with a bigger crew,” he says. 

It allowed him to be nimble and gain unprecedented access to the refugees. In “Fire’s” most harrowing scene, Rosi shows the interior of a boat’s hold. Coastguards have just discovered a tangled mess of bodies, suffocated by engine fumes.

Being solo also enabled him to get close to the film’s 12-year-old protagonist, Samuele Pucillo. Like any energetic boy his age, Pucillo goes hunting for birds and shoots at imaginary enemies on Lampedusa. But he discovers he has a lazy eye, and complains about breathing difficulties and anxiety - which, the film implies, is a metaphor for Europe’s psychological ailments.

Two weeks into his stay, Rosi also met Dr Pietro Bartolo, a physician on Lampedusa who conducts health checks for survivors and writes death certificates for deceased asylum seekers. The photos Bartolo stores on his computer are a testament to 20 years of his work with asylum seekers. Bartolo’s stories of their  journeys, and the conditions in which he found them, convinced him to make a full-length documentary, instead of a 10-minute short, as originally intended.

While the European Union’s Frontex agency operates a border control and surveillance mission called Operation Triton, boats continue to arrive on Lampedusa to this day. But as Europe reels from an unprecedented refugee influx in neighbouring Greece, unprepared EU member states are grappling with questions over border controls and human rights. The answers could undermine the very basis of the European project: The freedom for people, ideas, goods and services to move across the region.

To Rosi, the debate over asylum seekers should not overshadow the human drama.”Nobody wants to leave their own homes. If they do that, that means that there is something enormous that they're escaping from. And we let them die in the middle of the sea,” he says.

Author: Lim Li Min