Two Sides to Every Story
by Jeff Reichert

Fire at Sea
Dir. Gianfranco Rosi, Italy, Kino Lorber

Gianfranco Rosi’s new documentary Fire at Sea begins simply. White title cards on black inform us:

“The island of Lampedusa has a surface area of 20 square km, lies 70km from the African coast and 120 miles from that of Sicily. In the past 20 years 400,000 migrants have landed on Lampedusa. In the attempt to cross the Strait of Sicily to reach Europe it is estimated 15,000 people have died.”

This is how we might expect a trenchant, harrowing nonfiction film about the European refugee crisis, filmed at one of its front lines, to begin. A bit of geographical context, the juxtaposition of large and small data points highlighting the tragic absurdity of the situation. The monolithic, inarguable quality of white facts on black.

Yet the first images we see in the film are not of refugees, but of a young Italian boy, Samuele Pucillo, climbing a tree, whittling away at its bark with his knife, traversing the landscape, and, ultimately, constructing a slingshot from his pilfered branch. The sequence is beautiful, pastoral, with Samuele set against foreboding gray skies and faded green grasses. Rosi shows the progression of Samuele’s handiwork via enough different kinds of angles and shots (an uncluttered admixture of long shots, mediums shots and close-ups) that the careful viewer will recognize the simulated vérité of the scene—Samuele’s desire to build a slingshot was likely his own, but the desires of a filmmaker with a camera played at least a supporting role in how he went about it.

Rosi’s next cut, to a pair of silhouetted radar towers rotating ominously against the blue-black night, takes us what seems like worlds away from Samuele, even though we know that, given Lampedusa’s small size, these structures can only be a few kilometers from him. As their gyrations continue, the audio of a dire SOS creeps in over the soundtrack: a panicked caller begs for help in heavily accented English, the dispatcher repeatedly asks for a position, similarly in English, but with a different accent, until the call cuts out. The potential rescuer’s last words: “My friend…hello?”

We have left Samuele’s idyll and are now in a space of modern surveillance, of those looking for, and actively working to help refugees reach land. Yet this sequence goes on to show us shadowy instrument panels, the side of a massive craft, likely built for war, and now repurposed for rescue, coursing through a midnight sea, then a longer shot of those rotating towers. There are no signs of human life throughout. Is the Samuele prologue merely a diversion? Which of the two very different sets of materials that Rosi’s provided us thus far are the real meat of the movie?

Answers aren’t immediately forthcoming. Rosi drops another head-spinning cut immediately after to a radio DJ at work, singing along to his chosen track. And then after to an Italian housewife cooking dinner in her kitchen and listening to that same DJ who not only plays the classics, but also reads the news. His first story of the day details the bodies washed up on shore following the sinking of yet another craft. His facility with the numbers of living, dead, and as yet unrecovered suggests this is a common story. Is he describing the plight of those people we heard begging for help over the radio in the prior scene?

We’re now about ten minutes into Fire at Sea, and it’s unclear exactly who its subjects are, and how it plans to progress, yet Rosi has quietly sketched out the form in which his argument will play out: instead of immersing us solely and fully into the experience of the immigrants arrived at Lampedusa, he’s going to wind us around the small island again and again, meeting its lifelong denizens and newly arrived, feeling its culture and traditions and how they have or have not been affected by the influx of refugees from abroad. It’s the kind of holistic everywhere-at-once approach fans of In Jackson Heights or It’s the Earth Not the Moon might appreciate.

Rosi’s film is clearly in no hurry, liberated from any desire to relentlessly proceed or spoon out narrative information. He will continually jostle us back and forth between spaces across the length of his film, and though we grow familiar with Samuele and a few others, we’ll continue to be met with new images shorn of context. He next takes us to an extended sequence of Samuele discussing the construction of the slingshot we saw earlier. Then back to that mass of night-lit instrument panels as we hear another dispatcher trying to arrange a rescue.

Throughout, Rosi’s camera presents us with densely beautiful images, often locked down on a tripod, composed with an eye toward symmetry, and held for extended duration. That these framings often capture complete actions (say, the takeoff of a helicopter from a landing pad) suggests a filmmaker who has witnessed these events enough times to know how they will play out and has placed his camera in the most advantageous spot to view them. Disparate spaces connected by dint of being edited in sequence (that helicopter takeoff, then shots from the helicopter, then shots of the rescue) provide an idea of a kind of authorial omniscience. We should recognize this as difficult to achieve in documentary—still, even with clear manipulations of time and space, we can marvel at the immersive qualities of Rosi’s set pieces.

It isn’t until fifteen minutes into the film that we actually see an immigrant, but as Fire at Sea continues, Rosi devotes more and more screen time to their situation, and concludes with a truly gut-twisting set of images taken in the bowels of a small ship attempting to transport for far too many passengers. However, it’s only occasionally that the two worlds of the film—that of white locals moving through Lampedusa freely and that of brown immigrants rescued, examined for disease, catalogued, and cordoned off—actually intersect.

A local doctor who works both with immigrants and locals is one such nexus. We meet him first wielding an ultrasound and calmly trying to explain to a woman who speaks little Italian the sex of the twin babies she’s carried from abroad. We see him later helping Samuele develop a treatment for a lazy eye, having him don coke-bottle glasses with a conspicuous patch over one eye. The doctor is also the only figure in the film who comes close to addressing the viewer. While looking at photos of burned refugees on his desktop, he monologues: “It’s the duty of every human being to help these people…When we succeed we’re happy. We’re glad. At times, unfortunately, it’s not possible…I’ve done so many, perhaps too many…But it has to be done, so I do it. All this leaves you so angry.” In a more straightforward work of nonfiction cinema, this moment would be played straight to the lens to the swell of music. Here he barely looks in the general direction of the camera. Though Rosi is clearly conducting a sort-of interview here, he maintains the fiction of realism.

That precocious Samuele comes to dominate Fire at Sea, becoming something of an avatar for the audience, is an unexpected choice for a film about today’s refugee crisis. When a filmmaker throws us a rhetorical curveball like this, how should we respond? Does the focus on Samuele suggest an insensitivity to the plight of the refugees? Does the fact that Rosi’s camera is often quite close, but never terribly intimate with any immigrant face, suggest the same? Or do Rosi’s massed choices suggest a filmmaker aware that cinematic empathy can only go so far and that there are myriad sides to the story of the changes overtaking this little island, changes that Samuele, unlike the doctor, the housewife, or the DJ, will be truly forced to reckon with in the years to come?

Meanwhile, things play out patiently on the small island of Lampedusa. Life there continues, for some.