May 31, 2018
Welcome back to Documentary Thursdays. Today, I’m reviewing the second documentary about the refugee crisis, this time from an Italian perspective. If you want to learn more about the plight of refugees coming to the European continent, check out Episode #074 (“Human Flow”) by Ai Wei Wei. Learning about the crisis is only the first step, though, so if you are moved, find a way to take action and be the change in the world.
Today’s movie is “Fire at Sea” (2016), the Italian documentary directed by Gianfranco Rosi based on an idea from Carla Cattani. The documentary follows the lives of the refugees on Lampedusa, a small Italian island near the coast of Tunisia, which has become a way station and sometimes home to refugees fleeing to Europe. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2017.
“Fire at Sea” is actually two documentaries. One documentary follows the very real and deadly refugee crisis in Lampedusa, with overcrowded ships bringing refugees fleeing war zones and famines and corrupt governments. Another documentary follows the equally real, but incredibly contrasting story of a young boy and his family who are residents of Lampedusa. For Rosi, however, it’s not two stories, but a single story being told from two very different perspectives, illuminating not just each story’s plight, but how they relate to each other and more importantly, how they could never relate to each other.
Rosi almost exclusively lets each story speak for itself, with very few noticeable prompts, quite a few intentionally awkward shots, and great use of turning b-roll into key storytelling segments. Rosi also juxtaposes the two narratives, asking questions with each transition, so that the viewer is moved to wonder, “What kind of world do we live in when the refugee children aren’t as carefree as the residents?” or “What kind of world do we live in when the residents have adapted almost too easily to the crisis unfolding before their eyes?”
Rather than pitting the stories against one another, however, I found myself asking not who is to blame, but how can we solve the problem, or at least alleviate the suffering. The documentary is a startling counterpoint to how some anti-immigrant and anti-refugee pundits characterize the effect of refugees and immigrants within their own countries, normally overblown and dangerously nationalistic. The film’s magnificence comes from avoiding that paradigm altogether, instead showing a less confrontational, yet more complicated perspective on the refugee crisis.
“Fire at Sea” (2016) is a surprising documentary, weaving two perspectives on the refugee crisis unfolding at Lampedusa, allowing the stories to tell themselves and to ask questions of each other. Gianfranco Rosi turns in a truly Oscar-level film that says a lot more than it tells, and feels more than it says. If you want a less confrontational look at the refugee crisis, that treats the material with respect and without sensationalism, then you should definitely check out this film, and more importantly, get involved to help aid those fleeing their homes and ultimately, to end the refugee crisis.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94% (CERTIFIED)
One Movie Punch: 9.0/10
“Fire at Sea” (2016) is not rated and is currently streaming on Netflix.