Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy, is the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. That doesn’t mean it’s very big. With an area of only 7.8 square miles, and a total population of only 6,304, it’s about a third of the size of my crappy little town in New Jersey. Mostly because it’s closer to North Africa than it is to Sicily, Lampedusa has also become a center of the European Migrant Crisis.
At the beginning of Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea, a sequence of title cards informs us that over the past twenty years, 400,000 migrants have landed at Lampedusa. They also tell us that in the attempt to cross the straights of Sicily to reach Europe, it is estimated that 15,000 people have died. Fire at Sea might best be described as “an experimental neorealist documentary.” Instead of a straightforward account of the human catastrophe that has unfolded in the Mediterranean over the past decade, Rosi has chosen to do away with the larger narrative altogether, to focus tightly on how the migrant crisis has affected, or has not affected, one twelve-year old Italian boy living on the Island.
Fire at Sea is the kind of movie you’ll probably either love or hate. If you like Ken Burns, you’ll hate it. If you like Chantal Akerman, you’ll love it. If you have no idea who Chantal Akerman is, you probably haven’t heard of it. The line for Rogue One is that way.
In any event, the film I kept thinking about while watching Fire at Sea was Chantal Akerman’s almost wordless film about the end of Communist Eastern Europe, D’Est (“From the East”). As Rosi’s camera follows Samuele, the twelve-year-old son of a Lampedusa fishing family, through a typical day on the island – it’s an unspecified, extended period of time but one gets the sense that most of Samuel’s days are pretty much the same – the film introduces a parallel narrative, the arrival of African migrants on makeshift, and usually unseaworthy boats from across the narrow straights of Sicily. The migrants not only live in horrendous conditions and die in great numbers, they’re still divided by class. One price gets you a spot on the roof of a typical migrant raft, where you can breath the fresh air and have a chance to swim for it if the it capsizes. Another price gets you a birth on the second level. It’s a bit more crowded, but you can still look out of the open windows. Most of the migrants pay to be crammed down below, where you not only have no chance of escaping a shipwreck, but you might die of suffocation, even if the boat makes it to Lampedusa in one piece.
We never find out who is making a profit off of transporting the migrants from North Africa across the straights of Sicily. We do see the day to day operations of the Italian Navy, who come off like well-intentioned, harried first responders doing their best to address a problem beyond their control. Rosi’s style of filmmaking, emphasizing the purely visual over the narrative, tends to humanize the Italians and to deny the African migrants an identity as individuals. One of the film’s better scenes focuses on one of the Africans telling the story of his journey from Sub-Saharan African through Libya – which he hated – to Lampedusa, where his future remains uncertain. It made me wish Rosi had organized Fire at Sea the way Studs Terkel organizes his verbal histories, by staying close to the migrants, and recording their testimony, but I suppose you watch the movie you have and not the one you’d like to see, and the center of the movie isn’t the migrants, but Samuele and his family.
Does it work? To be honest, no, it doesn’t. While Rosi does film one shatteringly effective scene, a group of migrants who died of suffocation in the hold of a boat that made the crossing successfully, most of Fire at Sea is excruciatingly dull. Do we really need to see an extended take of Samuele’s grandmother washing the dishes, or long, lingering shots of the profile of a local radio disc jockey? I suppose Rosi is trying to set up a contrast between dull normality and the desperate situation of the very poor, but he would have done better had he followed Chantal Akerman’s example from D’Est, had he simply made Samuele and his family just a few more people in the crowd, and not the rock around which he builds his documentary. In the end, Rosi’s well-intentioned film winds up fetishizing a working-class Italian family, who, to be perfectly honest, just aren’t very interesting. Every second away from the African migrants feels like a loss. Fire at Sea, sadly, doesn’t tell their story, but it did make me want to see a film that does.