Fire at Sea is a powerful if unusually crafted documentary based around the island of Lampedusa, about 200km away from Sicily.
The local fishing boats that set sail from the harbours are no longer the only vessels in the sea. Refugees pay to make the perilous journey from Libya across to Italy in boats packed with bodies. Standard fare sees you crammed into the dark hold, risking burns from the diesel fuel and death from the heat and dehydration. Pay double and you can perch on the deck.
We hear the ship to shore radio communication between a boat in peril and the Lampedusa Coastguard station, and watch as naval vessels launch a helicopter search mission and sailors equip a boat’s passengers with life jackets before evacuating the most severely dehydrated, the walking wounded, and finally the dead bodies.
Running just shy of two hours in length – though unlike The Revenant, the time passed quickly – the narration-less documentary with its sparse dialogue patiently lingers over each scene, allowing the audience to spot moments of visual and thematic symmetry between the different strands of the film. Months spent safely out on the water fishing is contrasted with the treacherous flights to escape. An ultrasound scan looks eerily like the Coastguard sonar display.
The new life represented by the intertwined twins huddled together in the dark in their amniotic fluid contrasted with the refugees clinging to each other in the dark hold of the smuggler’s boat. The treatment of Samuele’s lazy eye: a reminder of need to correct the tunnel vision of many in society who would prefer not to do anything about the 60 million or more displaced people across the world.
A doctor bridges the islander and migrant communities together:
“It’s the duty of every human being … to help these people”
People’s eyes speak out about fear, relief and uncertainty about the future. Official photographs taken with ID numbers but without the dignity of a name, and often with the country of origin guessed by a slow process of elimination.
There are no shortage of poignant moments in Fire at Sea, but perhaps the most soul destroying is the instant a rescued woman sitting on the deck of a naval vessel asks in desperation “Are all the black men on board?” before breaking down in tears.
While a few domestic scenes look less than naturalistic, the post production on Gianfranco Rosi’s film is very subtle and it’s hard to believe that a colourist was employed.
Fire at Sea is difficult to watch. It gently captures the human tragedy that sails towards Lampedusa on a weekly basis and personalises the staggering numbers of deaths. In the first five and a half months of this year 2,438 people have been reported dead or missing on sea crossings to Italy, and another 376 on their way to Greece.