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Berlin Review: Golden Bear Winner ‘Fire at Sea’ Offers a Superb Snapshot of the Refugee Crisis

Berlin Review: Golden Bear Winner 'Fire at Sea' Offers a Superb Snapshot of the Refugee Crisis


One of the two documentaries in competition at this year’s
Berlinale happens to chime with the festival’s vocal and practical support of the
refugees that have arrived in the city. But there’s nothing faddish
about the presence of Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire At Sea” (“Fuocoammare”) in the line-up, as is confirmed
by the fact that it was one of the most persistent favorites for the
Golden Bear.

Unlike so many documentaries about the refugee crisis that
have been rushed into production in recent months — which in their frequently slapdash
quality suggest filmmakers running at the subject without any clear idea of the
actual film they wish to make — Rosi’s is
a clear-eyed, sublimely made account of his heart-breaking, sometimes gut-wrenching

As it happens, Rosi was initially invited to provide a reactive,
brief and possibly unavoidably
superficial approach to the migrant issue when asked to make a 10-minute film about
Lampedusa, the Italian island that for years has been a primary transit point
for people leaving Africa and the Middle East en route to the European mainland. One look at the complex
reality of the place, however, and
the director realized that a different approach was required. He ended up living
on the island for a year, developing a richer perspective and this
feature-length film.

Such immersion isn’t alien to the director of “Sacro Gra,” about
life along the ring-road encircling Rome, which Rosi spent more than two years
filming. Incidentally, that film became the first documentary to win the Golden
Lion in Venice, in 2013. What a coup it would be to repeat such a rare feat at
two different A-list festivals.

In Lampedusa, the question was how to reflect a situation
that has been so frequently in the news, as thousands of refugees have headed
towards the island from Africa in inadequate, overcrowded boats, many dying in
the process. What Rosi has done is to show the mechanics of the problem — the search
and rescue operations at sea, the identification and care of survivors on the
island’s detention centre before they are moved onto the mainland — and to
accompany this with a snapshot of the island residents, seemingly undisturbed,
but with this tragedy and trauma creating a daily ripple across their lives.

The selection of characters is small, precise. The dominant personality
of the film is Samuele, a nine-year-old boy and a terrific bundle of good
humor and contradictions, not least the fact that while confidently clambering around
the island’s rocky hills with his trusty, homemade slingshot, he’s uncomfortable
on water, and prone to seasickness, which is a little inconvenient for an

We follow Samuele at school, with his uncle on his boat, and
his grandmother at home, and roaming the island with his friend. When he has to
wear an eye patch to deal with his lazy eye (a convenient metaphor for Rosi,
perhaps, aimed at the less conscientious of those in the international
community?) it plays havoc with his slingshot aim; when speaking to the doctor
about his breathing problems, he wonders himself if it may be because he’s
anxious, a little Italian Woody Allen in the making.

In contrast to the gallivanting Samuele, we only see his
grandmother indoors, cooking or tidying her apartment, listening to the radio. Sewing
as a storm brews, she recalls how during World War II nearby warships would
fire rockets at sea, leaving fishermen too frightened to take their boats out
at night. Hence the eponymous song, which the old woman requests on the local
radio station. The film frequently nips back to the DJ, seemingly a one-man
station, alone with his jaunty tunes in a darkened room, again perhaps a
non-judgmental metaphor for an island isolating itself from the tragedy on its

But that isn’t the case entirely. The most significant adult
islander we meet is its doctor, first as he’s performing an ultrasound on a
pregnant refugee, her twins knotted together in a way that’s defeating his
scrutiny and which he suggests may have been caused by her inhumanly cramped
transit. Later, he reflects on the dead that have arrived on his autopsy table,
“so many, too many” and the bad dreams they give him.

The doctor’s sober account is incredibly moving, yet still doesn’t
prepare one for Rosi’s fly-on-the-wall filming of the rescue missions, as the living,
half-alive and dead are plucked from absurdly flimsy boats. On land, as
survivors endeavor to express themselves, we get a glimpse of the real people,
their cultures, the tyranny and death they have escaped from.

Unlike the competition’s other documentary, Alex Gibney’s “Zero
Days,” this is not controversial, or polemical; it’s not setting up a confrontation
between islanders and migrants, nor is it merely repeating the news. Rosi’s purpose
is subtler; observational, reflective, he’s offered a quietly profound study in
contrasts, between a relatively straightforward and serene community, and the
hundreds of communities we know to have been destroyed, between the simple
lives of the islanders — in which all the grandmother thinks to pray for is “a
nice day and a little health” — and the thousands of damaged, displaced lives whose
tragedy is etched on the faces before us, between peace and chaos. This isn’t just
an apt documentary, but a very fine film.

A statement from the Berlinale stated that last year
79,034 people sought refuge in the German capital, arriving from Syria,
Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea and many other crisis regions around the world. “As
a public festival and one of the city’s biggest annual events, the Berlinale
feels a responsibility to do its part for Berlin’s culture of welcome,” it

Several projects aimed specifically at helping refugees have
included accompanied cinema visits and behind-the-scenes
visits to the festival offices. Guests and audiences were also asked to make a
donation to a non-profit organization that supports people traumatized by torture,
war and migration.

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