REVIEW: 'Fire at Sea': A poignant testimony to Lampedusa, migrants and the sea

Deena Refai, Sunday 6 Nov 2016

Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare) is screened within the Documentary Rendez Vous section of the 9th Panorama of the European Film, which runs between 2 and 13 November

Fire at Sea
(Photo: still from Fire at Sea)

In the opening lines of Fire at Sea, a film that puts us face-to-face with the harrowing human crisis of migrants in our time, a Nigerian migrant raps about the journey from Africa to Europe.

“This is my testimony.
We could no longer stay in Nigeria.

Many were dying, most were bombed.

We were bombed,
and we flee from Nigeria,
we ran to the desert,
we went to the Sahara Desert and many died.

In the Sahara Desert many were dying.
Raping and killing many people
and we could not stay.

We flee to Libya.

And Libya was a city of ISIS

and Libya was a place not to stay.
We cried on our knees,
"What shall we do?"

The mountains could not hide us,
the people could not hide us
and we ran to the sea.”

But neither could they hide nor could they stay at sea. So the sea took them to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. 

Situated 113 kilometres from the Libyan Mediterranean coast and 193 km from Sicily, Lampedusa has been the first port of call for migrants journeying from the shores of North Africa to Europe. 

Due to its close proximity to North Africa, around 400,000 migrants― and counting ― have survived the wrath of the Mediterranean and made it miraculously to the Italian island over the past 20 years.15,000 souls have also perished on the journey.

Only 20 km long, Lampedusa is just large enough to provide a temporary harbor for migrants arriving on a nearly daily basis from Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria, in addition to housing a humble native population of 6,300.

It is large enough that the migrants rarely interact with the island's inhabitants, whose lives continue largely unaffected, at least in the film.

Although there is little contact between the two, the people of Lampedusa are well aware of the crisis at hand, reminded of it through day-to-day radio broadcasts that leave them in a near constant state of remorse.

This emotional response is best reflected in the conversations between Dr Pietro Bartolo, the island’s physician, and the camera.

Dr. Pietro, who perceives aiding migrants as the duty of all human beings ― “if they are human!” is virtually the sole narrator in Fire at Sea. He explains and conveys how migrants ― mostly women and children ― are triaged and treated accordingly by him when they first arrive.

Pietro also reflects on the crisis and how he simply cannot get accustomed to the scenes he confronts: “I have to witness awful things: dead bodies, children … I am forced to do the thing I hate most ― examining cadavers … How can you get used to seeing dead children, pregnant women, women who've given birth on sinking boats, umbilical cords still attached?”

Such bleakness contrasts with the mundane and comfortable lives of the island’s locals: a radio DJ, a fisherman, a housewife and a 12-year-old, Samuele Puccilo, among others.

Samuele ― the film’s main delight ― spends his days struggling with his studies at school, playing with his slingshot, exploring the wilderness at night, and visiting doctors. Early in the film, he visits an ophthalmologist who diagnoses him with amblyopia (lazy eye) and prescribes a patch to cover his good eye, forcing his lazy eye to work. This constitutes a near crisis to Samuele, who depends on his good eye to shoot with his slingshot.

Samuele’s character provides further contrast to the life-or-death struggles faced by the migrants, as he tries his luck with his ancestors’ fishing trade. Coming of age in his own small world, he gets dizzy and seasick, is unable to navigate or even row.

At times difficult to grasp, the film nevertheless succeeds in weaving the narratives of the island's inhabitants and those of the migrants together, thanks to the sublime editing of Jacopo Quadri. It concludes with uncertainty for the migrants, despair for Lampedusa’s coast guard, and the continuation of mundane life for the locals, including Samuele.

Fire at Sea is a fine example of “show, don’t tell," leaving the audience to contemplate the issues raised.

Instead of launching a direct call for action, the internationally acclaimed Gianfranco Rosi, winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2013 for Sacro GRA, and the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale for Fire at Sea, leaves it to the audience to decide for themselves how to perceive the migrant crisis and how to respond to it. 

Fire at Sea will be screened Sunday, 6 November, at 9.30pm, Cinema Karim, Cairo

Check the complete programme of Panorama for Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said here

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