Gianfrisco Rosi’s latest documentary, Fire at Sea, takes on the the refugee crisis, a topic that should be handled with care for two reasons. With the situation in Europe becoming more volatile, narratives surrounding the crisis have been reduced to fear-mongering about open borders, and the alternative, rendering refugees voiceless for fear that anything other than the victim narrative would be hard to swallow. What we’re left with then is a departure from the humanity of this crisis, something that Rosi grants us the pleasure of in this film. More than that though, it’s giving a voice to those bearing witness to the crisis that carries the full impact of this film.

Rosi knows that we know about the crisis, that we’ve seen the bodies on beaches and mountains of life jackets, and so he doesn’t waste any time with this imagery. Nothing garners more respect in a filmmaker than respect for their audience as well as their subjects. It’s observational, a slice of life from Lampedusa, the island that sees boats landing weekly, and this piece aims to show us exactly how it impacts the lives of the natives. But much like the rest of Europe, it simply doesn’t. The quiet islanders, their simple pleasures and troubles carry on regardless.

Fire at Sea follows Samuele, a 12 year old Lampedusa resident but most certainly a sixty-year-old Italian man trapped in a child’s body. He’s inquisitive and adventurous, but precious. We watch him learn, and he learns as few children do these days, directly from the island, making slingshots, climbing trees and asking questions of his father and grandmother. He and his family depend on the sea to live, just as the refugees do on their journey, and there is a battle for all in making peace with it. For Samuele, it’s a matter of training his stomach not to lurch on fishing trips with his father, and praying for storms to end so the work that puts food on the table can resume. For the refugees it’s resigning their fate to cramped boats and hoping at the end of the journey they’re not hauled off by rescue workers, poor in health and dignity, suffering dehydration or worse. The natives of Lampedusa and those passing through share very different experiences of the sea and the island, and we the audience watch, patiently waiting for their worlds to collide.

Fire at Sea is a credit to the potential of documentary filmmaking and more than once you’ll ask yourself if this is in fact fiction you’re watching. We become intimate with the everyday of the characters’ lives, a fascinating insight into this island that time forgot. The local DJ plays nothing but old favourites, and the rare glimmer of modern Italy is found only in the doctor, the singular character whose work commands him to acknowledge the refugees.

Barren landscapes on sea and land are masterfully shot giving viewers a freedom of thought that news segments on the crisis seldom do. Devoting limited screen time to the refugees themselves, Rosi emulates the media, returning to their story just often enough to remind us that it’s still there, reminding us that we’re still supposed to care. Distraction is easy and despite happening on the same island, the stories of Samuele and the other natives that are easier to connect with. But this scarce attention to the crisis is powerful and offers the refugees a voice more audible than we’ve heard before. An explanation from one man who has fled from more than one hostile country on his journey to Europe stays with you through the film “It’s a risk not to take a risk”. Rosi portrays human nature as the will to survive regardless.

The temporary refugee camps are where a moment of peace can be found, in a group song or football games played in teams usually in the news for reasons other than their sporting achievements: Syria, Sierra Leone, Eritrea. Their group solidarity, even weeping hugs woman to woman, are starkly contrasted by the isolation felt by the island’s natives and their distant relationships to each other. Even eye contact is between Samuele and his father is rare.

If Rosi’s aim was to bring something new to the discourse of the refugee crisis then he’s succeeded. It’s none of the emotional porn that vies for our wearied attention, instead pitching a reality of life for all on the island that’s equally mundane and horrific. If Rosi wanted us to ask ourselves what we can do to help, then he gives us nothing to work with, but his message is simple. If we’re waiting for the crisis to land on our shores to spur us into action, we can’t count on it. As much as you would like to think otherwise, it’s easy to remain calm and carry on.

With a subject matter so timely and having achieved success winning this year’s Golden Bear at Berlinale, Fire at Sea has already enjoyed a wider distribution than his previous works. But however much the slow pacing is a refreshing departure from what we’ve seen of the crisis before, it may isolate some audiences. Even for those with a preference for this style may feel overwhelmed by the sense of powerlessness in leaving the cinema. Still, the fearlessness he brings to documentary filmmaking, staying close to his subjects with acute sensitivity while producing a seamless edits more reminiscent of fiction, it would be a shame if more filmmakers didn’t try to reach his standard.

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