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Film review: Fire at Sea – documentary is a searing snapshot of migrant crisis

Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi opts for intimacy rather than bombast in telling the story of Mediterranean islanders and their interactions with incoming migrants and refugees

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2016, 8:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2016, 1:26pm

4/5 stars

A quietly hewn, occasionally powerful documentary, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea begins by stating: “On the isolated Sicilian island of Lampedusa, in the past 20 years, 400,000 migrants have landed there, attempting to reach Europe from North Africa. During that time, an estimated 15,000 have died.”

Another director might immediately cut to an emotive shot of overcrowded boats, but not Rosi; the camera hones in on Samuele, a young islander out foraging for a piece of wood to make a slingshot. This mischievous 12 year-old boy, who spends his days pinging missiles and letting off firecrackers, is just one of the Lampedusans that Rosi trails, building up a picture of local life.

Initially, it feels meandering: clips of a local DJ playing Sicilian folk songs; a mother preparing food as she mutters “poor souls” upon hearing of the latest shipwreck disaster; the doctor who scans the pregnant belly of one of the migrants.

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Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, Rosi’s movie works imperceptibly, gradually building up its horrors. There are frequent outings on the patrol boats that intercept the vessels, as men in protective suits bring in dozens of migrants smelling of diesel fumes. Just as powerful are the distress calls, as one woman screams their boat is sinking; like the second world war distress flares that left the ocean lit red, this is the Mediterranean’s very own fire at sea.

Juxtaposed with the gentle island life, it’s a discomforting mix. Samuele, who becomes a mascot for the film, is seen to go out to sea with his fisherman father, only to be sick over the side. His problems pale rather next to life on a refugee flotilla, with people dying of hunger and drinking urine to survive, as one tells us in an emotional hymn.

Never preaching, Rosi leaves it for us to soak up these revelations. The result is sometimes wayward but peppered with images that sear the brain.

Fire at Sea opens on July 7

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