FIRE AT SEA (Gianfranco Rosi). 109 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (October 21) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. See listings. Rating: NNNN
Director Gianfranco Rosi hates “complain and explain” documentaries.
“You know the type,” he tells me. “The Michael Moore style of filmmaking. Someone complains and then someone else explains why they’re complaining.”
Rosi’s powerful new documentary, Fire At Sea, is the antithesis to that. It’s about one of the world’s most pressing problems – the migrant issue in Europe – but it’s quiet, contemplative and lets the viewer put together the pieces of this real-life tragedy.
The film, which won the Golden Bear, the highest honour at the Berlin Film Festival, and played this fall at TIFF, focuses on the peaceful Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of migrants end up – dead or alive – after fleeing North Africa, travelling in cramped boats trying to get to Europe.
Italy’s prime minister distributed copies of the film to members of the European Council. A nice gesture, says Rosi, but he’s not sure anything has changed.
“There was some awareness. It screened at the European Parliament and at the United Nations,” he says. “The pope saw it, and he called for Samuele to visit.”
Samuele is the film’s soul, a scrappy 12-year-old with the body of a youth and the face of a middle-aged man. He forages around the island, aims his slingshot at things, unaware of the human drama happening in the sea surrounding his home.
Rosi is angry at the world’s reaction to the migrant issue, but you won’t find any of that anger in the film.
“We, Europe and the world, have betrayed these migrants,” he says. “When I hear that Canada welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, that’s great. But there are sometimes 5,000 people arriving in Lampedusa in one day. When Europe can’t make a decision about their policy, and countries like Austria, Poland and Hungary start closing their borders, that’s the end. Thousands of people are escaping from war and hunger. They have a right to be saved and not be at the mercy of human traffickers.”
Initially, he had planned on going to Libya, where the migrants from various countries leave, and Italy, where they hope to land. But while spending more than a month on a military boat patrolling the border between Africa and Europe, he witnessed the mass death of migrants suffocated by boat fumes. That made him change his mind.
“There were about 50 people who died as if in a gas chamber in the Second World War,” he says. “They’d paid 1,000 euros to find freedom, escape from tragedy. This had to be shown. But something inside me broke. I thought, ‘No, I can’t film any more.’ So I called my editor and started editing. I couldn’t keep filming.”
Rosi’s patient, unobtrusive way of filmmaking – he conducted no formal interviews, asked no questions – allows human life to emerge onscreen. One Nigerian chanting about suffering, he says, is like witnessing history. For a group prayer scene, he decided not to translate it to allow the migrants their dignity.
But another scene, when the migrants play an impromptu game of soccer, has universal resonance.
“It’s the one moment of lightness in the film,” he says. “These people arrive with desperation and play soccer. The funny thing is that they’re from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Libya – all countries that are fighting amongst themselves – and in this moment there’s unity, lightness and hope.”