Some of the most powerful documentaries ever made simply let their subjects tell their stories themselves. If the observational route is taken to its furthermost point, like in 2014’s Maidan, we’re allowed a truer glimpse of real-life people and their real-life situations, for by removing the narrative voice of the filmmakers we get closer to the point they were possibly trying to make in the first place; that their movie is everything about what’s in front of the camera, and nothing to do with what’s behind it. In Fire at Sea, a sobering portrait of the European immigration crisis, filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi takes a similar approach – but to curiously little impact.
By far the film’s most lasting scene is when a local doctor on Lampedusa explains, through tears, the horrific sights he endures while performing post-mortems on the never-ending tide of dead immigrant bodies.
Lampedusa isn’t a place you’d find a ‘Welcome To…’ sign on its beaches. The Italian island is on the frontline of a very human crisis that’s been reaching the shores of many countries, but here its aftershocks can be felt the most keenly. On one hand, we follow the everyday lives of the islanders, in particular a young boy by the name of Samuele. Samuele gets diagnosed with a lazy eye, and must wear a special pair of glasses which covers his good eye in order to strengthen the weaker; it’s a proxy metaphor by way of happy coincidence, one of many that pop up in the film. Rosi never milks such visual cues; the islanders’ ability to both see (their own lives) and not see (the crisis happening all around them) is something he leaves in front of us to digest on our own. He’s also not afraid to linger on images which will have many of us trembling to our core, such as a below-deck view on an immigrant boat where there are so many dead bodies, they obscure the very floor.
These two duelling viewpoints – the mundane lives of ordinary folk, and the inhumane suffering of those whose only goal is to achieve some fraction of the same – is the focus of Fire at Sea, but Rosi never takes the approach to make any lasting comparisons; perhaps he should have taken the abstract-as-sum-total route as Nostalgia for the Light, a powerful Chilean doc which explores the thematic connections between observatories which search the skies for new stars, and families who search the nearby desert for bodies of deceased loved ones. Or perhaps Fire at Sea would have benefitted from a more face-to-face, straight-laced perspective; by far the film’s most lasting scene is when a local doctor on Lampedusa explains, through tears, the horrific sights he endures while performing post-mortems on the never-ending tide of dead immigrant bodies (later on in the film, we see him prescribing Samuele his special glasses.) What leaves the cinema with you is this personal plight, not the meticulous distance the rest of the film witnesses things from. You simply can’t be distant from such things, making a documentary or not.
The half-baked concept or Rosi’s otherwise bravura – and by default, important – film does severely let it down. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi declared he would take 27 copies of it on DVD to a European Council session, and his promise indeed resulted in each copy being distributed to a head of state or government; there’s an undeniable power that Fire at Sea holds. Crucially, what we witness in it is unforgettable – everything but the film itself.
Fire at Sea is in cinemas now.