Picturehouse Community And Education Officer Ryan Powell introduces this week’s Discover Tuesdays title Fire At Sea.
Director: Gianfranco Rosi. Italy/France 2016. 108 mins. Italian with English subtitles.
Fire At Sea is a powerful cinematic portrait of the island of Lampedusa, a key point of entry to Europe for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Throughout the film the regular domestic life of the islanders is contrasted with the experiences of the refugees – the terror of the sea, and the tedium and uncertainty they face in the processing facilities on land. This dynamic is set up in the first few minutes of the film with the introduction of 12-year-old Samuele. We see him climbing trees and collecting bits of wood to make slingshots. This cuts to the inside of a coastguard station, and we hear over the radio people pleading for help: they are lost at sea and sinking. The film progresses through scenes of these two realities, worlds apart but located on the same tiny island.
This is a film about Lampedusa and its people, but the story of their lives is underscored by the knowledge that tragedy on a huge scale is constantly unfolding alongside them. We are told during the opening titles that an estimated 15,000 people have died trying to reach the island. The images of Samuele’s quiet life and everyday struggles are given resonance by this knowledge. The islanders are not blamed for living their lives while the horror takes place; quite the opposite, in fact – their lives are seen as beautiful, as the kind of lives everyone should be able to live. The everyday seems precious, sacred even. These scenes of domesticity in turn accentuate the images of refugees, conveying a deep sense of loss as we see in the Lampedusans the kind of existence that has been denied the refugees.
This focus on the everyday lives of Samuele and his family is deliberately unsettling. It’s disquieting to see these different realities side by side, and to be faced with the fact that while some people suffer, alone and afraid in a strange land, others are eating their grandma’s cooking, and still others watching films in the cinema. As viewers we are in the same position as the people of Lampedusa: we live our lives in relative comfort and safety, with the knowledge that an enormous tragedy is happening on our country’s borders. It’s difficult to know what to do with this knowledge, but the insight and humane message of this film are a valuable contribution to debates around the refugee crisis.
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