When documentarian Gianfranco Rosi went to Lampedusa, an Italian island that has been a primary European entry point for migrants for decades, he was only planning to shoot a 10-minute short film. “The idea was to make an instant movie that would bring a different picture of Lampedusa to a lazy and complicit Europe whose sense of the burgeoning migration crisis was distorted and confused,” Rosi explains. “For me, Lampedusa had long been just a snarl of voices and images generated by TV spots and shocking headlines about death, emergencies, invasions, and populist uprisings.”
Once he arrived, however, he realised that the situation on the island was far too complex to be presented in only a few minutes. Rosi knew he had to immerse himself in the life of the island for a long period of time to understand it. As chance would have it, Rosi contracted a severe case of bronchitis and had to go to the local emergency room. There, Rosi met Pietro Bartolo, who he learned was the only doctor on the island and had been present at every landing of rescued migrants for the last thirty years.
Bartolo’s stories of medical and humanitarian emergencies touched Rosi, and when he turned on his computer to show him the heartrending images that he took, Rosi decided to expand his short into a longer project. “To grasp a real sense of the tragedy, you need to be not only close, but to have ongoing contact. Only in this way was I able to better understand the feelings of the islanders,” says Rosi.
He rented a house on the old port, and began to befriend the locals to learn the rhythms of their daily life. He soon met Samuele, a 9-year-old son of a fisherman. “I realised that through his clear and ingenuous eyes I could tell the story of the island and its inhabitants with greater freedom. I followed him as he played, with his friends, at school, at home with his grandmother and on the boat with his uncle. Samuele allowed me to see the island differently and with a clarity that I had not known before,” says Rosi. “And through him, other characters were gradually introduced into the film.”
During his one-year stay on the island, Rosi weathered the long winter and the sea-going months. As he filmed dozens of migrants landing on the island, he realised that the word “emergency” was meaningless, because every day was an emergency. Migrants who arrived on the island were unloaded in the port and bussed to the detention centre, after which they would be dispatched to the mainland. Rosi was able to obtain the permit to follow the migrants into the centre. A world within a world, the centre was full of its own rules, customs and tragic stories.
To see the situation from the eyes of the officials, Rosi boarded an Italian naval vessel operating off the African coast for a month, following two of its missions. Filming on the island, the detention centre and on board, Rosi found it a challenge to not only portray the reality of these distinctive environments, but also the humanity within.
It is always difficult to pinpoint the moment when the filming of a documentary is complete, and so to close his film, Rosi decided to go back to where he started. He paid another visit to Bartolo, bringing a camera with him this time, to get the doctor’s testimony. “Bartolo, with his immense humanity and serenity, was able to communicate the magnitude of the tragedy, and the duty to offer assistance and shelter. Exactly what was needed to close the film.”
Fire At Sea is currently showing as part of the UNHCR Refugee Film Festival; it will also open on July 7.