Lampedusa is Italy’s southern-most island, a far-flung location that has made the news throughout the years as a beacon of hope, the first shore that many thousands of immigrants see after making that dangerous crossing from Tunisia and Algeria to Europe. Countless small boats have carried refugees on that journey. The lucky ones survive, many do not.
Gianfranco Rosi describes his new documentary, Fire at Sea, as a great human tragedy of which we all need to be aware. Juxtaposing the story of Samuele, a young boy suffering from a vision disorder, who climbs trees and aims his slingshot at distant targets, with the plight of thousands of immigrants on the other side of the island is a powerful metaphor. Despite the often grim subject matter, Rosi’s film features beautiful imagery of Lampedusa, its native inhabitants, and the migrants. He saves the most harrowing images until the end, and the symbolism of Samuele’s story becomes apparent. I caught up with Rosi to talk about Brexit, and filming Fire at Sea, and his style of filming without a crew.
AD: I didn’t know the film got released during Brexit. That’s absolutely fascinating.
Gianfranco Rosi: It was excellent, but it was unfortunate to see England cut itself out of history, almost like a little Switzerland. [laughs].
AD: It’s so unfortunate. And here you are with this important documentary, that’s not just relevant to Italy, and the UK, but also right here in America.
GR: I think it’s a universal issue right now because we’re talking about people dying at sea trying to build a different life. We have people wanting to build walls and barricades, exaggerating numbers saying, “We’re being invaded, what are we going to do with all these people? We have no work for our own people, and these people want to take our jobs.”
AD: Well, that’s what’s so great about this documentary is that you show the horrors of being a refugee, and it’s so powerful to watch. I wanted to congratulate you on being the official selection for Italy’s submission for the Oscars.
GR: It was such a surprise and a moment of awareness. It was important for me as we broke that thin line between documentary and fiction. There’s a word called cinema, and cinema is the language that can break the line between documentary and fiction.
It happened to me when I was in Venice a few years ago with Sacro Gra. It’s a strong statement saying that documentary can compete with fiction, it was a great moment because I’ve been working my whole life to break that separation. So, this is a big result.
Some people were game for it, for others, they created a big debate around it. It’s a long journey, and a highlight was Meryl Streep who came out in support of the film. She endorsed the film which was very courageous of her.
AD: How did Carla Cattani come to you with the story?
GR: She brought me to Lampedusa and she said I was the only person on her radar who could make this film. It was a time when Lampedusa was on the news because of refugees dying, there was a military operation, and so there was a lot of focus on it. At that time, so many people where it was and what it represented which is a beacon of freedom arriving there and touching the first point of land and gateway to Europe. It was so symbolic.
It was linked to immigration, to tragedy, to controversy. No one was really focusing on the island and who lived there, and its identity. So, it was necessary to bring that to the people and show them what Lampedusa was.
Carla thought I should be the one who went to Lampedusa and make the project. I spent a year and a half filming every day. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I discovered beautiful things, following the life of Samuel. I also discovered harsh things such as the devastating echo of traveling to Lampedusa, and the voices of the migrants crying for help and the voice of death. I saw so many harsh things, and I encountered death. It’s totally unacceptable that people have to die in this way. There are women in Libya for example escaping, they’re getting raped, tortured and Europe doesn’t do anything to resolve these problems. Once the women and others get into the waters, there’s a huge chance they’ll encounter death.
That’s what the film is trying to be, a cry of help. We can’t say we didn’t know. We know and we know that 25,000 people die crossing the sea trying to arrive in Europe.
AD: What I really admire about you is that you go in and the story unfolds as you’re working. Was there a story you were hoping to uncover?
GR: I go in completely blind. Production is always a struggle for me because I don’t write scripts. When you do that in documentaries, it’s almost like a lie. I start with a blank page and go on the journey. I feel like I’m in a library and I have to find my way out, and the encounters happen on a daily basis, and that’s how I write my film.
When I’m making the film, reality talks to me every day, and I’m the one who has to adapt to reality, not vice versa.
It’s the cost and challenge of finding the narrative structure, and I like using the language of cinema in order to create the narration. Whatever I end up filming has to have a space for interpretation.
AD: When you spend 18 months with these people, people who are fleeing terrible conditions in their country, how does that change you?
GR: Everything changes us. For me, it’s this journey where I forget about everything. I forget about my personal life. I forget my identity and completely immerse myself in this journey.
In a year and a half I had witnessed so much death, harshness and I saw it so many times. I didn’t want to film that, it was a huge struggle with where to put the camera and how to tell a story of pain without being judgemental, and not being bulimic in the sense of not wanting to take all these images and then throwing them to the audience.
When I encountered death at the border, it was then that I decided I had to tell that story, and show it. It was hard to show that, but it needed to be done. Once I had filmed it, I was done, and that was the end. I called a wrap on it and called my editor.
He came to Lampedusa because I wanted him to immerse himself completely in this life. We started editing, what I had witnessed with the death needed to be the narration. So, from the first frame to the last and that moment, it was built in order that we arrive there with this narrative arc, and mourn what we see.
When I was filming that scene, the naval commander had advised me to go down there and film telling me that it was like a death chamber and that the fuel from the gas kills them. It’s a tragedy that the world needs to know about and be made aware of. 25,000 have lost their lives in the last 15 years trying to find freedom and is one of the biggest human tragedies. It’s a tragedy that belongs to the world, that has consequences on our politics, and we are responsible for that. England included.
I wish I could have been closer to the immigrants, but being in Lampedusa that was impossible. They arrived, they stay 2 or 3 days, and they move to the mainland and try to seek asylum, and it was hard to engage in a real relationship with them.
There are almost two films, one is almost a report, the other has more structure to it. Time and conditions didn’t allow me to get so close to the story, as much as I would have liked. The only exception was when you see the Nigerian exodus, I encountered them in the middle of their trip, I got to go to the port with them, and they invited me to their room when they were being thankful for the rescue, and that was one of the strong moments of the film, those three minutes are so intimate and powerful.
AD: What was your technique when filming, you’re essentially a one-man crew? How does that work when you’re carrying everything?
GR: It’s very simple. Time is the most important investment when I’m filming. I’m not chasing things with my camera. It’s a long work about patience and waiting for the right moment. Sometimes you miss the right moment, but I know that when I start a project, but I never know when I’m going to pick up the camera, so it’s almost impossible for me to have a crew.
Most of the time it’s knowing about waiting for the right moment and being alone gives me freedom to stop, start, return, and wait for that right moment. I would have needed 3 people with me 24/7. Waiting is a long process and I couldn’t afford the crew. It’s practical, but it’s also about me creating intimacy with what I’m filming.
AD: Did you watch all of the footage?
GR: I never watch my footage when I work and edit. Once I’m done filming I send everything to my editor and he uploads everything. When I’m editing, I never watch everything again.