Fire At Sea is an Italian documentary directed by Gianfranco Rosi that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and is nominated for an Oscar.
It’s about the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, between Africa and Italy, and focuses on the European migrant crisis, during which some 15000 people have died trying to reach the island. Hundreds of people board boats that are barely seafaring and risk their lives trying to make it to a safer life. Not everyone makes it.
It’s such a sad story, and an important cause. I wanted badly to like this movie. Badly. Meryl Streep, chair of the Berlin jury, called the film “a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It is urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking.” Meryl, love ya, but I respectfully disagree.
I realize I’m going to be in the minority here, but Fire At Sea nearly bored me to death. There’s no narration to drive the story. There isn’t much of a story at all. It follows some island natives who have very little to do with the migrant crisis, and if their lives are affected by it at all, it remains a secret from us. Lengthy scenes are spent on a 12 year old boy who has a lazy eye and an aptitude with slingshots. Why give so much time to him and very little to the actual refugees? The only thing I can conclude is that the film maker is making the migrant crisis seem every day, as perhaps it feels to the people of Lampedusa who have witnessed so much and are now impressed by very little. But for me, hearing people plead for their lives over a CB radio, begging to be saved from their rapidly sinking vessel, it’s horrible. It’s fucking atrocious. But in this documentary, it’s given no more weight than is given to the kid discussing his allergies. So while I concede there might be some bigger meaning going on here, that it’s the juxtaposition of banality and tragedy that really underlines the horror, it just felt off to me, the refugees basically an afterthought.
The length of the scenes are painful, and Rosi’s aesthetic detracts from the film’s impact. Yes, life must go on, even in face of unspeakably injustice, but perhaps this film would have served its subject better had it focused on one more than the other. While I appreciate the message, I can’t help but object to the medium.