Fire at Sea: Island in the Stream, by David Bax
Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea is, in some ways, like many other documentaries we’ve seen before, being an everyday portrait of life in a small, company town. The tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, though, actually has two industries that define it. One is fishing. The other is rescuing African immigrants who have braved inhuman conditions to escape their war-torn homes in attempt to make a new life in Europe, only to find their boats sinking and themselves dying of exposure and dehydration with Lampedusa the nearest friendly land.
Rosi’s conceit is to essentially tell two completely different stories in one movie which never overlap. Half the time, he shows us harrowing footage of these dead and dying people and the workers and doctors who receive them, often going out to the waters to pull them one by one from among the corpses of their friends and relatives on sinking boats. The other half is a simple, plotless portrait of a multi-generational family living and working on the island; a grandmother, her grown fisherman son and his adolescent boy navigate their lives, rarely coming into contact with the horrors we’ve been watching except in the form of news reports on the radio.
In both stories, between which Rosi jumps back and forth throughout the film, the film takes a measured and slightly distant approach. Whether it’s refugees having the spilled gasoline from the boat’s engines cleaned off of them or the young local boy teaching his friend how to make a slingshot from a branch, there’s a quotidian feel to the protocol of it all.
Of course, the fact that the rescue methods have become so everyday to the inhabitants is a sobering comment on an ongoing crisis. While there’s nothing overtly political about Fire at Sea, proximity breeds empathy. The more time we spend with these people who fled their homes, the more we can’t help but understand and sympathize with them. Both the scope of the immigration and the resilience of the immigrants is beautifully illustrated when they throw together a makeshift international soccer tournament, with Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Eritrea and more all well-represented enough to field teams.
Rosi’s favored mode here is serenity, even when depicting panic and devastation. When we do hear screams, they’re being relayed from boats in distress to calm workers on the island. By the time we join the rescues themselves in progress, a grim order is in place. Furthering the sense of quiet, the film’s only music is diegetic, though that doesn’t prohibit Rosi from showing us a dock softly dancing with its boats in the gentle waves.
In its totality, though, Rosi’s cool reserve only makes Fire at Sea more bracing. Whether it’s boys playing at blowing one another away with pretend machine guns or people leaving behind everything they know and risking their lives to escape becoming casualties of the conflicts that plague their homelands, Rosi has given us a deceptively beautiful picture of a world of constant war.