What role can cinema play in making sense of Europe's migrant crisis? Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi ('Sacro GRA') spent two years on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa to craft this artful, thoughtful portrait of a place currently best known as a staging post and rescue centre on the refugee route to mainland Europe. Rosi's documentary is partly reportage – we see harrowing scenes of naval rescue and the recovery of the dead bodies of migrants from Syria, Nigeria, Eritrea and elsewhere. But 'Fire at Sea' also offers careful, thematic juxtapositions as it moves between shots of naval ships and detention centres and follows a young local boy, Samuele. We watch as he makes a DIY catapult and has a lazy eye tested, as well as spending time with a doctor, a radio DJ and Samuele's fisherman father and elderly grandmother.
At first, you wonder if Rosi's interest in Samuele, a spirited young boy flinging stones at birds, is indulgent compared to the plight of migrants heard on a radio calling desperately for help from the sea. But he carefully builds to an insight into the suffering of refugees that is pointed, upsetting and very different from what you’d glean from 'pure' factual journalism. The personal and human angle Rosi takes on the tragedy of fleeing one's home is all the more affecting for how he connects this experience to other, indirectly linked lives of Lampedusans. The point, made poetically and calmly, is that all lives are as equal, and equally deserving of interest and respect, as each other. The film's quietly angry plea is for compassion, understanding and more than one eye open on this modern horror.