Don’t go to Fire at Sea. Don’t go, that is, if you are expecting to see a documentary describing in detail the plight of the refugees who cross the Mediterranean to escape to Europe.
Yes, Fire at Sea is set in Lampedusa, the small Italian island closest to Africa, where most of the refugees who are lucky enough to survive the crossing make landfall. However, much of the film focuses not on them, but on the daily life of a 12-year-old Italian boy, Samuele, who is one of the island’s few permanent residents. Scenes of Samuele playing and practising his skills with a slingshot are only occasionally interspersed with shots of the tragedies taking place in the waters surrounding the island.
Do go to Fire at Sea, on the other hand, if you want to see a different side to Lampedusa; the one that does not make the news, but that is just as real, if not more so, than the news. Because what scenes there are of the refugees are eye-opening in their starkness. Director Gianfranco Rosi does not blatantly pull at your heartstrings: where the TV news adds, Rosi subtracts.
So, while we do see some shots of the laden boats floating adrift waiting for rescue, the images that have remained with me are the more mundane ones: refugees being inspected one by one by men in white hazmat suits and having their photos taken with a number as their only identification. No commentary is necessary – the eyes of these unnamed people say more than any voiceover could.
Do also go to Fire at Sea to see Rosi’s insight into the islanders’ lives in Lampedusa. Samuele, his friends and relatives appear to be totally removed from what is going on, apart from hearing the occasional report on the news of the latest numbers who have not made it. The one notable exception is the island’s doctor who, as well as ministering to the locals and the new arrivals, is called upon to identify the bodies of those who have not survived the trip. His matter-of-fact tired yet compassionate words chilled my blood.
Lastly do go and see Fire at Sea for its cinematography. Rosi shows us the barren scrubby beauty of the island; divers searching for seafood; refugees glowing in the dark in their crinkly space-blankets like lolly wrappers; the ominous grey waters of a Mediterranean Sea completely different from the vision of blue and gold that is portrayed in travel brochures.
Will you like Fire at Sea? I don’t know; but, if you are like me, you will walk out of the cinema a slightly different person. So, watcher, be warned.