Fire at Sea
On Friday, Jan. 23, President Trump issued an Executive Order that temporarily halted admission of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Families were separated with the stroke of a pen, and foreign allies of the U.S. military were sent home despite years of loyal service. This egregious and unconstitutional #MuslimBan has rightly sparked protests at airports around the country, sending a strong message of resistance to a cowardly administration that is quickly descending into moral chaos. And we’re only in week two.
Considering the current political climate it’s entirely fitting that Fire at Sea, an observational documentary about the European refugee crisis set on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, opens on Friday, Feb. 3 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park. Director Gianfranco Rosi’s sobering film oscillates between the quiet lives of locals and the tumultuous experiences of incoming immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Little political or social context is given, aside from opening title cards describing the island’s small size and the increasing casualty rate of those refugees fleeing famine and war.
Considering Lampedusa’s limited terrain, proximity plays a key role in Fire at Sea. Many wide shots capture the rocky coast in full, presenting a serene picture of nature mostly untouched. Young Samuele Puccilo roams the island crafting his own adventures from the mossy surroundings. He builds a slingshot and proceeds to use thriving cacti as target practice. There’s a destructive quality inside him born from lifelong lethargy.
These scenes stand in contrast to the suffocating closeness felt when Rosi’s camera boards a navel ship off the coast preparing to help a sinking migrant vessel. Lifeless technology engulfs the frame—monitors, helicopters and turret guns all stand as witness to Lampedusa first responders processing those souls suffering from dehydration and diesel-fuel burns. Here, the camera often adopts the empathetic perspective of Dr. Pietro Bartolo, a community physician tasked with treating the migrants when possible.
Fire at Sea suggests there is no escape from addressing the social realities of this burgeoning immigration crisis. Rosi’s camera pins our attention to images so often discarded by mainstream news media. During one wrenching scene refugees from Nigeria chant an oral history of their horrific journey that begins with a single man’s powerful prologue, “This is my testimony!” Later, Rosi’s camera captures bodies stacked upon each other on the lower floorboards of a refugee boat, documenting the potentially devastating end result of such an inhuman journey.
Freshly nominated for the “Best Documentary” Oscar, Fire at Sea tackles hot button community issues through a restrained, almost maudlin approach. It dovetails between moments of intense stress and languid stasis, a pattern that eventually enables a clear dichotomy to emerge. Being able to control one’s own destiny is a privilege that not everyone is afforded. Experiencing this reality from the ground level, without politicians regurgitating talking points or the sensationalism of news media, is a woozy reminder of the freedoms westerners often take for granted.
Fire at Sea is an unabashedly minimalist teaching moment, organically attuned to the small but potent details of human interaction that transcend nationality and class. It demands the same kind of patience and empathy that so many first responders have been forced to master with each distressed new arrival. During a rare confession, Dr. Bartolo says, “It is the duty of every human being, if you are human, to help these people.”
President Trump obviously doesn’t feel the same way, but the word is still out on whether or not he’s even human. That being said, Fire at Sea deserves your attention for this very reason. Rosi humanizes a global political issue out of the most essential images of people in transition. It destroys the distance between your world and the emotional and physical triage being performed onscreen. You can’t look away, and why should you?