I usually don’t follow the Academy Awards, except for the full list of winners the day after and some highlights which the media keeps pushing in my face.
This year was different. I was compelled to follow the shortlisting process because of two particular films which eventually made it to the final list of nominees. One of them is the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, based on the best book I read last year and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
The other movie I’m interested in is an Italian docu-film, Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), which I saw on the closing night of an Italian film festival last December (check out my review of another film from that festival). Italy submitted this film – directed by Gianfranco Rosi – for two categories: it didn’t make it to the final five for Best Foreign Language Film, but it was indeed nominated for Best Documentary Feature.
Fire at Sea has already received international accolades; the most significant award was the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival. It deals with a subject that is extremely relevant these days: the plight of migrants who risk everything crossing borders (and the Mediterranean sea in this case) in search of a better life.
Director Gianfranco Rosi travelled to the island of Lampedusa in 2014 to study the possibility of filming a short showcasing the islanders’ life beyond what is reported in the news. In fact, Lampedusa – located 70 miles off Tunisia and 127 miles from Sicily (and 109 miles from Malta) – often features in the news because of the migrant influx coming from North Africa. Rosi arrived in a moment of tranquillity, but over the course of the year he spent on the island, the immigration centre reopened and migrant arrivals restarted, often with tragic consequences. That is how the initial idea evolved into a 106-minute-long footage of rescue operations and life in the accommodation centre juxtaposed to snapshots from the daily life of the native islanders.
It opens with the young Samuele, one of the main locals featured in the documentary. We observe his everyday life: the ramblings and games in the countryside, his interactions with his elderly relatives, his school work. We also see him attempting to adjust to sea life, a life he’s destined to once he becomes an adult on this island of fishermen. Other residents appear now and then to complete the picture of the quotidian life on Lampedusa, such as the local radio DJ who plays traditional pop music and announces news of rescue operations, fishermen and ageing people who seem frozen in a past era.
The other side of the coin features the unfolding drama of the migrants: the dramatic radio communications from boats in distress, the rescue operations, the removal of the bodies, the health and identity checks for the survivors. All appears almost dehumanising as these individuals become numbers. On the other hand, we see them as they try to adjust to their new life in the immigration centre with prayers and football games, while they chant their tragic story.
The criticism to this documentary which I’ve seen around the web focuses on whether the migration issue was portrayed well enough and some also question its connection to the locals’ life. I wasn’t bothered at all. In many instances, I thought that Samuele’s happenings seem to mirror or anticipate those of the migrants. His efforts to overcome his seasickness and his breathing problems due to anxiety foreshadow the shipwrecks and the deaths by suffocation and dehydration of the migrants. Moreover, while the people of Lampedusa depend on good weather and calm seas for a living, migrants are forced to cross the sea, no matter what the conditions are, in search of a better life.
However, what’s actually important is the apparent absence of a link between the two scenarios. It is clear from the beginning how the islanders go on with their lives while listening to the news of the nth migrant arrival with little to no reaction. It reflects the attitude of society in general and the political inertia which has brought no concrete solution to the migrant crisis.
One other main citizen of Lampedusa is Dr Pietro Bartolo, the doctor who examines and treats the scores of migrants that arrive on the island. He proves to be the only real intermediary between the two seemingly irreconcilable worlds of the islanders and the migrants. He shatters the locals’ indifference and highlights the individual, human aspect of a migrant. Thanks to this film, Dr Bartolo now has more staff to help him and he tours the world as an activist.
This is no ordinary documentary with a voice-over narration; it is an artistic film. Rosi lets the everyday life reveal the narrative (if there’s any, as some critics argue). The rest is entrusted to silences and atmospheric noises. Lampedusa also plays a part, almost like an individual on its own, with its rugged landscape and rough seas. It appears unwelcoming, hostile even to its natives. Another striking artistic element is the absence of sun which defies the common notion of a sunny Mediterranean island. Grey is the dominant colour and the only time in which the sun seems to be out, the light is diffused by the branches and leaves of a huge tree. It’s fair to say that the director’s artistic license alters the manner in which reality is portrayed, as he chooses what to show and what to leave out, but I don’t think this fact necessarily takes away from the validation of the central issue.
I can’t say whether Fire at Sea can win the Academy Award or not (all other documentary nominees seem special in their own way, even though I haven’t seen them). Nonetheless, this docu-film is much needed in these dire times dominated by borders, walls and deportations. It is hard-hitting both in the tragedy it represents (the last sequences can be especially distressing to watch) and its suggestive atmosphere. Hopefully, the huge success this film has garnered will help in keeping the spotlight on the international migrant crisis and promote an informed awareness which may lead to a feasible solution.
The 89th Academy Awards ceremony starts on 27th February at 1:30 AM UTC.