Lampedusa, a speck in the Mediterranean, a little over a hundred kilometers off the African coast. But despite the proximity to that continent, it feels typically Italian. A bit old-fashioned perhaps, almost cliched. A closely knit fishing community, where the men go out to sea and the women stay home to cook pasta (seafood varieties, not surprisingly). Where the local radio station takes requests from family to play songs about the sea. Life is not easy, and perhaps a tad dull, but sort of idyllic in a simple way. A little piece of heaven, and a world seemingly untouched by what comes ashore.
Lampedusa, a speck in the Mediterranean, a little over a hundred kilometers off the African coast. For many refugees from Africa and the Middle East, that proximity makes it the first spot of European soil they see when they try to cross over to mainland Europe, even if seeing Lampedusa was not on their itinerary. Packed by the hundreds in small, dilapidated boats, they pay a hefty price, a price that often includes their lives, to make a jump to what they hope is a better life, away from war, away from poverty, onwards to hope. Shipwrecks are a dime a dozen, and the Italian coast guard is their final buoy, and Lampedusa their beacon.
Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Bear-winning documentary Fuocoammare puts these two very different stories set on twenty square kilometers of rock in a vast sea side by side, as if they take place in parallel worlds. The segments focusing on the Lampedusan locals never even mention its temporary inhabitants, the only linking pin between the two stories a local doctor who sees both sides as part of his profession. Rosi’s style is that of the proverbial fly on the wall, with no ‘talking heads’ in sight. The only exception to this is something akin to a monologue by this doctor, as he recounts almost directly into the camera the horrors that he often faces when having to deal with survivors. It is a pivotal moment in the film, as the man becomes a surrogate for the filmmaker of this quietly urgent document about a humanitarian crisis unfolding right before our eyes, if we would only see.
And we? We are Samuele, the 12-year-old boy with his slingshot and his lazy eye, who can’t focus completely on the world around him; we who, while we quarrel over who takes how few of these damned souls, turn a blind eye to the tragedy behind what is unfolding on our doorstep, and fail to look beyond the numbers at the human beings behind them. Samuele seems oblivious to that part of the story, as he roams the island with his friend, looking for adventures like 12-year-old boys do. In one scene, they cut human faces out of wide-leafed cactuses, then practice their slingshots on them. Later, they put their ‘victims’ back together with duct tape, as only kids can do. If only it could be so easy with the broken people washing up on Lampedusa.
One look from Rosi at these people, and it is clear that a lot of them are beyond mending, not even counting the ones who don’t make it out of the hulls of the ships alive. Huddled together in their shiny space blankets, fear and above all insecurity in their eyes, they silently go through wordless inspections, following the directions of those who inspect them. At times it feels like watching cattle. Their treatment is methodical and without much compassion, although one can sense no ill will in those herding them, as this is probably the best guard against succumbing to a hell that is for them a daily routine. Nobody wants to be in those inspection rooms, neither the inspected nor the inspectors, but they are condemned to each other, and so they go through the motions. And again there is the doctor, the one who is not faceless, the one who embodies hope for a piece of humanity when there is so much evidence of failing humanity around him. In an early scene, he gives an ultrasound to a pregnant refugee. Clumsily, a language barrier as wide as the Mediterranean between them, he tries to explain to her that she’s having twins. It is a warm and endearing moment, and the juxtaposition of his later examinations aboard yet another saved ship couldn’t be starker. Fuocoammare is a film of contrasts between light and innocent, and dark and harrowing, and it forces the viewer to face the harrowing.
The English title of Fuocoammare, itself derived from one of the songs played in the film, is Fire at Sea. Samuele’s grandma recalls how the sea around Lampedusa was lit up by the naval battle for the island in World War II, as if the water was burning. But the metaphor is easily spotted, and the translation apt. However, the title could also be roughly read as ‘focus on loving’, the focus we seem to have lost a bit, bringing us back to Samuele and the doctor. Late in the film he does a check-up of Samuele, and we learn about the boy’s lazy eye. Samuele also says that he is sometimes short of breath, perhaps a sign of influence from the fact that the sea around Lampedusa is again on fire. Not long after, Rosi demonstrates what shortness of breath can lead to in the devastating closing shots of the film. Fuocoammare is meant to show, not tell, but tells so much by just showing, if only we allow ourselves to watch. Rosi’s message lies in the words of the doctor who is his tangible extension in the film, when he says, “You cannot look, and not help.” Fuocoammare is an important film that needs to be seen. It shows the struggle of an old and traditional Europe through the microcosm of a small island at the forefront of a vast humanitarian crisis. It does not offer solutions, and does not even explicitly take a side in the debate, but it does deliver a sorely missing contribution to the argument in the form of a human portrait.