When Gianfranco started making “Fire at Sea,” no one was talking about the migrant crisis. Now that the film is out, it’s all they can talk about. The Italian filmmaker’s new documentary isn’t an activist film, and it tells you very little about what’s become a hot-button issue. In fact, it’s not even the main focus. The film — which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and is Italy’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — was shot on the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa which, over the last few years, has seen an alarming number of migrants passing through it en route to Europe.
Rosi, though, was initially drawn to the people who lived on the island, especially after border officials began rescuing boats offshore, meaning there was little to no interaction between the locals and those passing through. The film shows parts of these rescue missions, including one unspeakably harrowing encounter at the end. But most of it is about Samuele, an 11-year-old local who knows nothing about the migrant crisis, and spends his days idling around, goofing off, shooting slingshots, being a kid.
Rosi talks to us about how his acclaimed film has no thesis, getting his young star to ignore the camera and what it’s like to film death.
This film has been addressed as though it were an issue film, but the migrant crisis plays a very small part in the overall structure.
If this film came out two or three years ago, nobody would have talked about the migrants. They’d say, “Why the f— are there people coming from Africa?” Two years ago nobody talked about it. Everybody started talking about it when the Balkan area was opened up and thousands of people discovered this route to Europe. Europe suddenly became aware of this. When I was almost finishing the film was when it became this huge issue all over the news, all over the world. Before that, 500,000 people passed through Lampedusa in the span of a few years, and nobody talked about it, except when people died or a terrorist was found passing through Lampedusa. They forget that the terrorists are already in our cities. In France, the people who blow themselves up are third generation, not people coming from Africa or Syria. Trump was saying, “When people arrive, we don’t know who they are.” These people are from Syria.
You cut between the people of Lampedusa and certain rescue missions, but apart from the doctor character, we never see them together. And you don’t explain why there’s a slim chance they’d ever interact.
Some people ask me why Samuele never meets a migrant. It’s because he didn’t. It was not part of his life. It would be completely fake for me to force him in that direction. I wanted to create a point of view that was more about being inside this world, with these people, having a feeling of what goes on around that.