Anyone who's heard about Giafranco Rosi's latest documentary; Fire at Sea may have also heard that it is broadly about the refugee crisis in Europe on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. A synopsis such as this may naturally lead you to expect a pretty straight forward, run-of-the-mill 'shock' documentary describing a vivid picture of just how horrible the crisis at our doorstep really is. It wouldn't be surprising therefore if some out there might be a little reluctant to watch a film such as this, where it is oh so very easy to fall into a state of sadness and hopelessness after it's viewing. I know that I certainly sat down in my seat a little skeptically, fully prepared to become de-sensitized toward yet another political documentary. However quite the opposite occurred. Fire at Sea is one of the most human, uplifting and beautiful films in recent years. It tempts the viewer into watching the crisis in a way that they may previously have never imagined possible; with optimism.
Catching You By Surprise
The first trick Rossi pulls on us is to make a documentary about the refugee crisis that predominantly does not have refugees in it. The vast bulk of this film in fact switches it's focus to analyse the residents of the island instead. Here we are allowed to become immersed with the lives of a small fishing village where it's inhabitants are found to be living a life that hasn't drastically changed in over a century. Their pace of life is slow and relaxed, allowing the pace and tone of Fire at Sea itself to slow down and relax - to float, meditatively in any direction the flow takes it. We're introduced to a wide spectrum of characters; from doctors who work directly with the refugees, to a child who is just living his life uninterrupted by the surging numbers arriving at his shores everyday.
This meditative pacing, and decision to focus on the island's inhabitants instead may at first make the film appear to lack direction or clarity, but it's purpose is soon realised. When we do finally meet the refugees it is now through the lens of the villagers, rather than through our own distorted vision. We see these people as exactly that; people. Not newspaper headlines, a statistic, or a political tool, but instead with a sense of humanity. The inhabitants clearly do not view these new arrivals with animosity, suspicion or anger and so neither can we. They are instead greeted with decency, respect and compassion. It is exactly for this reason therefore that the film gains a weight and gravity to it's content that few films of a similar calibre can attain. Most of these types of documentaries are so revealing, so shocking, so heart-wrenching that they lose their humanity. The viewer can watch these films and feel helpless, unable to believe that a better solution is possible. By focusing on the islanders however Rosi's stroke of genius brings hope to the issue without softening it, or covering it in palatable lies. It simultaneously accentuates the need for action, whilst empowering the viewer to act!
No Need To Panic
Fire at Sea's atmospheric pacing also has a calming effect on the viewer themselves. Carrying a personal sentiment, most likely of panic and fear, the viewer may expect their own prejudices to be reinforced. That yes, we have reason to be worried. By showing a people least able to cope with, and most willing to help this influx of refugees whilst continuing to live their slow, melodic and charming life however shows the rest of us that there really is no reason to in fact panic.
As a result of all this, Rosso is clearly trying to not only diagnose the problem, but find a solution for it as well. Capturing the lives of both the refugees and the local inhabitants simultaneously shows the viewer just how much we all have in common, as well as what sets us apart. The fact that the locals continue to live happy, ordinary lives illustrates just how extra-ordinary and inhumane the refugees lives are. One of the locals is filmed having a conversation with his son about the 'bad old days' when he himself had to go out to sea for months on end just to earn a decent wage as a fisherman. Once again, as is often the case in this film, Rosso blurs the lines between villager and refugee, victim and culprit, whilst simultaneously showing that, just like for the fisherman himself, there is redemption to be found for these people, and perhaps for ourselves as well in this ordeal. Who hasn't felt afraid and alone at some point in their life? Who hasn't been in a time of need? When fear and suspicion appear to be in vogue right now, this is a message certainly worth highlighting and remembering.
Fire at Sea achieves an impressive feat. Rosso hypnotises us into wanting to feel empathy and compassion for his subjects, rather than beating us over the head with the same old retired clichés we've seen in the media a million times before. He adds a much needed element to the refugee debate; a simple dose of human decency. This is an element that has been sorely missing recently. So catch Fire at Sea in theatres now to become as spell-bound as the rest of us by this charismatic masterpiece and see if you're own views on the matter aren't challenged in the process, but in a good way!