«I dislike the expression ‘refugee crisis’. It categorises things, and gives the impression that we are dealing with a sudden catastrophe, like an earth quake, a tornado or a tsunami. But this has been going on for a long period of time – although Europe has only just realised that there are millions of people fleeing around the world,» says Gianfranco Rosi.

Leone d’oro a Sacro Gra di Gianfranco Rosi

The Italian documentary film maker visited Oslo with his latest film, Fire at Sea, which will be screened at the Film from South-festival prior to premiering in Norwegian cinemas from October 14th. In the film, which unusually for a documentary, won the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin film festival this year, Rosi and his observational camera depicts life on the transit island of Lampedusa. Due to its close proximity to the coast of Africa, some 400, 000 people, according to the film, landed on the island over the past 20 years, with another 15, 000 dying en route.

I am ashamed of living in Europe

«This is an enormous tragedy. I am ashamed of living in Europe, where countries such as Austria, Hungary and Poland create blockades instead of participating in a quota system to welcome these people in. It’s like Obama said: If you build a wall around yourself, you build a prison for yourself. Unless we change our course of direction, our xenophobic politics will lead to the collapse of Europe.»

Originally, Rosi was supported by the Luce Cinecittà film institute to make a ten-minute short documentary focusing on another side of Lampedusa to the one normally shown in the news.

Fire at sea by Gianfranco Rosi

«When I arrived on the island, I realised that it was impossible to make such a short film about something as complicated as this, so I had to expand my project. I ended up living on the island for a year and a half in order to get the islanders’ perspective,» he explains to Modern Times.

«If I only portrayed the immigrants, the island would have felt like an empty shell. I wanted to include the island’s own identity, and had to find a way to change from a journalistic to a more narrative approach. »

Internal and external development. The island’s doctor plays an important part in the film, as he is in close contact with the many dead and injured who are picked up from the sea outside of Lampedusa. The film’s main character however, is a boy of around ten, who is not directly linked to these tragic and dramatic events. Samuele dreams of being a hunter, but is expected to become a fisherman like his dad and grandad – an occupation he perhaps is not so suited for.

«I immediately thought it would be a good idea to let a young boy be the central character, because this would give me the freedom to explore the daily life on the island. A child cannot be expected to deal with the refugee situation and the politics surrounding this. As I was filming, I realised that his story has a strong internal development. In reality, it is a simple film, a coming of age-story. But simultaneously, his anxiety for meeting life and all its uncertain elements, echoes the anxiety you feel when faced with an unfamiliar world. His story reaches beyond itself.»


How do you work with these types of metaphors within a documentary, do you discover them as they are happening?

«Yes. But I am concerned with creating space for interpretation, in a world where there is so much access to information. Rather than presenting facts and figures, I want to use a more poetic language, and create an interaction between the audience and the film’s images,» explains Rosi.

Fire at Sea was recently chosen as the Italian Oscar-candidate in the best foreign language category, apparently the very first time the country has opted to nominate a documentary in this group.

Political. Asked about the climate for political films in his homeland, Rosi replies that Italy is currently one of the nations boasting the world’s most interesting documentary film makers. «Among the five nominated for the European Film Awards for best documentary, are two Italian films – mine and Pietro Marcello’s Bella e perduta. This is fantastic, as we have hardly any tradition of documentaries. But the neo realism impact is still noticeable, and manifests itself through a need for using reality. The most talented documentary film makers combine this with a filmatic expression,» he explains.

«All my films are political. But they are politcal by extending beyond politics. »

Rosi was awarded another prestigious award for his last film, the Venice Film festival’s Golden Lion, which was a first for a documentary. The Sacro GRA portrayed six different people living along Rome’s giant ring road.

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