Marking the second time in the past year that I have seen a Lampedusa-based documentary at a film festival (the first was Shipwrecked), the subject matter of Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocommare remains as gripping and affecting as ever. The small Italian island lies only 113 kilometres from Tunisia and has become the contact point for African refugees seeking asylum in Europe via the most dangerous migration route on the planet. Rosi introduces his documentary with this information, as well as the numbers for the rising death toll (a staggering 15,000) before introducing us to an unlikely focal point in 12-year-old Samuele. Commentary free (barring a few discussions with an island doctor), Rosi’s documentary hypnotically contemplates the island and its varied inhabitants.
Much of Fuocoammare‘s 108-minute run time is spent in near silence watching serene moments with young Samuele or frenzied action out on the Mediterranean Sea. Serving as a major point of contention in Europe’s raging immigration debate, Lampedusa (as seen through Rosi’s lens) feels almost staggeringly normal. Like many small island nations, most inhabitants make a living from the sea, and their activities on the water are given equal time to that of the African refugees begging for safety and relatively normal lives. The constant proximity of this simple existence to some of the most harrowing human drama ever caught on film can be utterly crushing. As the documentary wears on, a bond with the endearing Samuele grows, yet in the blink of an eye, the sun-lit cliffs of beautiful Lampedusa are replaced by first-hand accounts of surviving months in Libyan prisons. We get lovingly-crafted homemade dinners and tales of people drinking their own urine to survive, an Italian DJ taking requests from his biggest fan/Aunt and the emergency-band cries of a scared mother pleading for her own life and those of 150 other terrified souls. The moment we become comfortable on one side of the drama or the other, Rosi forces us outside of that rest. This constant teetering supplants any possible numbness and becomes one of the film’s greatest successes.
Though separated by less than 100 miles of water, the lives of those lucky citizens of Lampedusa and those living in war-torn Africa are worlds apart. For the people unfortunate enough to have been born on one of the globe’s most impoverishes continents, an $800 boat ride seems like the chance of a lifetime to achieve a sense of peace. They don’t want lavish homes, revenge or to go on ideological crusades, they want to go spearfishing in the ocean, to play with their friends, and to eat peacefully in their homes unafraid of stray bullets or hoards of rebels. Fuocoammare is Gianfranco Rosi’s plea for Europe (and the rest of the civilized world) to hear the cries of these helpless people and to act instead of remaining quietly unaware.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.