Gianfranco Rosi had intended to make a 10-minute film about the refugees who find themselves on the island of Lampedusa, but once there, he quickly decided that the complexity of the situation demanded more. Hence FIRE AT SEA, short-listed for an Oscar™ and otherwise garnering praise for its sensitive, incisive look at how refugees and inhabitants do and don’t interact.
When we spoke on October 13, 2016, the conversation stared with the way the Italian media had covered the refugees arriving on Lampedusa, and moved on to the strong emotions experience by both Rosi and the people he was filming, both refugees who had escaped certain death in their homes by rising death to cross the sea, and the native population, including the testimony of Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who has taken care of the refugees and seen sights that are the stuff of nightmares.
We moved on to the impact of national politics on refugees, an astute comparison between current situation in Europe and what led up to the Holocaust, and his declaration that the purpose of his film is to create such an awareness of what is happening that no one will be able to say that they didn’t know.
We finished up with the process that led to him choosing to include a heartbreaking scene of dead refugees, and why he wanted to tell so much of this story through the eyes of a child.
FIRE AT SEA is his trenchant documentary about the thousands of refugees that find themselves on the Italian island of Lampedusa after their boats become disabled or sink. Quarantined from the native population, their experiences are contrasted with that of Samuele, a boy who hears about them only over the radio as he goes about his daily life. Between these two is Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who treats the refugees, and who also documents their deaths. Rosi eschews narration, letting the powerful images of desperation, joy, and ordinary life form a poignant juxtaposition in a microcosm of the effect of political unrest causes on those least able to withstand it. The film has been shortlisted for the Academy Award. Rosi’s previous work includes Sacro GRA, BELOW SEA LEVEL, and BOATMAN.