On October 3 the Italian Coast Guard rescued 6,050 people from a total of thirty-nine distressed vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. Most were plucked from overloaded inflatable dinghies while others were found on packed fishing boats, one of which had 720 people aboard, including 200 unaccompanied minors. For the day only nine people died—a far cry from the same date three years ago, when more than 360 perished off the island of Lampedusa in the sinking that brought the Mediterranean migration crisis to the world’s attention. Since then,11,000 people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, have died trying to make the crossing, including about 3,900 so far this year.
Some of these statistics make their way into a brief onscreen note at the outset of Gianfranco Rosi’s new documentary about the crisis, Fire at Sea, but that’s about the only conventional aspect of the film. Rosi, who spent months on Lampedusa working as a one-man crew, eschewed techniques like voice-overs, talking heads, and interviews, and assembled his footage into a pair of non-converging narratives. One follows a handful of the island’s inhabitants going about their daily lives; the other tracks refugees being rescued (or dying) off its shores. The intercutting can be frustrating because it’s like watching two different films, while the solemn beauty of the cinematography seems unsuited to the material. But out of long, extended scenes free of commentary, the images begin to assume meaning. Disconnectedness—between Europe and Africa, between inhabitant and stranger, between blessed normalcy and the yearning for something like it—is the very point.
Our main guide to ordinary life on Lampedusa is a pre-teen boy named Samuele Pucillo, whom Rosi in interviews has called the film’s “unconscious.” He is shown hanging out with friends, making a slingshot, playing at war, doing schoolwork. The movie’s “conscience” is Pietro Bartolo, for many years the island’s lone doctor and the only character we see even briefly interacting with the arriving strangers. That scene is a powerful one: Bartolo administers a sonogram to a silent refugee, trying in a mix of Italian and English to tell her that one of the twins she is carrying is a girl but the sex of the other can’t be determined because its legs are wrapped around the other child. “She’s suffered so the pregnancy has too,” he says of the uncomprehending young mother, essentially to himself. “Poor soul. But it’s all right, all things considered, all she’s been through.”
What she and other refugees have been through is what Rosi documents in the parallel narrative, which commences not with a scene but audio of a harrowing nighttime distress call from a sinking vessel, the recording played over shots of whirring telecommunications equipment. Later, refugees are shown being lifted from boats and placed into busses; being photographed at intake facilities; playing soccer in a tiny cleared space in a cramped detention area. We overhear Italian intake officials remarking on the condition of arrivals, many soaked in spilled diesel fuel: “If I flick my lighter, they’ll go up like that,” one says to another, and it’s no joke. Probably the most astounding scene is of a group of Nigerian refugees telling in a spiritual-like chant the story of their passage—crossing the Sahara, escaping ISIS in Libya, putting out to sea in a rickety boat, drinking their own urine to survive. (Rosi speaks about that scene and what led to it in this interview.)
The film doesn’t move toward climax in the usual dramatic sense; it’s the increasingly powerful juxtaposing of scenes that pulls the viewer along. Samuele, the boy, comes from a family of fishermen, but he gets seasick easily and doesn’t know how to row a boat; one lesson ends with him caught dangerously between rescue vessels riding closely at anchor in the harbor. That moment is soon followed by a lengthier segment on another distress call and its aftermath: Hundreds of starving and dehydrated refugees are rushed from their unseaworthy boat to a Coast Guard cutter; some clearly are dying or have died. Rosi does not arrive at the kind of hopeful conclusion in which the audience can take comfort, lingering instead on a long shot of the cramped hold—apparently not much larger than a basement crawl space—into which many of the victims had been packed.
For years, Bartolo alone held the job of examining the body of every refugee who died, something we learn indirectly as the weary doctor looks at photos of victims and comments on the obligation to offer welcome and aid; it is inhuman not to do so, he says. “Two isn’t a number. They’re two people,” Bartolo said at a press conference about the film in February. It seemed to echo Pope Francis’s 2016 message on World Day of Migrants and Refugees: “Whether large or small in scale, these are always tragedies, even when a single human life is lost.” Francis is not referenced in Fire at Sea, nor is any government official or organization. But the film has been screened for the pope and for the European parliament; it is also Italy’s entry for the foreign-language Academy Award. Meanwhile, on Thursday, nearly a hundred more migrants drowned off Tunisia when their plastic boat tore apart, adding to a total that has already made this year the deadliest on record in the Mediterranean.