How familiar are you with the European Migrant Crisis?
Fire At Sea, the latest documentary from director Gianfranco Rosi, chronicles this tragedy. The film begins with an unsettling scene, in which we hear a distress call from one of 250 people aboard a sinking vessel. The call, however, is cut before the caller can give the ship’s location. We later learn that the ship was carrying migrants from Africa to Europe and the failure of the distress call to elicit help foreshadows a theme of this film, namely, the lack of attention paid to the European Migrant Crisis.
Beginning in 2015, refuges from countries such as Nigeria, Libya, and Iraq travel to different parts of Europe in order to seek asylum from hardships at home, including war, famine, and rape. Many travel from Africa through the Strait of Sicily, to the small island of Lampedusa, which is a close point of entry to Europe. The waters of the strait are treacherous, however, and many ships don’t make it. Even though some ships do complete their journey, some of those on board are dead upon arrival, while others suffer from dehydration and burns from leaking fuel.
Slowly, Rosi exposes the audience to the seriousness of the conditions these migrants suffer. In a short interview, a doctor who specializes in assisting refugees upon entry shares horrifying stories and images from his experience on the job. For example, we learn about a refugee with severe skin burns from his clothes being tainted by leaking fuel tanks. And we see him giving a sonogram to a female migrant pregnant with twins to see if the dire conditions of the journey affected her pregnancy. The doctor stresses that the migrants who spend the journey in the bottom deck of the boat suffer the worst.
We also see the Lampedusa coast guard transporting migrants suffering dehydration to their boat. The camera lingers on them for so long, that it dares you to look closely to see if they are even still breathing. In fact, most of the movie consists of one-take moments that let the viewer absorb the horror. When the migrants go through a pat-down search upon entry, some of them look directly at the camera, giving us a glimpse of their pain. The shot of the dead bodies of men, women, and children lying at the bottom of the boat’s hull is especially hard to watch.
Intercut with the coverage of the migrant crisis, the film also follows a young boy named Samuele, who lives on Lampedusa with his father and grandmother. Outside of attending school, Samuele’s daily activities include hunting with a homemade slingshot and learning about sailing, taking routine fishing trips with his father. At one point, Samuele goes to the eye doctor, and it is discovered that he has a lazy eye resulting from squinting while using his slingshot. For the remainder of the film, he has to wear an adhesive patch over his eye, and we see him struggle to adjust to this situation.
Samuele is right where the action is, but he is not aware of the migrant crisis at all. Rosi is making a comment on how we get so caught up in our own problems, we overlook the problems that other people face, which are probably ten times worse than ours. One morning, Samuele’s grandmother hears news on the radio of the sunken ship that made the failed distress call. She quietly says “Those poor souls,” and then continues to prepare breakfast for her family.
There is a point halfway through the film where Samuele’s grandmother tells him about his grandfather’s days of fishing during wartime. While out on his boat, Samuele’s grandfather saw flares in the sky, which he described as a “fire at sea.” This would imply that even though Samuele’s grandfather saw the flares, which were a call for help, he didn’t realize what he was seeing. Similarly, Samuele is also blind to the crisis surrounding him, and maybe his lazy eye is a symbol of his not being able to see what is going on.
The European Migrant Crisis continues to this day, and no one is talking very much about it. Rosi, with this documentary, is asking us to increase our awareness of what is happening around us. Hopefully, this film, with proper distribution, helps put a spotlight on this terrible situation.
Fire at Sea is now in theaters.
We screened the film at Metrograph this week. The evening was hosted by Meryl Streep and Gianfranco Rosi. It is Italy’s entry to the 2017 Academy Awards.