Gianfranco Rosi and Lampedusa Fleeing war and persecution

“Fuocoammare” by Gianfranco Rosi
“Fuocoammare” by Gianfranco Rosi | © Berlinale

Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fuocoammare” (Fire at Sea) is the only Italian film competing for the Golden Bear in Berlin this year. It tells stories of the sea, of people seeking hope and of witnesses to one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our times.

Roughly three years after his documentary Sacro GRA won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2013, Gianfranco Rosi is competing in the Berlinale with another documentary, this time about the island of Lampedusa as it looks today. Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) centres on twelve-year-old Samuele, the son of a Lampedusian fisherman. His life becomes the filter through which Rosi endeavours to give a realistic sense of what is happening now and has been happening for years on Lampedusa, the small Mediterranean island that has gained sad notoriety from the refugees who make landfall here from various countries.

A year on Lampedusa

Rosi’s camera moves effortlessly back and forth between coast guard boats, navy helicopters and rescue ships, documenting, almost like a war correspondent, the arrival of the refugees and Lampedusa’s preparations to receive them. The local radio broadcaster plays popular traditional songs non-stop, one of which is Fuocoammare, a song about the older generation of Lampedusians’ wartime experiences.

Rosi spent a whole year on the island shooting everything in sight: from the signal posts on Linosa, where the refugees sing, weep and pray, to the school where the children are learning English and even the divers seeking urchins and shellfish at the bottom of the sea.

How a feature film becomes reality

Rosi’s camera is like a fly buzzing round and alighting all over the island, on trees, rocks, tablecloths and boats and inside the refugee shelters. Lampedusa is becoming a place where migrating men, women and children are catapulted into a parallel world that is a far cry from what they were looking for. We viewers are there with them, with these people who hardly move us at all on our nightly newscasts, but who suddenly become real, important individuals when standing right in front of Rosi’s camera. All these islanders, police, doctors and refugees are like actors in a play, but their play has no beginning and no end, for it is reality, not fiction, that lays down the rules of this script.