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How Italy’s Gianfranco Rosi made the stunning Oscar-nominated migrant doc Fire At Sea

‘I like to have more questions than answers in my films’

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Photo by Kino Lorber

The Oscar-nominated Italian documentary Fire at Sea is more than a story about the migrant crisis. First and foremost, it’s a movie about Lampedusa. Lampedusa is a tiny island off the coast of Sicily, where boatloads of migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive every year — a temporary stop between war and famine, and the hope of a new life in Italy and Europe.

There are two worlds on this 7.8-square-mile island: one for the islanders, fishermen who have lived and died by the sea for centuries; and one for the migrants and the Italian Coast Guard officials dedicated to saving them. These two worlds never fully interact, but Italian director Gianfranco Rosi weaves them together to make a deeply engrossing documentary.

‘Fire at Sea’ is about the beauty and the horrors of life

The migrants’ world mostly consists of rescue and resilience. Coast Guards in white hazmat suits transfer starving souls from rickety boats to navy ships. A local doctor gives the best medical care he can. And migrants and officials alike try to make sense of it all at a Lampedusa migrant reception center. Meanwhile, the islanders’ world moves on: an old woman meticulously makes her bed and kisses a statue of Saint Mary, a silent man hunts for sea urchins at night, a grandmother dispassionately recalls the bombs of World War II as she sews.

Rosi presents Lampedusa through the eyes of two people: island doctor Pietro Bartolo, who’s haunted by memories of dying migrants, and 12-year-old Samuele Pucillo, who spends his time scurrying around the island, studying English, learning how to row, and dealing with a lazy eye. Pietro is the point of contact between Lampedusa and the migrants. Samuele is the voice of innocence, the child who doesn’t fully understand the tragedy unfolding around him. Though his life is in a way idyllic, anxiety often leaves him short of breath. In other words, he’s all of us who — willingly or not — don’t or can’t see the migrant crisis that’s roiling the world.

Fire at Sea is about the beauty and the horrors of life, told in long, slow, and beautifully shot scenes from a tiny island in the middle of a giant crisis. After winning the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear, the movie is now an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary. I recently sat down with Rosi to talk about his time in Lampedusa, getting access to the migrants, and shielding young Samuele from the fame of filmmaking.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why did you decide to do a documentary about the migrant crisis and Lampedusa?

Lampedusa was always told from the media, from the television [through the lens of] the migrant crisis. And Lampedusa, the people living there, were somehow dismissed by this. So there was always a link with tragedy, with dead people. I wanted to switch the point of view and tell the story of the migrants through the eyes of the people of Lampedusa, and especially the eyes of Samuele.

What did you learn about the island as you spent time there?

“We are fishermen, and fishermen always welcome anything that comes from the sea.”

I had to encounter somehow the island, being there and understanding what was exactly the core of this place, trying to visualize what this island in the middle of the sea represents. I spent one and a half year [there]; three months I didn’t shoot anything. What I learned? It was exactly what the doctor told me when I met him: “You know, Lampedusa [has] been opening up and embracing people and migration without ever creating barriers or walls. More than 500,000 people passed from the island in these years.” And I asked him, “What made this place so welcoming and so open to the migration crisis when everyone else is closing up constantly?” And he told me, “We are fishermen, and fishermen always welcome anything that comes from the sea.” This is what I learned. This is an island that for 15, 20 years was always very open toward the world of migration.

How did you find Samuele, and what was it like to follow him around?

We encountered in a completely accidental way. He was playing with his slingshot, and I was fascinated by this kid playing in a very ancestral way. His relationship with nature, his relationship with hunting — no kid has that anymore. The most beautiful thing is that he has this incredible interior world that somehow was reflecting what I was looking for — my incapacity of telling the story of the migrants. Because also for me, it was very difficult to create a connection with that world. The daily life, the anxiety, the lazy eye — they all became like metaphors to be able to tell that story.

The migrants and the locals never really interact. Why is that?

The migrants are intercepted in the middle of the sea and brought into Lampedusa, and everything is very institutionalized. So people arrive there, there’s a bus, they’re brought into the [migration] center, and then from the center they’re brought to [mainland] Italy. And they stay no more than two days [in Lampedusa]. For me, it was a disappointment to see that these worlds barely touch each other.

The doctor is somehow the link between these two worlds. Samuele represents the interior world, the anxiety, the fear of encountering something you don’t know, and the doctor is the voice of the awareness. And then there are all the other characters around, who live the migration crisis much as we do, by listening to the radio. So Lampedusa is this microcosm, this metaphor for what’s happening right now, this mental space — the impossibility of these two worlds to encounter. And I wanted to underline that very strongly in the film.

In a panel at the documentary film festival DOC NYC, you said you didn’t really have a narrative until you started editing. How was the editing process?

I wanted to edit in Lampedusa, so I brought my editor there. I wanted to do sort of Method editing. I wanted people to know about the tragedy. When we started editing, I said, “These 30 seconds [showing dead migrants in the hold of a boat] have to be in the film.” I didn’t know where, which part of the film. So the whole structure of film was basically to arrive to that. This is how the whole film was structured, to have these 30 seconds belonging to the film without becoming voyeuristic or pornographic. You know, when you film death, it’s always something extremely violent, so it was a challenge.

There are no sit-down interviews. Why is that?

I like to use all the language of cinema in the film. I always avoided interviews in my work. I avoid to ask questions. I like somehow to have every item unfold in front of me and be able to grab moments of reality that become very strong narration. I don’t want to impose my voiceover, or to have interviews with people. I like reality to unfold itself and follow that in its own expression.

