Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the new documentary from Gianfranco Rosi (El Sicario, Room 164) is a startling, on-the-spot document of the European migrant crisis.
Fire at Sea
With alarming regularity since the turn of the millennium, the arrival of summer has brought with it waves of migrants in various parts of the world. Over the past 20 summers, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing wars, violence, and drought in Africa. Renowned documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi spent months there as the European migrant crisis reached epidemic proportions in 2015, bearing witness to a humanitarian disaster that has resulted in the deaths of many hundreds attempting to cross the Mediterranean in leaky, overcrowded boats.
The result, Fire at Sea, is a masterwork in observational filmmaking. It is not a piece of investigative journalism, but rather something approaching the opposite — a deeply contemplative, carefully constructed record of events as they occur. Rosi allows his audience plenty of space to make up their own minds about what they are seeing. His film balances the lives of the local fishermen and their families with sequences documenting the rescue of migrants. The two realities are kept mostly separate, the former quiet and quotidian, the latter dramatic and emotional. Fire at Sea brings a couple of characters to the foreground: a 12-year-old boy with a slingshot, and the only doctor on Lampedusa. Large parts of the story are seen through their eyes, but the film's boundaries extend well beyond them to include indelible images of suffering.
Amid refugee crises that continue to grip Europe and the globe, Fire at Sea is a magnificent intercession by a filmmaker who points no fingers, nor sets out to analyze the reasons why. Rosi is only concerned with the what. From there we are left to draw our own conclusions as we leave the cinema, perhaps asking ourselves: what will we do?
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