“The mountains couldn’t hide us”
The story within Fuocoammare [Fire at Sea] is a personal one for director Gianfranco Rosi, himself a refugee from Eritrea during its war for independence at thirteen. He left his parents behind, arriving in Italy on a military plane. So to see statistics about 400,000 men, women, and children leaving Africa and the Middle East for the tiny twenty-square km island of Lampedusa in twenty years isn’t to simply be wowed by the abstract numbers. He understands the struggle, hope, and uncertainty that go into making the decision to leave your home for survival. He understands the risk that must be taken when defeating death at sea during the journey supplies better odds than staying put on land. 15,000 are estimated dead, but that means 385,000 made it.
His film isn’t just about these refugees or their saviors, though. It’s also about the island. Lampedusa is 120 miles off the shore of Sicily, populated mostly by fishermen and their families. They live their day-to-day like they always do: men going out on boats or snorkeling deeper, women cooking dinner from their spoils, and children roaming the rocky and wooded terrain for adventure. A radio host updates everyone who is listening about that day’s rescues (sometimes a successful boat discovery or tragic search for cadavers) and his listeners lament the tragedy. It doesn’t necessarily touch them deeper, though, because they have their own lives to combat. There’s an invisible line separating two distinct worlds despite it seeming as though there’s not enough room to keep them apart.
The connective tissue is a doctor (Pietro Bartolo) caught in the middle of his duties protecting citizens and visitors alike. To him it is every human being’s responsibility to do all he/she can to help those in need. He does whatever is possible to hydrate and nourish those who are rescued and seeks to ensure the safety of each young child—born or soon-to-be—that knows little of what is happening. A juxtaposition is then made between the two sides converging upon him, one being the refugees unaccustomed to the water threatening to consume them and the other an Italian boy named Samuele Pucillo who has spent so much time on land that he’s yet to cultivate a pair of sea-legs all but written in the DNA of Lampedusa’s inhabitants.
To survive life on the island is to embrace the fisherman’s ways. To survive the destruction of nations ravaged by drought, war, terrorism, and oppressive regimes built upon racism and religious intolerance is to also board a boat in hope God steers it to shore. Samuele would rather sneak around walking the land with his slingshot than go to school or adjust to a pontoon’s ebbs and flows during a swell. The refugees would rather enjoy the safety of playing soccer, existing without fear. But neither is truly possible except in those rare occasions of reprieve from the gravity of their situations. Eventually there comes a time where we must take stock of our current predicament and realize what it is that must be done to find salvation.
Rosi presents his footage without interference. The subjects often talk amongst themselves or not at all, the camera capturing life as it unfolds naturally. There are a couple moments—specifically with the doctor—where Rosi (and by extension us) is spoken to directly. This is where we learn how bad things are and how heinous the present has become. We see photos of migrants packed like sardines, images of chemical burns caused by the need of those fleeing to refuel vessels without safe means of doing so, and the result of seven days with nowhere to go. The latter is a nightmare: dead bodies strewn about in the ship’s hold, survivors barely holding on gasping for breath, and others desperate to discover who did and didn’t make it.
This is the futility of existence in which your life is dependent on others—a stark contrast to Samuele moving forward with privilege. He’s learning English in school, his grandfather’s past through photos and stories, and how to be sea-worthy from a more seasoned friend. His anxiety stems from false ideas of illness, not the crippling despair of never knowing whether you’ll live another day. His views on mortality are less altruistic than maybe they should; his slingshot stones targeting defenseless birds much like the governments and groups the migrants flee. But he is learning about his failings and his future. Samuele is maturing before our eyes. Who knows if his future holds a Coast Guard job ultimately placing him on the frontlines to save rather than kill?
So there’s hope alongside incongruity. Living in a country with the means to do something for these innocents makes us the same as Samuele. We’re aware of the tragedy and construct opinions despite probably never having to engage the problem personally. We can be sad while remaining safe and ambivalent knowing we don’t face the same struggle. Fire at Sea becomes a battle cry for change, these Lampedusa residents located mere miles from refugee camps overflowing with survivors yet hardly cognizant of what that means. We take it for granted that others are helping, dismissing the dead as byproduct without wondering what can be done to diminish the numbers. Just because they’re far away doesn’t mean they aren’t as important as us. Death shouldn’t be an acceptable risk.
courtesy of Kino Lorber