In the movie, Samuele's grandmother talks about Italy in World War II, and the way the bombs made it look like there was fire at sea. There's also a local song named “Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea).” What’s the connection between the song and the film’s title?

This song was always very present. It’s almost like a hymn in the island. It was present since the first time I arrived, there was always this song everywhere — at the radio, the song is played in the little market, the fish market. This song is so light, but it’s somehow connected to a big tragedy, to death. The name of the song is “Fire at Sea,” which is an oxymoron, right? When that scene came out, when the grandmother talks completely accidentally about this navy, the fire at sea, it became really a sign that this had to be the title of the film.

Some scenes in the movie were filmed inside Lampedusa's migrant reception center. How hard was it to get permission to film in there? What was your experience like?

It was very difficult, long process. Finally, after months, months, months, I got the permission to film there and to film the Navy, which was not easy at all. The good thing is that nobody ever asked to watch my footage, or told [me] what to shoot or not to shoot. So I had complete freedom. And I was able to film exactly what I wanted. It was very difficult for me to put the camera between me and that world. The camera sometimes is very uncomfortable. But I also wanted to give that sense of being uncomfortable. It was important somehow to meet some eyes and to see that these people are not numbers. Every number there is a person.

The cinematography in this film is particularly beautiful. There are often shots of dark clouds and stormy skies. Why is that?

I don’t like to film with a blue sky. I feel protected by the clouds, I feel like they move 360 degrees without worrying about shades over light. I wanted to portray the island in the winter, not in the summer, when it’s a completely different place. Tourists are there, and it’s a completely different mood. The clouds were part of the narrative of the film. I don’t love to shoot every day. For me, waiting for the clouds was always to put some boundaries on my work.

What about the underwater shots of the islander fishing sea urchins? Who is that character? Why did you decide to include him in the story?

I had been trying to film him many times. He was very shy. He was very, very uncomfortable with the camera, but he was very comfortable underwater. He’s like almost a person who lives underwater. “L’uomo-pesce,” I called him. The fish-man. I wanted to portray him for who he was, this uomo-pesce, this mysterious character. I know in the film, he’s a very surreal character. You never see him, you never understand who he is, he’s very mysterious. But also life is like that. I wanted in the film to have a moment of surrealism. And I like the fact that the water has this liquidity — this liquid world under the island. It’s almost like the island is suspended on the water. Come se galleggiasse, come una zattera. As if it was floating, like a raft. He’s just a fisherman. He can’t fish the sea urchins, because it’s forbidden, so he has all this method of hiding. It’s a very elaborated thing. But I didn’t want to explain that in the film. I like not to explain things sometimes. I like to leave them in suspension, I like to close the door, and explain as little as possible.

One of my favorite scenes is when Samuele goes to see Dr. Bartolo. What’s the story behind that scene?

Samuele has a problem of asthma, and sometimes also anxiety. That day I was worried because he really couldn’t breathe. He was 12 years old when I shot that, and I asked him, “Did you go to see a doctor?” And he said, “Well, my doctor comes only once a week here.” He’s a pediatrician, so there’s not every day a pediatrician on the island. So I said, “Would you like to talk to Dr. Bartolo? Do you know him?” He said, “Well, I know him, but he’s not my doctor.” “Well, talk to him, and maybe he can assure you.” And then they talked on the phone. Dr. Bartolo asked him to go and visit him the next day. He went there. I put my camera there, they never met before, and I rolled it. I think that’s one of the most beautiful scenes, because there are so many elements of narration coming out from the doctor, from [Samuele]. There is this incredible dialogue, which is funny and also dramatic in certain ways.

What happened to Samuele after you filmed the movie? Are you still in touch with him?

I’m in touch with everybody. I wanted Samuele to go back to his life. I never really intruded too much in his life. In one and a half year, maybe I shot with him 20 times. So it was not like an obsessive filmmaking with him. I wanted to just capture a few moments of his life which were important to me. But I protected him a lot. He came to Berlin. It was the first time he saw himself on the big screen, it was the first time he was in a movie theater in his life. So he sees himself in the movie theatre with 1,800 people, it was a big shock for him. But I didn’t want him to do interviews. He’s a kid of 13 years old. I wanted him to go back to his life and not become part of the circus.

Fire at Sea was shown in Lampedusa in the island's main square. What was the people's reaction?

Well, there were all kinds of reactions, but mostly people thanked me for the fact that even being there in Lampedusa, they never had this sense of the tragedy. They sense some tragedy happening there, but nobody really understood what’s going on. And then of course, I just took few characters. In Lampedusa, there are 4,000 people. And when you make such a radical choice of working with six [characters], everybody is like, “Why her, not me? Why this kid and not the other kids?” So everybody was a bit wondering, why did I choose these people here?

What’s the message of the documentary? What do you want people to take away from it?

“I like to have more questions than answers in my films.”

I don’t like to make films with a message. I like to leave things open. I like to have more questions than answers in my films. I know that film cannot change the course of history — filmmaking, or a book, or poetry, or a painting, or a photograph. But I wanted to create a certain awareness in the film. I wanted people not to be able to say anymore, “We didn’t know about that.”

There is a moment in my film where there’s a voice of the echo of desperation of migrants asking for help: “We’re sinking, we’re sinking! We need help! Come and save us.” And the guy from the Coast Guard says, “What’s your position? Give me your coordinates.” This sound occurs many times in the film, and I want the people who watch the film to come out and say, “What’s my position toward this? What can I do?” If 10 people come out of the movie thinking that — and I met a lot of people who did — then it was worth to make this movie.

Photography by Kino Lorber

Fire at Sea is available for pre-order on iTunes, with an expected release date of February 17th. The Kino Lorber site has more information, plus a list of theaters currently showing the film.