Since winning last year’s Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear, the refugee documentary “Fire at Sea” has gone on to nab a European Film Award, and is up for best documentary at the Oscars. The film, directed by Italian Gianfranco Rosi, is set on the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which thousands of mostly African refugees are still risking their lives to reach.
Rosi spoke to Variety about the fact that, sadly, “Fire” has not had much impact on the official response to the migrant crisis, though having Meryl Streep as a big fan and reaching audiences in 64 countries has helped raise awareness. Excerpts from the interview:
You had previously won the Golden Lion in Venice with “Sacro GRA” before winning in Berlin with “Fire.” So winning at a top festival was not a novelty. But with this film you seem to have embarked on a much bigger journey.
It’s been incredible. Thanks to Berlin, and more recently the Oscar nomination, the film has become like a big raft boarded by people from all over the world. I don’t think it has a message, but it’s been generating an awareness, and this has grown along the way. When I was at the New York Film Festival in September, there was a different perception of the film than there is now. It’s become more political now, probably because the film, beyond being political in itself, is becoming even more engrained in the political climate that we are all breathing.
Has “Fire” helped improve the plight of refugees in Europe?
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It has generated awareness, but this is still a drop in the ocean. I know that it was shown at the European Parliament and, alas, a few days later the E.U. did the deal with Turkey [to stem the flow of refugees into Europe]. It screened in the U.K. a week before the Brexit vote, and one of the reasons for Brexit was precisely immigration. So I can’t say in the least that my film can change the course of history, but I’d like to think that it can increase individual awareness. It’s important when people walk out of a screening of my film and ask me: ‘What can I do?’ That’s a victory.
Meryl Streep, who headed the Berlin jury, is a big fan of “Fire at Sea.” I know she hosted a special screening of the film in New York in November. Do you think she has also helped raise this awareness?
She has certainly supported the film very much, but by also underlining its artistic aspect. It all started with Meryl Streep’s voice in Berlin when she read the jury statement which said that, beyond the film’s social and political content, it also had a strong [purely] cinematic value. The fact that she pointed that out was crucial for me because I want the film to hold up in the future beyond its current topicality.
What was your reaction to Trump’s executive order? I read that you attended the travel ban protest at LAX.
I landed at LAX from Tokyo and what really struck me was the look of terror in the eyes of people there. The question I asked myself is: ‘What does it mean when America, which has always been the beacon of freedom, walks out on history?’ America has never had walls or barriers. It’s shocking to see people with a green card, people who live in America, who love America, become terrified. But what scares me the most are not physical walls, but the mental walls that are going up in both Europe and America.
“Fire at Sea” takes a very indirect approach to the refugees topic. It largely looks at the situation through the eyes of the island’s residents, especially the young boy Samuele, who is the son of a fisherman, and Pietro Bartolo, the only medical doctor on Lampedusa. How did you balance social conscience with your unique narrative and visual style?
All my films start with an encounter, first off with a physical place that has a very strong connotation. Lampedusa was already a symbol of the refugee crisis. Within that place, I met and chose some characters and established a very strong rapport with them. The story is told through the interior worlds of these characters who have a very strong bond with the past, with rituals, with something ancestral, with a very strong archetype. So I wanted Samuele and all the characters to become universal and Lampedusa to become almost a metaphor, a place in your consciousness. There is plenty of poetry in these characters. That’s what I’m interested in: to be able to transform reality into something else, not just observe it.
Do you think the boundaries between documentaries and narrative feature films are coming down?
Yes, I think what’s happening to documentaries is incredible. For the first time in such a deliberate way they are being released theatrically and they have an audience. All five Oscar-nominated docs have been released theatrically [in the U.S.] and have found an audience. We are no longer ghettoized. This is a wonderful victory, and I think it’s unprecedented.