A female voice crackles over the radio, begging for rescue from a crowded migrant boat sinking into the Mediterranean as the coastguard barks over and over: “What is your position?” Like much of Italian master Gianfranco Rosi’s cinematic, Oscar-nominated documentary “Fire at Sea,” this opening scene plays out like a narrative thriller, except the lives in danger are real. “I wanted to reverse the question. We should be asking ourselves, ‘What is my position about this tragedy?’ We can no longer be the silent majority,” Rosi told AFP in Los Angeles ahead of next week’s awards.
As Europe grapples with its biggest migrant influx since World War II, Rosi’s harrowing film offers an unflinching look at life on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Thousands of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East have arrived in Italian waters trying to reach the European Union over the last two decades. Many others-some 4,000 last year-have perished on the dangerous journey in rickety, overcrowded boats.
Eritrean-born Rosi has toured the world with the film, which competes for the best documentary Oscar with American entrants “I am Not Your Negro,” “13th,” “Life, Animated” and the favorite, “O.J.: Made in America.” One of the most decorated documentary filmmakers in the business, Rosi, who is in his early 50s, won the top prize from a jury led by Meryl Streep at the Berlin Film Festival last year. His star was already on the ascendant after he took home the Venice Film Festival’s 2013 Golden Lion for “Sacro GRA,” which looks into everyday life off a Rome ring road.
Rosi spent a year living on Lampedusa, just another tiny island barely meriting its inclusion on the map, he thought when he started filming in 2014 — before millions began heading into Europe across the Balkans. “I realized only in Berlin how the movie became political and I could feel politics breathing into the frame,” Rosi said. “Before, Lampedusa was just Italy. Now it’s a universal problem, a metaphor, almost.”
The picture is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old local boy, Samuele Pucillo, and a doctor, Pietro Bartolo, who has been tending to the dehydrated, malnourished and traumatized arrivals for a quarter-century. “How do you get used to seeing pregnant women, dead children?” Bartolo laments, admitting that the horror has infected his dreams. Rosi accompanied coastguard rescue missions answering the terrified SOS calls of people on boats, most of them arriving from Libya. Many of the vessels are packed with corpses of people who suffocated from diesel fumes. Rosi said the film’s nomination for a best documentary Oscar was an opportunity to “carry the call for help from Lampedusa… to Hollywood.”
Moments of truth
The US spotlight on the movie comes with the refugee crisis a hot-button public policy issue following President Donald Trump’s elevation to the White House. The Republican leader stood on an anti-immigration ticket, vowing to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico. In one of his first acts in office, Trump issued an order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, though it’s since been withdrawn after hitting legal objections. “This is a tragic moment here as well. America was always the land of freedom, the land of immigrants. What happens when it turns its back on history to build barriers?” Rosi asks.
Rosi’s filmmaking style sets “Fire at Sea” apart from more traditional documentaries, dispensing with the usual tropes of interviews to camera, on-screen text and a narrator. Rosi says that when he is behind the camera he is looking for moments of truth that show more than a long monologue could ever say, drawing on poetic language to create an “emotional connection with reality.”
“I like to close the door of information and interact more with emotion with the audience… beyond any number, there is a person, some eyes looking at you,” he says. Rosi lived through his own migrant crisis at age 13, evacuated by Italian soldiers from his east African homeland without his parents during the Eritrean War of Independence against Ethiopian troops.