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Fire at Sea


This film is billed as a documentary, and so it is, but with its focus on a family, especially young 12-year-old boy, Samuele, who really becomes the centre of the film, it works not just as a documentary but also as a kind of fiction feature. It is directed by Gianfranco Rosi, whose documentary on the road surrounding the city of Rome, Sacro GRA, won the golden lion in Venice in 2013. That was a particularly local film, the customs of the area in different lives of characters on the ring road.

For this film, Rosi the lived for several months on the island of Lampedusa, an island which has become more famous in recent years, not far of the Sicilian coast, not far from the Libyan coast, an island where so many boats, so many rickety boats, crammed with refugees, have landed – unless the boats have sunk with lives lost, a frightening statistic that is given at the beginning of the film.

While the issue of refugees from Africa and, by extension and ultimate explicit mention, from Syria and Middle Eastern countries, there are explicit reference to Islamic State.

But, the film is something of a jigsaw puzzle, the scenes of the refugees punctuating the narrative about life on Lampedusa, especially for the young boy, Samuele Caruana, and his family.

Samuele is an enterprising young 12-year-old, seen chopping branches in order to make a slingshot, aiming at birds, instructing his good friend how to make a slingshot and fire it – and the two of them frequently mimicking shooting with machine guns. We see them at school, testing out the meanings of words in English and Italian. We see Samuele going to the doctor, being tested for his eyes, discovering he has a lazy eye and will have to wear a patch to strengthen it, which he tests out in various slingshots.

His father is a fishermen and Samuele goes out on a boat only to find that he becomes seasick and is advised to go onto the jetty to get used to having a balance and controlling his stomach. He also has a lesson in rowing, which he desperately needs, otherwise he would be trapped between boats. He is a strong screen presence and audiences welcome him, with scenes at home, meals where he incessantly slurps his spaghetti, talking with his father and cared for by his grandmother.

Actually, the grandmother has significance in the film, cooking, cleaning, making the beds – and ringing the rather friendly DJ on the local radio with requests for songs and commemorations to be made.

But, back to the refugees, the pictures of the boats, the picture of the Italian navy and its efforts to find the refugees, sometimes there being unable to give their coordinates with the inevitability of drownings and death. The Italians seem to be doing their efficient best. Exhausted and dehydrated men are lifted off the boats, some of them not surviving. And there are some telling interviews with Africans, especially from Nigeria, making their way to Sudan, through the desert, arriving in Libya, possibly imprisonment there, and the desperation to get on a boat to Europe.

So, this is a strong humanitarian film, destined to win Human Rights awards. There was a rather similar film from Malta in 2015, Simshar, with both films reminding audiences of the contemporary issues of African refugees, death by drowning – but without the answers as to what will become of them.

Interestingly, with the visit of Pope Francis to Lampedusa and gaining world coverage, there is no reference to this in the film and no explicit presence of the Catholic Church (as there is in Censure).

Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin are they, 2016, as well as winning the Ecumenical Award and a prize from Amnesty International.


Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting


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