Gianfranco Rosi's 'Fire at Sea' examines the people of Lampedusa and its tide of refugees

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The leitmotif of Gianfranco’s Rosi’s documentary, screening at this year’s New York Film Festival, is immediately apparent in the oxymoron of its title. Fire at Sea, set in Lampedusa, depicts the sharp and seemingly irreconcilable divisions between the people who inhabit the tiny Italian island and those who regularly arrive there, refugees fleeing poverty and violence at home. “Lampedusa is a microcosm of Europe,” the filmmaker said, in a telephone interview today. “These two worlds, that of the refugees, and of the island and its constant ways, never meet.” The documentary, distributed by Kino Lorber, will receive a limited theatrical release beginning Oct. 21.

Rosi arrived in Lampedusa to make a documentary short about the effect of the migration on island life, but found none—the “border” of Lampedusa had been moved to a manned platform off the coast of the tiny Sicilian isle. “Now that the border is the middle of the sea, rather than the land, more refugees are dying,” Rosi explains, “because they must move from those terrible rafts or rubber boats to the rescue ship in darkness.” The filmmaker shot dozens of arrivals; the first in the documentary is an evening rescue. “The refugees are transferred to the Italian ship,” he says. “Afterward, they are taken to a center by bus, and except for the doctor and the authorities who rescue them, no one ever sees these refugees.” While the documentary shows island life mostly through the eyes of a young boy, Samuele Puccilo, Rosi interviews Doctor Pietro Bartolo, Lampedusa’s sole physician, to recount the island’s historical role in the refugee crisis. He cares for the refugees who survive, and he painstakingly works to identify those who do not.

Samuele suffers from a “lazy eye,” and from anxiety, conditions the doctor lovingly attends to in a scene in which the boy admits that he is sometimes short of breath. “Samuele’s lazy eye is the world at this moment,” Rosi observes, “although as I say that, I think the world is turning a blind eye to the refugee crisis.” Samuele’s journey through the uncertainties of adolescence includes seasickness, an unfortunate malady in a place where many, including his father, make their living by fishing. Mr. Puccilo urges his son to develop a “strong stomach” by sitting on a floating dock during rough seas. The doctor’s prescriptions are milder. “Dr. Bartolo represents awareness, the conscience of the island,” Rosi says, “although all the islanders feel compassion for the refugees.” Grandma Puccilo calls them “poor souls” when she hears a report on the radio that nearly 50 refugees perished during a rescue operation.

Like all of Rosi’s subjects, “Nonna” is both a palpable presence and an archetypal figure who represents the continuity of life on the island. “You see the interior life of every one of them,” Rosi notes, “and so I think that is why they all appear timeless.” Yesterday evening, Fire at Sea had its first U.S. public screening at the New York Film Festival. “It was important for me to show my documentary here,” the filmmaker says. “I feel that in this city, there is no pretense of integration.” Rosi, who was born in Eritrea, moved frequently as a child. His father’s work led the family to live on several continents. In his early 20s, Rosi came to New York City to attend New York University’s film school. “Here everyone is coming from a different place in the world,” Rosi says. “They live with each other but they keep their roots. That is what I had to do as a boy.”

The filmmaker, who has written and produced other well-regarded documentaries, including El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), about a hit man hired by both the Mexican drug cartels and the Chihuahua State Police, won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale this year for Fire at Sea. Reflecting on his work, he muses that his unusual childhood prepared him for human-rights filmmaking. “Making this documentary, I felt that I was from Lampedusa,” Rosi says. “I did not lose myself, yet I felt the life there.” He thinks that if the world does not resolve its refugee crisis, the European Union will collapse. “Unfortunately, there must be a political solution,” he cautions. “Now it is in the politicians’ hands, which is the reason we are so worried about the outcome of your presidential election.”

The BAMcinématek at the BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn, NY, will present a retrospective of the films of Gianfranco Rosi Oct. 28 through Nov. 3.