The Sea Swallows People

Fire at Sea

a film by Gianfranco Rosi
Samuele Pucillo, a local boy from Lampedusa, in Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary film about the refugee crisis, Fire at Sea
Kino Lorber
Samuele Pucillo, a local boy from Lampedusa, in Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary film about the refugee crisis, Fire at Sea

Fire at Sea

“How many people?” A man with an Italian accent shouts through radio static. The voice from the sea sounds desperate. “Two—two hundred fifty.” The dispatcher is patient, a little tired. “Your position?” he says. The desperate man answers, “We beg you!… In the name of God!” “Your position?” the dispatcher repeats, but the line has gone dead.

It is night. The radar on the small island is no match for the big sea. A ship cuts across the waves, its searchlight swallowed by the darkness. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, another migrant boat is sinking. It is a crisis. It is also a routine.

The routinization of crisis is the theme of Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi’s enigmatic film about Lampedusa, a tiny island with an outsized role in Europe’s migration emergency. It’s a stark look at a desolate place, told in tight focus. Lampedusa lies some seventy miles off the African coast. Over the past two decades, 400,000 migrants have landed there, chased by war and poverty. Fifteen thousand have died on the way.

A routine crisis ought to be an oxymoron. But daily crisis is a general state of affairs in the world of refugee protection. There are 65 million displaced persons around the globe. The numbers are at a record high, up two thirds in the last decade. The international cooperation on which they depend is perilously low. And the mass drowning of migrants has become so routine that it scarcely qualifies as news.

Hoping to arouse an indifferent public, Doctors Without Borders this fall ran a traveling exhibition, “Forced from Home,” to simulate the refugee experience. So it was that I found myself packed among strangers in a raft, near the Washington Monument, being urged to imagine that my body was covered with chemical burns from leaking fuel. Fresh from rescue work in the Mediterranean, our guide offered a tip for our imaginary journey: beware the fake life jackets the smugglers sell. They sink.

Three recent works on the refugee crisis—by a filmmaker, a policy expert, and a journalist—approach the subject from very different perspectives. What unites them is the dismay that boatloads of poor and persecuted people have become a global norm and they are as likely to meet rejection as rescue.

Fire at Sea presents two Lampedusa stories that don’t intersect. One features an oddly charismatic boy, Samuele, nearing adolescence; he roams the island with a slingshot and tries to master his motion sickness so he can follow his elders, who are fishermen, to sea. Samuele’s world is a place of tradition: he slurps pasta and watches old men mend…

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