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Documentary ‘Fire At Sea’ review

Documentary ‘Fire At Sea’ review

By: William Alexander

Gianfranco Rosi’s harrowing documentary, Fire At Sea, is a tremendous achievement in journalistic film-making and hones in on two worlds in disparate circumstances within spitting distance. When documentaries as important as this one come about you’re not only going to hear about it but you’re also going to need to see it.



The largest of the Italian Pelagie Islands, Lampedusa, has seen 400,000 refugees flee there from Syria and North Africa for over 20 years with 15,000 people tragically dying along the way or upon arrival. Fire At Sea bears a wealth of insider footage shot by Rosi himself that magnifies the migrant crisis close up and in a light so real and scarring. It not only widens our perspective of the trauma but it adds substantial weight to what we’ve seen in news segments more recently – which can only really provide a quick and preselected glimpse of reality. This documentary is balanced out with long observational shots of life on Lampedusan land as we follow Samuele, a young and likeable boy from the town where he and his family live a life of small and simple pleasures. 

There is a slight sense of hardship for Samuele and families alike in Lampedusa. For them the fishing industry is crumbling, and income is meagre, but their struggle is ant-sized in analogy with the refugees circumstances and what they have had to endure on its harsh, dark blue waters. There are, however, discreet connections that Rosi brings forward for us to challenge and whilst they remain ambiguous this hasn’t stopped critics picking and scratching for answers like kittens clawing a brand-new carpet. For instance, if you’ve already seen Fire At Sea then you should question the idea behind Samuele’s lazy eye and what it represents. Is it suggestive of his own blindness to the crisis? Samuele’s eye patch is used to train his lazy eye. Could this be a symbol of our incomprehension or our ignorance towards this situation? 

Rosi chooses to take no stance in this documentary and this I admire. This is owed to Jacopo Quadric’s brilliant editing in how the footage is cut and fastened for effect. Principally, Fire At Sea is an observational piece but it also features additional interviews with a healthcare professional detailing his experiences having dealt with refugees both alive and deceased. As a result we are cornered as an audience because we cannot see what he is describing; instead we must imagine the distress he has faced and craft a picture for ourselves in our head. Fire At Sea is also like two films in one: Radio transmissions between a coastguard and the refugees adjoin Samuele’s sphere with that of the hundreds of refugees, cramped and crushed on a boat bobbing along Lampedusa’s shores. Also, the radio presenter airing the announcements to the island’s inhabitants is essentially the middleman and the hub of external news and communication for the locals. This aside, Samuele is not aware of the disaster on his doorstep, or at least we’re led to believe this. Either busy firing stones with his homemade slingshot, or carving cactuses to fill boredom, Samuele is simply continuing by making the most of his childhood with his friend and attending school. 

A noteworthy aspect of this documentary is the use of symmetry with night and day paired with earth and water, with the latter being two very important and significant elements here. To be able to shoot in the dark environments Rosi used an Arri Amira camera for the first time and praised the technology for allowing him to capture footage that would have been near impossible to get otherwise. Considering the bleakness of the circumstances Rosi has encapsulated highly prepossessing and cinematic footage, especially in the sequences where we are with the refugees. The colours, the variety of tones and Rosi’s framing make up a breathtaking aesthetic and a complex disparity if we remind ourselves of the documentary subject. Rosi toyed with this contrast and mastered it, clearly. 

To quote one of the Nigerian refugees in the documentary, “The sea is not a road”. It is a powerful and painfully true statement that resonates. It is, however, the only option for some. A life gamble. Often we overhear hear the stories told by the refugees and with each one your heart splinters. The tears, the blood and the bodybags are devastating to watch and to use the word ‘devastating’ just doesn’t seem to cover it either. Fire At Sea is worth all of the 108 minutes that it holds you for. It also won the Golden Bear at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival.

Now out in cinemas and available on Curzon Home. 

W/ Curzon Home Cinema