At The Edge Of Fortress Europe: ‘Fire At Sea’ Reviewed

BEFORE ANY IMAGES, there are words: in the last 20 years, 15,000 people have died attempting to reach Lampedusa, an island off the southern coast of Sicily. What image could bear to follow this fact? The first shot is of a boy climbing a tree. He breaks off a wishbone-shaped branch, and looks at it with satisfaction. The boy’s name is Samuele, and he is the centre of Gianfranco Rosi’s coruscating documentary, Fire at Sea (2016).

The film moves between migrants and a handful of island characters: Samuele’s grandmother and uncle, a diver, a doctor, and a local DJ. It’s tempting to describe Samuele as the major strand in a web of lives, but this is a bad metaphor. The divergent stories are connected, but the implication of a web is that all that separates them is their coordinates: some people slice tomatoes while others mend fishing tackle; some play songs on the radio while others dive for oysters; some enjoy full citizenship of a European country while others drown in the Mediterranean sea.

Fortresses aren’t like webs. With a fortress, you’re either safe inside or outside with little chance of getting in. In Fortress Europe, who’s in and who’s out is violently regulated by individual states. The first interaction between state authorities and migrants is a radio transmission: a migrant begs for help – their boat is sinking; the operator asks for their location, again and again, but the only response is white noise. This plays over an image of the monolithic domes of Lampedusa’s radar system. As the film progresses, we see more successful interventions, as Rosi’s camera follows the migrants from their dinghies to the Italian vessels, and ashore to their encampments. A doctor checks hands for signs of disease; police conduct body searches, complaining about the stench of petrol wrung into the migrants’ clothes.

In a rare interview scene, a doctor, close to tears, says he’ll never be inured to the dead bodies of migrants. Clearly, lives are saved through the labour and resources of these operations. But far greater effort is made securitising Europe against the world. Arming the continent’s border guards, building walls and deporting immigrants is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is these measures, in part, that force thousands to make the potentially lethal journey from North Africa to Lampedusa. Current rescue operations are sincere but overwhelmed. Operation Mare Nostrom – a rescue initiative financed by the Italian government – saved thousands of lives. In 2014, the project was discontinued; the European Commission refused it funding.

The only way to show the horrors of being outside the Fortress is to contrast it with life inside. Samuele has the macho authority of a grown Italian man. He blags his way through English homework, and lectures on how to create the perfect slingshot. But there’s fragility too. The boy has his lazy eye corrected with a patch. In a scene that smacks of Larry David, he is gently persuaded by his doctor that his occasional chest pains are psychological rather than physical. The boy’s myopia and anxiety become powerful metaphors for an unease about events that are just beyond our vision.

Samuele’s uncle – a fisherman – tells the boy of how he would be at sea for stretches of seven months. Despite warnings of a hard life and a propensity for seasickness, Samuele wants to follow in the family tradition. The first time we see Samuele’s grandmother, she’s in the kitchen listening to the local radio. The broadcaster announces that a boat has capsized and hundreds have died. ‘Poor souls,’ she whispers. The next time we see her she is phoning the radio station to request the titular song, Fire at Sea, dedicating it to all the fishermen who aren’t earning anything because of the bad weather.

Most of those celebrating Fire at Sea have drained the film of politics. Critics praise its slow, tortuous form, which denies the viewer any dogmatic certainties: it’s a film that asks more questions than it answers. But questions aren’t neutral. The film’s structure implies that borders create new social relations. So what are these social relations? The film links migrants (many fleeing war or persecution, others seeking economic security) with the ailing fishing industry. Of course, these lives are linked by the water, but they’re also linked by the world economy. This isn’t a dogmatic notion, and perhaps it’s shaped more like a question: how, Rosi wonders, are the fates of migrants, fishermen and precocious little boys mutually tied to global capital?

—Sam Thompson

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