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Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘Fire at Sea’ Doc Chronicles Refugee Crisis

The issue of refugees and migration continued to dominate the Berlin Film Festival on Saturday with the premiere of Italian helmer Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary and competition title “Fuocoammare” (“Fire at Sea”), which looks at the harrowing journeys undertaken by African and Middle Eastern immigrants as they risk their lives to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa in the hopes of making it to mainland Europe.

Rosi spent months living on the Mediterranean island, capturing its everyday life as hundreds of migrants arrived on a weekly basis. The film examines the grave migrant situation through the eyes of the island’s residents, including the young boy Samuele, the son of a fisherman, and Pietro Bartolo, the only medical doctor on Lampedusa.

Speaking at a press conference following the film, the award-winning director responded to one journalist’s observation that he had made “a very, very political film without making a political statement.”

Rosi said that while the film can be read politically, “what it really does is bear witness to a tragedy that is happening right in front of our eyes. I think that we are all responsible for that tragedy. Perhaps after the Holocaust, it is one of the greatest tragedies the world has ever seen.”

In an emotional and chilling account, Bartolo recounted his own experiences as a resident of the island over the past 25 years:

“I’ve seen so very much since 1991 when the first boats landed. I’ve seen some beautiful things but above all I’ve seen really dreadful things, so many dead children, so many dead women, so many raped women, and these things leave you with a great big empty hole in your stomach and a dreadful feeling. It’s really awful to look at this … these are nightmares that haunt me very often.”

Bartolo said he’d been interviewed by “almost all TV channels around the world,” adding that it’s difficult for him to talk about what he has witnessed to visiting journalists who come to Lampedusa. “Every time I have to talk about this I feel dreadful. I don’t want to talk about it but I do because at the end of the day I hope that, just as I do with this film by the maestro Gianfranco Rosi, we’ll get the message across, that these newspaper articles, this film will raise people’s awareness and raise the awareness of those who can do more than us.”

Bartolo decried the current policies of some of Europe’s nations. “The countries of Europe all seem to be going their own way, doing their own thing, some are setting up walls and putting people in pens, within fences — you shouldn’t even treat animals like that.

“I don’t think a wall or barbed wire is going to stop these people,” he added. “If we want to stop these people, then we have to act differently. We need to create positive situations in their own countries. There is not one single person in the whole world who wants to leave their own homeland unless they’re forced to do so.”

Rosi said the initial idea was to make a short film about the migrant crisis on Lampedusa, but after arriving on the island, he realized a short film would not be enough.

“The first location scouting I did on the spot made it very clear to me that it was virtually impossible to recount such a complex reality in a short film.”

Discussing the film’s somewhat overcast aesthetic, Rosi said clouds and little light were “fundamental companions of my work.”

“My preferred light is in the winter, cloudy; it always looks very cloudy. Some people tell me Lampedusa looks like Ireland in the film, but that’s the kind of weather I feel congenial in.”

The director revealed that he is “photophobic” and didn’t like too much light.

Rosi added that the production had been greatly facilitated with a new small and light camera, an ARRI Amira, which he said allowed him to shoot in dark environments. “Sometimes it looked like we had an incredible amount of light. Technology helped me a lot on this film. Being able to work with this tiny camera by myself was an incredible tool.”

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