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Navigating Violent Waters of the Migrant Crisis

By Kristine Jordan

Nov. 3 marks three years and one month since a boat carrying over 500 migrants sank, killing 366 off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Though the coast guard's emergency response facilitated the rescue of 155 survivors, many perceived the tragedy as a defining moment in the refugee crisis, pointing to a lack of infrastructure and an inability to handle the steep influx of migration along European coasts.

Lampedusa is just one example of the insufficiencies in systems currently in place to rescue and relocate the masses of displaced people journeying across the Mediterranean. The Sicilian island, mere hours from the Libyan and Tunisian coastlines, is less than 8 square miles in area and has too small a population to manage large-scale emergency response missions. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea steps into the everyday lives of Lampedusa locals as they reckon with tragic responsibilities.

The film voyeurs into the intricacies of daily routine on the island, from masses of migrants waiting in lines for food to Lampedusa families around the dinner table, from inundations of refugee patients in emergency rooms to local islanders at the optometrist.

Boat of migrants from a screen on an Italian naval vessel

While filming, Rosi was particularly moved by personal stories, including those of a doctor, a radio host, and a local boy named Samuele. Samuele, whose perspective is the most prominently featured in the film, possesses a relationship to the migrant crisis echoing the director’s intended message for the documentary: “It was important to create a point of view, free of judgment. With [Samuele’s] emotion there is always a feeling of the world and the unknown. It’s a coming of age piece as much as it is a piece about how we are unable to encounter tragedy.”

To Rosi, Samuele is representative of the community on his island home and humanity at large. Diagnosed with a lazy eye, Samuele’s optic disability is an analogy for society’s inability to grapple with perspectives. Throughout the film, the boy works to retrain his weaker eye. In a similar way, Rosi hopes to shift views of the crisis to a more empathetic direction that recognizes humanity at its most vulnerable. 

Samuele Pucillo fires a slingshot at a bird

Samuele’s hunting and war games come to illustrate the instinctive carnage generated by fear. The child is fixated on destruction, spending free time on an idyllic beach firing slingshots at anything that moves, making enemy armies out of cacti, and shooting imaginary machine guns at the unknown beyond the shore. Frightened of the ocean and the world outside Lampedusa, the rambunctious boy’s resistance to uncertainty speaks to the collective fear of change symptomatic of the migrant crisis. 

The film fosters a conversation about Italy’s failure to adequately provide for displaced people moving through the country. Rescue scenes pan over crowds of traumatized survivors as they begin the process of seeking asylum. It’s heart-wrenching to note that many of the families pictured in these scenes will continue to face life-threatening obstacles. A vast majority are blocked from reuniting with family and prevented from crossing the country’s borders. Once in Italy, migrants are relegated to a low-priority government concern. According to a study by Doctors without Borders, more than 10,000 migrants in Italy are homeless and unable to find shelter in refugee camps. Only one-third of them have access to necessary services like health care.

Dr. Pietro Bartolo comments on a photograph of a migrant ship

Fire at Sea examines this issue through the eyes of Dr. Pietro Bartolo, one of Lampedusa’s few primary care physicians. The limits and obstacles the doctor encounters, such as linguistic barriers, shortages of medical resources, and extreme time constraints, speak to widespread infrastructure deficiencies. Explaining the tragic exchanges between the doctor and his refugee patients, Rosi notes, “[Bartolo’s] anxieties are our anxieties; his responsibility is ours.”

In the image above, the physician wearily describes living conditions on the ships transporting so many in need of emergency care. The majority of cases he and his colleagues treat include dehydration, starvation, and chemical burns from fuel, but there are almost no resources to heal the deep psychological damage plaguing many of the patients. Bartolo struggles for words to describe their traumas, but his passionate and pessimistic drive to aid the displaced victims embodies the sentiments of many on the island. 

Rescued migrant enters hospital

As death washes upon Lampedusa’s shore, the community struggles to comprehend the stresses and tragedies from which these migrants flee. In the face of great pressure, the islanders cling to their value of hospitality. Rosi sees hope in what he describes as the crucial “emotional support of the subconscious” present in Lampedusa locals. The director notes, “there is one thing Dr. Bartolo told me that better explains why they sacrifice their lives to help migrants: Fishermen welcome whatever comes from the sea.”

Perhaps this is the driving force, maintaining the island’s status as a beacon of hope. Over the past 20 years more than 400,000 migrants have landed in Lampedusa, and naval emergency response teams have been able to preserve the lives of more than 385,000. While the immigration system continues to fail asylum seekers, the spirit of Lampedusa reflects mindsets throughout the country, as Italians motivated by a sense of responsibility struggle to rescue their neighbors from across the sea. 

Emergency response team searches for survivors of a shipwreck

Gazing upon a thunderstorm from her living room window, Samuele’s grandmother recounts the fear that overtook the fishing island during World War II. She describes the maritime bloodshed as flames that turned the sea red—a  stain that has now resurfaced in Lampedusa’s waters.

Bearing witness to the complications of war and the migrant crisis, the intensity of both calamities and cooperation led Rosi to envision far-reaching humanitarian networks bridging Europe and North Africa. The director pushes his audience to realize the part they play in this collaboration. In a scene filmed during a nighttime rescue of more than 250 shipwrecked migrants, a coast guard operator struggles to communicate over radio with a migrant woman placing an SOS call from aboard a sinking boat. The operator repeats the question, “What’s your position?” before static abruptly cuts the call. Rosi reclaims the operator’s words as his message for the film, “I want the viewer to leave the theater asking themselves that question.” In this way, Fire at Sea prompts its audience to question what their position is in the refugee crisis, where they stand, and ultimately what their role could be. 

*****

*****

Tickets for Fire at Sea are now available through IFC Center. To watch the trailer or learn more about the film, visit Kino Lorber.

Kristine Jordan is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber]

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