Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea” was one of nine films to gain a slot on the Academy’s shortlist for Best Documentary last week. While Italy also submitted the Berlin Golden Bear winner for the Best Foreign-Language Film category — a rarity for a documentary — it did not make that shortlist. Rosi, who studied at NYU and shoots his own films, recently discussed at the International Documentary Association Screening Series the setting of his engrossing look at Europe’s migrant crisis and the increasingly porous boundaries between narrative and nonfiction filmmaking.
“More than 100,000 people have been passing through Lampedusa for the past 20 years,” he said. “This island is out of the map of Italy. If you Google, probably everything is there. But if you look at the map of Italy on paper, it’s never there. It’s close to Africa. It’s like a piece of Africa, somehow. It belongs to Europe, and it’s the door of Europe; it’s the last border.”
That talk of borders is fitting for a director whose own work blurs the line between genres. Even if “Fire at Sea” doesn’t end up receiving an Oscar nod, it will still go down as one of the more acclaimed nonfiction films in recent memory, along with 2013 Venice Golden Lion-winner “Sacre GRA” — not that Rosi strictly adheres to the label.
“Any kind of award is always a surprise,” he admitted, but what was especially meaningful about the two prizes was the way in which they “exploded” the division between documentary and fiction. “People say, ‘Is it documentary?’ I never answer that question. For me, it’s cinema, and I use all the tools that cinema gives me in order to tell a story…I always say, ‘There’s no writer, no director, no actor, that could achieve certain moments that reality gives to you.'”