Film review – Lampedusa in Winter

“I want you to remember Lampedusa as the island that saved you.”

belfest-lampedusa-in-winter-1080x675Those are the words of the island’s Mayor Giusi Nicolini. With other migration routes blocked by European Union countries, the dangerous passage by sea is one of the few alternatives available for displaced people. They voyage to islands on the edge of Europe, islands like Lampedusa just 100km off the coast of North Africa.

The film provides glimpses of how the tiny population of 5,000 have adapted to sharing their island with tens of thousands of people who have arrived by sea over the years. Lampedusa in Winter is redolent of the film Fire at Sea (reviewed when it was on cinema screens in June this year). But instead of telling the story through the children on the island, director Jakob Brossmann uses the town’s Mayor, refugees, a museum archivist piecing together the stories behind artefacts found in the ‘boat dump’, as well as seafaring rescuers and the familiar strains of the island radio station.

Lampedusa in Winter opens with a man standing on the bridge of a coastguard vessel scanning the sea from his high-up vantage point for a wooden boat hugging the waves and reported to be holding 300 people. The distressed craft may have drifted away with the tide from its reported position. A caption explains:

“According to the International Organisation for Migration, since the year 2000 more than 23,000 people have died trying to reach Europe.”

So far this year, 3,610 people are dead or missing in the Mediterranean.

“The island is just an immigration office.”

The struggle of refugees arriving by sea and abandoned for months on Lampedusa while waiting for authorities to process paperwork is paralleled by the islanders’ struggle with mainland powers and their inadequate ferry service. Everyone agrees that the island’s infrastructure is stretched to breaking point. Fishermen stand up against the late arrival of an unsuitable replacement ferry which they fear is too small to transfer their nightly catch to the mainland.

lampedusa-mayor-giusi-nicoliniStuck in the middle is the Mayor as she tries to placate rising tempers. Giusi Nicolini’s commitment to work for everyone on the island was galvanised by the death of 365 people in a boat on 3 October 2013. She couldn’t ignore “people [dying] basically in front of your eyes”.

She negotiates a resolution to a stand off involving twenty or so refugees who are occupying a church.

Church goers and officials as well as aid agencies are largely absent from the 93 minute film’s narrative that shows a community fighting for the rights of everyone. (Their absence perhaps raises unanswerable questions about the impact of their work and the filmmakers’ contacts on the island.)

A poignant insight into the harsh realities of the collision between and settled and displaced communities fighting alongside each other to survive.


Lampedusa in Winter is being screened in Belfast’s Queen’s Film Theatre on 19 October at 6pm in a short season of refugee cinema that forms part of the World in Motion strand of Belfast International Arts Festival (previewed in an earlier post). Watch out for it at other festivals and refugee events