An Italian woman kisses a Virgin Mary statue after she methodically makes her bed and begins her morning. A Nigerian migrant recounts the prayer he said while traversing the Sahara, as others in a dark room chant along with him. A boy rows in the harbor under an overcast sky. The Italian coast guard rushes out to rescue drowning migrants and bring them ashore.
Stitched together, these affecting vignettes and others make up the noteworthy Oscar-nominated documentary, Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare). The Italian director Gianfranco Rosi has made what sometimes feels like two separate films, whose stories come so close as to almost touch but that seem worlds apart despite unfolding on the same small, remote Mediterranean island. One story follows a pre-teen boy named Samuele and his family on Lampedusa, which lies 70 miles from the northern coast of Africa and is nearer to that continent than to its own Italian mainland. The other story follows despairing migrants leaving Tunisia or Libya for whom the island is a landing point on their journey toward Europe. Fire at Sea is a powerful, and beautifully shot, look at the migrant crisis—one that manages to subvert viewer expectations of what has become for many a familiar news subject.
Fire at Sea’s first narrative offers an intimate portrait of young Samuele’s daily activities. He plays with firecrackers and his slingshot, he reads aloud to practice his English, and he quizzes his father on the pictures that adorn his fishing boat—this is his life. But the migrants in the second narrative remain faces without names. They board rescue ships either alive or in body bags. They wear clothing soaked with a mixture of the boat’s diesel fuel and seawater that burns their skin. They cry for their loved ones lost at sea. In their spare moments, they gather to pray or play a pickup game of soccer—this is their life.
The only point of connection between the two stories is Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who is both a physician for the islanders and an emergency medical worker for the migrants. He administers care to those pulled off the trafficking boats in states of dehydration, malnutrition, and delirium, and performs autopsies on those who perish. “It makes you think, dream about them,” Bartolo says in the film. “These are the nightmares I relive often ... often.” The unspeakable things Bartolo sees feel a world away from Samuele, a naïve, personable patient who goes to see the doctor for what he thinks is anxiety. The boy never mentions the turmoil on the island; it’s not clear he’s even aware of it, let alone the extent of it.
Fire at Sea resists the tendency of some documentaries to provide explanations or to call viewers to action. There is no narrator, and Rosi does not interview his subjects. The spare title cards at the beginning provide only the bare minimum of context. Rosi’s long, observant takes offer these disparate lives without commentary, evoking the stylistically similar work of the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It’s an unorthodox but effective approach that cuts through the noise to provide compelling and sympathetic impressions of the film’s characters.
Fire at Sea disrupts, or at least complicates, the assumption that proximity equals knowledge, involvement, or connection. Rosi, who spent a year and a half in Lampedusa, explained to The Village Voice that the early interception of the migrants at sea sets up the bifurcated existence on the island. “The migrants are brought in from the coast guard in these little boats,” the director said. “They arrive at night, are brought into the main camp, identified, searched, given new clothes, and after two days they have to go to the mainland in Italy to wait to obtain a permit of a political refugee.” Perhaps the residents of Lampedusa are also used to this ongoing tragedy by now. As one of the title cards at the start of the film explains, 400,000 migrants have landed on the island over the past two decades. An estimated 15,000 have died on the journey across the Strait of Sicily.
Lesbos, another way-station for migrants seeking passage to Europe, is featured in the riveting short documentary 4.1 Miles, also nominated for an Oscar. The Greek island is newer to the migration crisis than Lampedusa. As the coast-guard officer in that film explains, “In 2001, 20 refugees from Afghanistan came to our island. I remember it was the biggest news story of the year, this was the biggest news story of the year.” From 2015 to 2016, the number of migrants crossing the strait between Turkey and Lesbos has surged to 600,000.
In 4.1 Miles, the rescue workers race between sinking rafts and the shore where medical help awaits. Residents and tourists near the port observe the chaos and discuss the crisis; some try to intervene and assist however they can. In contrast to the methodical, steady style of Fire at Sea, the short’s director, Daphne Matziaraki, presents a correspondingly choppy, disorienting portrait of a small island overwhelmed by the influx and without the infrastructure to handle it.
But back on Lampedusa, which has faced the increasing flow for decades, viewers are left to wonder: Could the islanders’ everyday lives really be divorced from this trauma? As Rosi stressed, “There’s no interaction [between migrants and residents]. Zero. So I wanted to use this as a metaphor for Europe. They’re aliens to each other.” It’s a striking, and uncomfortable, diptych that he presents. Compared to the other feature-documentary Oscar nominees, Fire at Sea is a somewhat muted, meditative work, full of extended periods without dialogue. In the end, viewers won’t come away with clear answers, but they’ll likely feel awe for Rosi’s absorbing depiction of both the routine of the rescue and the magnitude of the emergency.