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Fire at Sea

A Spurting Flame 

by Avinaba Chakraborty

War here, War there

TLR Rating: 1/2 Reels.




European immigrant crisis has become a household topic now a days. This issue has shaken the entire European Union, socially, economically and politically, in recent times and when an acclaimed director like Gianfranco Rosi, who holds the record of directing the only documentary to win the prestigious Golden Lion in Venice film festival, makes a film about this trending issue, everyone expects something magical. ‘Fire at Sea’, just like Rosi’s previous venture ‘Sacro GRA’, was able to gain appreciation from the audience all over the world. Among renowned film personalities Meryl Streep praised Rosi’s deliberate storytelling and called it an ‘urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking.’

Just like Rosi’s previous film, this one is also a subtle documentary which starts with some information about a small island near Sicily called Lampedusa and its connection with the migrant problems. Because of its location nearer to Africa than the Italian mainland, it has become a hot spot for the arrival of refugees from African countries and more than fifteen thousand people have lost their lives in the ocean while attempting to reach this island from their native war torn countries. But this film, which is more of an investigative report than a cinema, is not only about the crisis; it portrays two completely different worlds in this small Italian island, which is isolated from the rest of the planet, connected by a local doctor. In one world, we follow the immigrants and their miserable life after reaching the island and how they comfort themselves with a game of football and in the other world we see the daily life style of a kid named Samuele, whose English classes and shooting the cactuses in leisure hours with a friend is depicted in detail. Both of the stories are shown in parallel with each other which gives the audience a taste of the two worlds at the same time. In the beginning we witness a news report about how a boat filled with immigrants sink in the sea and in the very next day the rescuers are able to save another boat which was going to share the same fate. The fear in the faces of the Africans at this point is captured beautifully by some long shots. After this for a subsequent time period there were no sign of any immigrants in the film and it focused in the portrayal of some islanders belonging from different professions, most of them just like Samuele, having no connection whatsoever with this issue.

A face of innocence

After a relatively long period, the immigrants come into the picture once again and we see one Nigerian refugee recalling his journey from his hometown to this small island through some series of events that killed many of his close ones, while the others were busy in chanting. From his journey, he has understood that it is better to take a leap of faith for the sake of one’s survival because life itself is a risk at certain places in the world. At that very moment when the film was finally gaining its momentum, the scene cuts abruptly and again follows Samuele on his boat journey accompanied by his father. Just in the end we experience another case of the immigrant problem and this time the director hits us hard with some disturbing images of this harsh reality where the dead bodies of the migrant Africans are being treated like garbage bags by the rescue authorities.

The documentary is a well-crafted one as it is never a display of manipulation of emotions which happens with many films based on serious issues. Kudos to Gianfranco Rosi for that. The title sounds like an oxymoron but in a circumstance like this, the waters surrounding the island do seem like a fire which consumes the lives of the helpless Africans.  The director illustrated two different worlds with magnificence. In one world the little kid Samuel has got a life to live and in the other hand these immigrants seem like some nameless entities without any identity, who embark on a journey through the sea in a hope that everything will change in the near future. This uncertainty can be seen clearly in their faces throughout the documentary. The acting performance by each and every individual is just a class apart, never for a moment it seems like they are acting and we experienced a reflection of reality regarding the daily lives of the islanders.

Fire at Sea

But even after everything, I don’t think ‘Fire at Sea’ fulfils its purpose completely as a documentary. Gianfranco Rosi claimed that it is a documentary about the migrant issue and as a documentary, it should have bothered about the struggles of the migrants way more than it has done and also other than lacking the pace, another drawback lies in its depiction of relatively less significant events with great detail, be it Samuele’s slingshot practice or his fishing trip with his father. It has become a documentary about the island of Lampedusa itself, rather than the problems it is facing in the recent days. Only these little things stand in the way of this film from becoming a masterpiece but anyway it is one of the boldest attempts in filmmaking in recent years without a doubt.

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