Film | Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea)

3 Mins read

People in Lampedusa are fishermen. And fishermen take everything that the sea has to offer.” Pietro Bartolo, is known as the migrants’ doctor. It’s not an official statement, nor a name he has given to himself.

He happens to be one of the many people in Lampedusa who are witnessing, on a day-to-day basis, one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history; and they’ve done so for many years.

Silently, with no national recognition, Bartolo does his job because he makes no distinction.

A patient is a patient, the sea is always the sea, and locals in Lampedusa, as he says, who are mostly fishermen and have always made a living from fishing, accept everything the sea gives them. That includes the People.

Pietro Bartolo is one of the characters featured in Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) by Gianfranco Rosi, a film that was awarded this year’s Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The film is a mix of two genres: documentary and fiction. The movie is a brilliant portrait of the many migrants that reach Lampedusa every day; a small little island washed by the Mediterranean Sea.

Lampedusa is the main character of the movie, as if it wasn’t only the name of a confined space, but a real person with a face and name. And, that happens because in this small land different people co-exist, different languages, different races, and it doesn’t even feel like an exception anymore.

While European countries are closing borders and discussing what to do with migrants, Lampedusa welcomes everyone. Locals shrug their shoulders and say that that’s the way it goes, because they’re migrants themselves and know everything about crossing the sea.

Two out of three local young people under thirty leave the island each year. The economic crisis in Italy has taken its stroll and with less and less job opportunities, the future is becoming more and more uncertain. And so they leave, while migrants are coming. Two faces of the same medal.

Rosi does not write the story; it’s the story that writes itself. The movie cuts from fishermen on their daily activities, to Doctor Bartolo who visits his patients, who are very often children and pregnant women – and he questions himself when he asks “when did these women get pregnant? And how?” even though he knows the answer.

It’s on their way through the desert that they get pregnant, it’s in Libya, while they are being taken hostage by people-smugglers. It’s a silent agreement between the doctor and his patients to not talk about it, and leave the past behind.

There is also a kid, Samuele, whose father is a fisherman. He skips school sometimes, and has approached the coast with the reckless desire of adventure, as every child has.

He doesn’t want to be a fisherman like his father, he wants to leave the island at some point, and see what the world has to offer.

He stands in front of the sea, curiously staring at the boats constantly coming, each one bringing thousands of people he knows nothing about.

This is the reality of Lampedusa, and reality cannot be questioned, it’s there for everyone who wants to see.

What a director can do is choosing a point of view, choosing to whom he wants to give a voice.

Framings are long, static, because it’s the people who write the plot themselves. 

Samuele, his grandmother who’s always in the kitchen cooking what her son has fished, other fishermen and locals, they are all witnessers of the tragedy, and there’s nothing they can do apart from staring at the scene in front of their eyes, their lives go by in parallel with the migrants’.

The two microcosms coexist on the island but never really get in touch. There is a scene in the movie where Samuele’s aunt, Maria, watches the news of thousand of people migrants off Lampedusa’s coast.

“Poveri cristiani” she says, a dialect phrase for “poor people”, but she’s a distant spectator – not really physically distant, because it’s something happening in her own town, but rather mentally distant.

There is nothing she, or the others, can possibly do, but there is something Europe can do, and it’s peculiar that this film was awarded in Germany now.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has distributed copies of the movie to other members of the EU parliament and the distribution company Curzon Artificial Eye has bought the rights to the movie for its distribution in the UK, which should happen by the end of the year.

“I don’t know if it will happen before or after the EU referendum” Rosi commented, “but as a supporter of the EU I’m scared of what the outcome will be if Brexit really happens, especially now. If we keep building up barriers instead of standing up together and try to understand and realise the extent of this humanitarian crisis, this is going to be the start of the end for Europe. It’s an ethical defeat”.


Featured image by Natalia Carcame.

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