FIRE AT SEA (Italy | France/12A/114mins)
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi.
THE PLOT: Documentary maker Gianfranco Rosi shines a light on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the first place that many African refugees land in Europe. Rosi looks at both the life of the islanders and those who find themselves seeking refuge there, often after their crossing from African turns to disaster.
THE VERDICT: ‘Fire at Sea’ is a strange sort of film, being that it tries to blend the imagery of the people of Lampedusa with the plight of the African refugees who find themselves there, often without choice. The film is scattered and messy, and feels as though Rosi tried to make a film about the people affected by thousands of refugees landing on their small island home, but instead met a young boy who was so lively and raucous that he could not help but include him in the film.
Much of the film is taken up with this young boy, Samuele, as he roams around the island with his friend Matthias. The film follows the two as they make slingshots, argue over who gets to go on their tiny motorbike and, in one hilarious scene, as Samuele goes to the doctor complaining that he cannot breathe. The idea that the film could have been a look at the life of an anxious, hypochondriac kid who would not have been out of place in a Woody Allen film is an amusing one, and for the most part, Samuele is a joy to watch on screen, but he is not the full focus of the film.
The rest of ‘Fire at Sea’ is taken up with islanders calling the radio station to get songs played, talking about their lives as fishermen, and going out to see to rescue refugees on overcrowded boats whose lives are in danger. The final act of the film is taken up with filming these refugees as they arrive dehydrated and ill, healthy but heartbroken or dead. This throws up problems outside of the film’s narrative, as to who gave permission for these images to be used in the film? Many of the subjects seem to not be in a fit state to grant permission; so then this is where the film begins to feel exploitative. The plight of these refugees cannot be forgotten, but juxtaposing these images of extreme suffering with a young boy unable to aim his slingshot properly because he has a lazy eye feels reductive. Perhaps the point is being made that people die every day as we get on with our lives, but the adage of “Show don’t tell” goes too far here, and it by the end of the film, the entire message is a muddle, other than one short segment of a doctor being interviewed about his experiences, which is extremely powerful.
In all, it seems that ‘Fire at Sea’ director Gianfranco Rosi has tried to make a film about the people on both sides who are suffering due to crisis. The trouble is that without context, history or several answers, ‘Fire at Sea’ feels like an observational piece and not a cohesive film about a real life issue.
RATING: 1/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

Fire at Sea
Review by Brogen Hayes
1.0Reductive & dismissive
  • filmbuff2011

    Brexit or not, the current migrant crisis in Europe isn’t going away anytime soon. Franco-Italian documentary Fire At Sea, named after a song that’s played in the film, focuses on one place affected by the migrant crisis.

    The island of Lampedusa is roughly half-way between North Africa and Sicily. It’s become a focal point for the migrant crisis, much like Lesbos in Greece. Desperate migrants fleeing conflict zones board overloaded boats, paying between $700 and $1,500 to stay in the hull or on the top of the boat. However, these boats are overloaded with people who are being exploited by amoral people-smugglers. These boats often capsize, resulting in needless deaths. Even the boats that don’t sink have casualties onboard. It’s the job of the Navy to take on the thankless task of cleaning up and trying to save those who are still alive. Meanwhile, on Lampedusa, 12-year-old Samuele lives out his everyday life, living with a lazy eye, playing with his friends and eating dinner with his grandmother. He’s unaware of the crisis affecting children his own age brewing just out to sea…

    Fire At Sea has honourable intentions. It’s certainly a hot-button topic that provokes heated debate. Just who is really responsible? The war-makers? The people-smugglers? The Governments who stand idly by letting wars continue? How do we deal with the enormous masses of refugees desperately looking for shelter and comfort in the new promised land of Europe? If that’s the film you’re expecting, then Fire At Sea is not that film.

    If anything, it’s almost the opposite. Instead of taking an emotional, heart-wrenching and confrontational approach, director Gianfranco Rosi has adopted a detached, fly-on-the-wall approach. Some might find this objective, dispassionate view admirable, but this reviewer found it cold, distant and offputting. It’s as if Rosi has simply dropped in an invisible camera to gaze upon the wildly contrasting lives of both the islanders and the migrants. The camera watches as the Navy pulls the bodies of barely-alive young African men from the boats, badly dehydrated and choking on diesel fumes from living in the hold. Shouldn’t we feel a bit more involved and horrified though? Some voiceover or quiet music to give it more context would be helpful.

    That’s another problem throughout the film – other than the opening titles, there’s not much in the way of context. Rosi spends too much time dwelling on insignificant details, like Samuele eating a spaghetti dinner or his grandmother preparing fish for cooking. These scenes could do with some trimming, along with the film itself which is overlong by 20 minutes. There is one scene that makes you wish the film would come to life and address the issues more openly: a doctor describing in detail his medical experiences in dealing with the migrant crisis, and that we need to remind ourselves of our humanity when thinking about the migrants. What we do in their place? It’s a scary thought. It’s just a shame that Fire At Sea never really gets to grips with the migrant crisis, leaving you barely more informed coming out of the film as you were going in. **