The scene has become horribly familiar: an expanse of blue ocean, overarching blue sky, and a slight, inadequate vessel overflowing – literally – with human beings. The craft is sinking, people are screaming and waving their hands as dark figures fall in the water. A helicopter hovers, maybe a navy warship is steaming towards the site – but dozens are certain to die.
The tide of refugees has become a literal rather than metaphorical description. It’s the subject of Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary film, Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. The Italian director focuses on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which has become synonymous with the refugee influx. About 112 kms from the Tunisian coast, and further south than Malta, its position makes it the obvious entry point to Europe for desperate people from African countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, and of course, from Syria.
Rosi’s approach is to alternate between a close-up account of a young boy, Samuele, the next generation in a fishing family, and a record of the Italian authorities’ handling of the influx. Whether the latter theme was to provide good publicity for the beleaguered Italians is perhaps a cynical view – but that point is made only to temper the impression of the humane, almost saintly, behaviour of many personnel involved in the rescue. A friendly pat on the back for a starving, dehydrated youth who has just endured seven days in a perilously overcrowded boat is not necessary, especially given the numbers arriving – but it’s given.
A local doctor looks at screen pictures of one vessel which had 850 people on board. His commentary almost brings tears to the eyes as he describes, matter of factly, the conditions, especially for those in “third-class”, who pay only $500, and are packed in the hold of the boat like sardines. An image of a youth with dark patches all over his body, lying on a hospital cot attached to various tubes, comes on the screen. “Those are chemical burns,” the doctor tells the unseen interviewer. “The men have to refuel from jerry cans filled with diesel. This is splashed with seawater and gets all over them – it leaves terrible burns”.
In another scene Italian border guards, in full infection prevention gear, pat down young man after young man who have arrived on the latest boat. “Their clothes smell of diesel!” complains one guard. “If I flicked my cigarette lighter we’d all go up in flames”.
Then we flick back to the life of Samuele, a child of strong facial features and equally strong personality, almost comically a mini-adult. But his preoccupations are those of a child – finding the right piece of pine wood to make a slingshot, doing pretend shooting at the navy ships bobbing in the waters around Lampedusa, and trying to overcome his seasickness so he, too, can become a fisherman.
There is no intersection between Samuele’s story and that of the refugees, although all the time it seems imminent. For this reviewer, there was a bit too much of Samuele and the ordinary everyday life on Lampedusa, although it was sensitively filmed, but did lead to longueurs. No doubt the director could defend this as a deliberate contrast between the hectic craziness at the port, and the timeless daily routine of the Sicilians.
Many visually arresting scenes appear, but the one in which a busload of refugees, wearing their crinkly golden emergency blankets, make a nocturnal arrival at a reception centre, with the word Misericordie prominent on the bus, was a stand-out – the flickering gold in the darkness, so ironic.
It’s all very low-key, without any commentary. The local doctor says: “We are human, so we have an obligation to help these people.” The Italian navy staff go about their often distasteful work with efficiency and calm purpose.
Oddly, the one time I did feel tears was when we were shown a scratch soccer game the refugee men were playing on a concrete apron at their reception centre. With empty water bottles for goal limits, and some inter-national argument, they played as if their lives depended on it. The referee clowned around, doing dance steps, and the onlookers laughed.
How many of us could make the most of such a grim situation?
Out of it all, the Italians – who must have spent a fortune on their rescue effort, and have repeatedly asked the European Union for more support – come out as heroes. And the refugees as desperate, driven souls: who would risk such a journey, unless there was powerful danger and suffering at its other end?
Fire at Sea opens at the IFI in Eustace St., Dublin, on June 10th. Check out the trailer below.
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