The Review/Short Read/Interview/
Fire at Sea Centers The Refugee Crisis In Quiet Observation
“Walls never resist history”
Fire at Sea is Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s quiet, observational documentary about the European refugee and migrant crisis, which won the Golden Bear award at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival. Currently screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox, the film also played at TIFF 16. Rosi filmed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, 120 miles from Sicily and 70 miles from the African coast, which has become a place of intensely-political unrest for tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing from Syria and Libya, amongst other countries. Within the last 20 years, 15,000 have died in their attempts to reach the island’s shores. Rosi devastatingly captures the day-to-day lives of the island’s inhabitants trying to maintain their lives amongst the distress of those suffering around them. Centering on the story of 12 year old boy and the sole doctor on the island, the film is a poetic depiction of unspoken horror and the finality of death.
During TIFF 16, we spoke to director Gianfranco Rosi about his connection to Lampedusa, the idea of an observational documentary and finally, how a USB pen and a chance encounter put the story of Fire At Sea into motion.
Where did your love affair with cinema begin?
I was 17, I finished high school early. I did two years of medical school and I found myself going more to the cinema than to study anatomy. I left medicine and my passion was always photography. Then I went to New York where I did this small summer school class for cinema. I did a short film, someone saw it. I was accepted at NYU Film School and I moved to New York and that's how it started. Since then, I never had any doubt that this was going to be my new life.
Fire At Sea seems to be so observational. You are presenting moments from your subject’s real lives, so how does it grow into a film for you?
My films are documentaries because they deal with real people, real life and I don't really direct them in any way or narrate them. For me, the biggest investment is time. Usually I fall in love with a space, a place. In my first film Boatman, it was India, in Below Sea Level, it was the American desert, in El Sicario, Room 164, it was Mexico, for the story of the cartel. Within this space, I have to find some people that will eventually become the characters of my film. And then, enter their life. It becomes a discovery, almost like a character study. I'm a one-man crew, so somehow you have to create an intimacy. From there, there's always an incredible discovery about how things happen in front of the camera.
Watching your film, it felt as if the camera had disappeared.
I shot this film with a big camera, so the camera is always there. But I create a long-term relationship with the people in the film. At a certain point, there's this tendency to forget that there's a camera because the camera becomes a part of life. And life becomes part of the camera.
You have to keep it interesting, you have to grab something deeper than that, which is life. I try to just let my subjects be and be part of their daily process. When I start the film, it could take one year, it could take two years. There's a point when you know you have to finish. When I start editing, I don't look over my material. I start selecting in my mind. It's like in life, when you close your eyes and you think about what happened to your life in this last year. You don't recall every single moment, you recall a few moments, a few episodes. So I take out all these episodes that were somehow part of this journey, that somehow merge in my memory.
How did you get involved with this story of migrant workers in Lampedusa?
I remember I had bronchitis. I had to go to the hospital and I met this man who was a doctor and we started talking. For two hours, we talked about everything. At the end, I told him I was a filmmaker and I didn't know if I was going to be back in Lampedusa to make this film. He told me, "I think you have to be in Lampedusa and you will be back in Lampedusa." He took out this USB pen. There was 20 years of him witnessing arrival of migrants. All kinds of death stories. He said, “You go home, and you're gonna watch this. And I'm sure you're gonna be back and you're gonna bring me back this pen." And that's what I did, I went to Rome and I watched something that completely tortured me and made me want to go back and do this film.
I had a very strong relationship with this doctor. But it was very difficult to film him in a way that really represented who he was. I went back to him and I remembered this USB pen. I gave it back to him and said, "Now you have to give me the same emotion that you gave me the first day when I met you and you were talking to me about this tragedy.” And so, he put his USB pen back in his computer and he started talking about the images that were there. And I think that became one of the most powerful moments in the film. Which somehow gave us the allowance to go through the pain of encountering death. Because after that moment is another 28 minutes of silence. With all the characters, there's a change in all of them.
Your film immediately implicated me in what I was watching. Because I hear stories about migrants on the radio in the morning as I'm making breakfast and I say the same thing: "Poor souls." I think the doctor in your film is right, we all have a duty. Most of us shirk it entirely. He's somebody who, in your film, has actually taken it on.
The world is going completely upside down in this moment. A few days ago, 5,000 people were arriving in a single day in Lampedusa. Then you you hear a country like Canada say, "We took 5,000 people," which is nothing. It's absolutely nothing. So this is something that has to be solved politically with a solution that is a world-wide project. It cannot be left to a single country, a single politics, a single property. It's not left to ego. Because these walls never resist history, you know? Sooner or later, they come down. And if we start building a wall, we already encounter a defeat in our future.
With the European community, the only solution they find is to give six billion euros to Turkey under the blackmail of a dictator. And that's a big defeat. My film wants to be a cry for help. It's unacceptable that people die when they try to reach freedom in the middle of the sea. In this last 15 years, more than 20,000 people have died. This is a mass slaughtering, it's a sort of Holocaust. And we are all responsible for that. Because we do know that there are people who are ready to leave, ready to die, in order to reach freedom. Lampedusa's like a beacon of freedom for them. They want to reach this island and they want to reach freedom. And we just let them die, constantly. When I decided to put out these images of death, it was for me about “This is something the world has to know." That's what I want to do with this film. I want to create a certain awareness of something that is unacceptable that is happening.