Italian documentary film “Fire at Sea”, which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, simply observes its different human subjects. While life goes on as usual in one small Mediterranean island, there also have been the continuing human struggles of thousands of migrants and refugees around this region, and the documentary gradually make its points on this serious international issue as freely shuffling between the multiple positions which are not only far from each other but also close to each other.
The opening scene introduces to us a 12-year-old boy named Samuele, who is looking for a suitable tree branch for his sling when we meet him. He is living with his family in the Island of Lampedusa, Italy, and the movie informs us in advance that this small remote island, which is situated around 200km off Sicily while only about 100km from Africa, has been the first port of call in the migration route for many African and Middle Eastern people who try to settle or find refuge in Europe.
According to the documentary, around 400,000 people tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea during last 20 years while 15,000 of them died in their perilous attempt. During one early scene, we listen to one urgent distress radio call from a sinking boat full of more than 200 migrants, and then we learn from the news announcement of a local radio show host during the next morning that most of these people were luckily saved although at least 34 of them were drowned during the incident.
Such an incident like that does not shock the residents of the island much, mainly because they have been accustomed to those desperate migrants trying to make it to the shores of their island every day. We see patrol ships moving around the surrounding sea area, and we watch how local coast guards tactfully handle a boat full of migrants. Once they arrive in the island, migrants are sent to the detention facility for them, and their uncertain current circumstance at the facility is palpable as the camera looks into them closely. They all leave behind their home for better or safer life, and there is a harrowing moment when one Nigerian man lets out his painful memories of many hardships through his improvised singing performance in front of his fellow detainees.
These moments are frequently intercut with the peaceful ordinary daily life of several island residents including Samuele. After finding right branches, Samuele makes slings along with his friend, and then they do a target practice together with cactus trees as their makeshift targets. We meet Samuele’s fisherman father who went around many different places around the world in the past as reflected by a number of photographs in his fishing ship, and then we meet Samuele’s grandmother, who cooks your average Italian meal for her family during one scene.
While the migrant problem around his island is surely the last thing to come into his young mind, there comes a serendipitous symbolic moment when it is diagnosed that Samuele has a lazy eye on the left. He is recommended to depend on his faulty left eye more with his normal right eye being temporarily blindfolded, and you can easily discern the metaphoric aspect of his ophthalmic problem even though the documentary does not spell it out loud.
We also meet the only local resident doctor in the island, who has dealt with many cases of migrants as working with local coast guards and authorities. His compassionate professionalism is evident from how he does his jobs. When he is doing an ultrasound scanning on the twin babies of a pregnant migrant woman, he makes her feel safe and comfortable as much as he can, and we see a little glimpse of hope as he confirms to her that her babies are mostly fine. He later has a meeting with Samuele for medical examination, and their engaging interaction is one of a few amusing moments in the documentary.
The director Gianfranco Rosi steps a little out of his usual austere approach when the doctor expresses his personal frustration over the situation which has been not changed much for many years. The doctor shows us one photograph, and he tells us several gloomy facts behind the photograph. While everyone on the boat in the photograph paid considerable amount of money, many of them had to endure more grueling conditions for days just because they paid less than others, and the doctor presents to us a horrible medical case resulted from the hazardous combination of engine fuel and sea water.
As the doctor bitterly admits, he and others often could not save everyone, and those sad moments of horror and tragedy he witnessed is reflected well by a powerful sequence revolving around another rescue operation on the sea. We see a number of sick migrants who are barely mobile and conscious in their deteriorating health condition caused by severe dehydration, and then there comes a devastating moment when the camera eventually shows us what is left inside the boat after every living passenger has left the boat.
Although it demands some patience from us due to its restrained presentation devoid of explanatory narration, “Fire at Sea” steps aside for letting its captured moments assemble its big, troubling picture for themselves, and the overall result is somehow both distant and immediate. I think some background knowledge on the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe is required for appreciating what Rosi achieves in his documentary, but you will certainly agree to what the doctor in the film says at one point: “It’s the duty of every human being, if you’re human, to help these people.”