Years before Pietro Bartolo became the star of an Oscar-nominated documentary, he nearly drowned at sea. Bartolo began his career as a fisherman, trawling the same Mediterranean waters between Italy and Libya where countless rickety boats carrying desperate immigrants sink beneath the waves. One day, the rough waters capsized his boat. He spent the night adrift and was rescued by a passing ship the next day.
“I was convinced I was going to die,” he said in a conversation through a translator during a recent visit to New York. “Finding a shipwrecked victim in the middle of the Mediterranean is like finding a needle in a haystack. I was lucky, but many of these people don’t have that same fortune.”
Bartolo knows that better than anyone. A doctor treating thousands of North African migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa, he’s a recurring presence in Gianfranco Rosi’s devastating “Fire at Sea,” which takes place on the island and the surrounding waters. Rosi’s artful movie captures shocking images of weary migrants rescued from the waves and receiving treatment from a sullen Bartolo, a solitary guardian angel for an endless swarm of desperate souls. Rosi also explores the disconnect between this ongoing survival drama and the island community’s ignorance of the problem, which becomes an apt metaphor for the world’s ambivalence toward the migrant crisis.
For years, Bartolo was the only doctor treating migrants on Lampedusa, and he has developed a keen awareness of the pressing need to address the humanitarian crisis on a daily basis. “I’ve done, I don’t know, 700 or 800 autopsies on people who haven’t survived the trip,” he said. “This sea, which should represent life, instead has become an emblem of death.”
Thanks in part to “Fire at Sea,” that has started to change. The movie began its life in early 2016, winning the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and garnering the attention of the Italian government. Eventually, the National Health Service sent Bartolo a bigger staff — including a gynecologist, a pediatrician, two cultural mediators, and an emergency room doctor — which freed him up to travel around with the movie. It has since opened in 64 countries, most recently in Japan, and Bartolo has arrived at a new stage in his career by spreading an activist message worldwide. He’s been especially judicious about talking at schools.
“I want to especially show young people that we’re not dealing with just numbers here,” he said, “and to sort of dismantle the false myth that these immigrants are aliens or evil, diseased, or terrorists. No. They are extraordinary people who have come here escaping war, escaping terror, escaping torture.”
Rosi credited Bartolo with helping the filmmaker provide an anchor to the film’s narrative. The director spent time on the island trying to figure out how to make a movie about it, but only got a better sense of its particular identity as a migrant way station after talking to Bartolo. After shooting island footage for a year, Rosi realized it would only work if he included Bartolo as a recurring character.
“When I started this film, I barely talked about migration. I just wanted to show this little island in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “I found in his world all this darkness and tragedy, things you would never want to see in your life. That was the element that made me go back to Lampeduza and finish this film.”
Bartolo tolerated Rosi’s interest only because it didn’t intrude on a daily routine he has maintained for 26 years. “I was just doing my normal job,” he said. “It’s not acting, it’s not fiction. So I never felt the weight of the camera following me around.” Watching the movie now, he added, “I see someone who’s trying to help other people like — they could be my mother, my father, my sister … this is the duty not just of a doctor, but of all people. I do everything I possible can.”
“Fire at Sea” casts Bartolo as a lonely figure of sympathy. In one of the movie’s more touching moments, he performs a sonogram on a pregnant woman moments after her rescue; in another, he expresses concern for a survivor covered in gas. Bartolo’s eyes grew fiery as he discussed a recurring problem he dubbed “the disease of the rubber rafts.” Over the last four years, migrants have crowded into big rubber boats with no wooden base, powered by a weak engine. The 20-mile trip from Africa takes them two days, and the gas gathers at the bottom of the boat as if filling a swimming pool. Migrants stuck at the bottom are seriously burned by the toxic liquid. “Even if they do survive, they will be scarred for the rest of their lives,” he said, pulling out his iPhone to reveal unsettling photos of scorched bodies shedding dangerously thick layers of dead skin.
“The most urgent thing today is to prevent these deaths from happening,” he added, flipping from one ghastly image to the next. “Right now, even as we speak, maybe 20 people have died. How do we prevent these deaths?” He sped through big-picture conversations about establishing humanitarian corridors in the sea to pick up traveling migrants, and the development of designated welcoming centers. If that doesn’t happen, he added, there needs to be a greater emphasis on helping migrants in their home countries — or finding ways to ease their transition into new societies.
“It is our moral duty to help them,” he said. “When people come to me and say, ‘What can we do to help?’, I say, ‘We don’t need your help here. We’re the gateway. You are the house. Help is needed afterward. What you need to do is to work on integrating people, helping them to grow, teaching them how to insert themselves into our society.”
Rosa said he has also grown used to viewers of “Fire at Sea” asking for advice on how they can address the crisis. “This migration is a phenomenon all over the globe,” he said. “Millions of people are moving everywhere. What really scares me now is the mental war people are building up about it.”
In recent months, Meryl Streep — a member of the Berlin jury that championed Rosi’s film — has taken to supporting the film on the awards circuit. Meanwhile, its topic has found additional relevance in the growing anxiety around immigration issues in the U.S. “Two or three months ago, people did not perceive it the way they do now,” Rosa said. “That’s why it was worth it to make this film.”
Bartolo, for his part, remains deeply concerned. He doesn’t beam with pride so much as tremble with frustration. “I haven’t noticed a lot of change,” he said. “There have been more deaths, more shipwrecks.” But that hasn’t slowed him down. “What we’re talking about here is something that requires a radical solution,” he said. “Gianfranco’s film has given me this gift, the possibility to show the world what’s happening.”
With such a lofty goal, he had a hard time showing much excitement over his plan to attend the Academy Awards ceremony with Rosi by his side. “I’ve already won my Oscar,” he said, “because bringing this message to Europe and the United States is already a huge victory. I’m happy to be there, but I’m not an actor or a director. I’m a doctor.”