INTERVIEW: «Unless we change our course of direction, our xenophobic politics will lead to the collapse of Europe, » says Gianfranco Rosi, the filmmaker the Lampedusa-documentary Fire at Sea.

Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: October 13, 2016

«I dislike the expression ‘refugee crisis’. It categorises things and gives the impression that we are dealing with a sudden catastrophe, like an earthquake, 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 filmmaker 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 depict 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.

«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 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.


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 filmmakers. «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 filmmakers combine this with a filmmatic expression,» he explains.

«All my films are political. But they are political 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.

Would you also class Sacro GRA as a political film?

«All my films are political. But they are political by extending beyond politics. I am always looking for strong individual narratives which then become the story’s archetypes. Some three million people live along this road, and I had to find six individuals who in a way told the story about them all. »

In Fire at Sea, Rosi depicts two fairly separate worlds, with the islanders’ rather sleepy daily lives contrasting with the refugees’ desperate and dangerous journey to Europe. The filmmaker explains that he had to approach the two in very different manners.

«One of the world’s required presence in the now, whilst the other one needed presence over time. As I mentioned, I spent a long time with the locals to capture their stories as they developed. As for the migrants, I almost had to undertake the role of a war reporter, catching things very immediately,» says the filmmaker, who does his own photography and sound recordings.

«Working alone gives me some essential benefits. It makes it easier to create intimacy, in addition to enabling me to wait for the right moments.  If I brought a crew, I had to film every day and would not have had the finances to carry on for as long as I did. »

At sea

Rosi recorded the film’s most dramatic scenes from aboard one of the rescue boats that patrol the coast surrounding Lampedusa, and their contact and encounters with the overflowing refugee boats.

«It was difficult to gain permission to film onboard the rescue boats. But once I received it, no one asked what I was filming or asked to see any of the material. I was awarded complete freedom, and that was important to me.»

There is also a danger of overexposure of these kinds of images through the media, that the spectator becomes blasé or immune. Was this something you were conscious of?

«Absolutely. It was hard for me to tell the migrants’ stories because I did not have the same individual access to them. Only once in the film, through a Nigerian song, is the journey he has undertaken told. There is an epic moment, where the entire tragic voyage is summarised in three minutes and we are, in a way, witnessing something momentous,» states the filmmaker.

«I am concerned with looking behind the figures and wanted to show that these are people, not just statistics. Behind every number is an individual, a human tragedy. In a way, the whole film is slowly building up to being able to show the images towards the end, where several dead bodies are carried out of a boat. I wanted to portray this with dignity, so they can be grieved. Simultaneously, this is a picture of the tragedy happening right now.»

To what degree do you believe films like this can help improve the situation?

«I only wish to increase people’s awareness with my film and harbour no illusions that it can change history. But, if only some of the people who watch my film, ask what they themselves can do about this, then I have achieved what I set out to do.» says Rosi, and emphasises the reality of finding political solutions for the problems he depicts.

«In Libya, some 300, 000 people are trying to flee war, hunger, and other emergencies caused by us. The only thing we can do, is to create humanitarian bridges for these people. We are all responsible, and it is murder to allow them to cross the sea. We can no longer say that we are not aware of this.»