— by Andrea Avidad and Sumita Chakravarty
“The reaction of which man has been dispossessed can be replaced only by belief. Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must film, not the world, but belief in the world –this is the power of the modern cinema” – Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I
The protagonist of Fire at Sea is a young boy, Samuele, with a passion for slingshots and a boundless sense of adventure and curiosity. Part Huck Finn, part Ariel, he moves through what seems like an enchanted island, his presence at once intersecting with, and distant from, the adult members of the place. The island is Lampedusa, situated off the coast of mainland Italy, that has been much in the news lately as the place where migrant boats arrive, seemingly on a daily basis. The film documents the impact of the arrivals (and the migrant deaths of those who are unable to survive the dangerous trip) in a manner at once stark and gentle, harsh and benign. The filmmaker, Gianfranco Rosi, sets himself the impossible task of conveying normalcy and routinized existence under conditions of extreme stress and upheaval. The result is a blend of beauty and agony that is quite unprecedented.
As the title suggests, the Mediterranean is a significant presence in this film, both physically and symbolically. Yet, as in so much else, meanings are fluid and always in the process of becoming: Fire at Sea, for instance, is the name of a song from World War II, when the Sea was aflame with burning ships. It is a piece of information quite matter-of-factly passed on to Samuele by his grandmother in one of the domestic scenes of the film. Agility is also demanded of the viewer, as shifts between different points of view bring into contiguity the worlds of the native and the foreign. As the quintessential insider/native, Samuele connects for us the natural and human worlds, adults and peers, work and play. Blissfully oblivious of the tensions at sea, he roams the island by day or night, looking for the perfect piece of wood to build his slingshot, learning to pronounce some English words in school, going to the doctor’s to cure his lazy eye, getting lessons on how to row a boat, slurping spaghetti at dinner, and making friends with a bird in the closing shots of the film. Through him we ponder relations of affinity — between a place and a people, between a community and its “guests,” between historical memory and the forces of change. But what are the strategies that can bring about an awareness of affinity?
Within Western economies of knowledge, seeing possesses a privileged position in epistemic awareness. Rendering straight relations between its formality and its content, an image that is crystal-clear open to the sight, formally discloses and affirms a crystal-clear certainty; a world that appears in all its nakedness is a world that has been digested as it has been previously seen, and consequently, accustomed representability portrays it as it itself appears. This is the image of the recognizable, of the bare, of the real as already known. A settled version of a world and its correspondent images: intelligible in its representation as clear for the gaze. Such image embodies in itself the definitive quality of the known. And the known feels domestic, stable and continuous.
By contrast, in such a system of visibility’s significance, an image whose opaqueness irremediably shelters itself in its own abstraction from the one who sees, is an image that indexes indeterminacy by momentarily suspending the predetermined. But by denying to show and exposing as such, it becomes a unit of significance whose latent potentiality is that of triggering unseen forms of seeing, of generating new forms of recognizing and thus comprehending a malleable world.
Rosi’s documentary artfully explores and posits a language of aesthetic strategies to knot a multiplicity of disjointed events taking place both at the edges and at the heart of Lampedusa. Rosi’s film is an unobtrusive piece that articulates the complexity of different temporalities coming together in the same spatial ground: the timelessness present of the Italian tradition –mostly shot inland– and the refugees’ historical present permanently exceeding itself that brutally takes place at uncertain, open sea. The documentary does not fall into stereotypical formulas of depicting an object of tragedy while positing a political discourse with a pre-made solution; it does not follow the “requirements” of the genre. No voice-over, no talking heads, no instructive music, no overpowering dialogue. Instead, Rosi frames impressionistic images that feel both earthly and surreal whose effect is that of touching lost sensibilities in an audience that has become desensitized to the issue of fading life.
Fire at Sea sharply crosscuts between clear, sunlit filled shots of Samuele whose uninterrupted homely routines describe a European bygone era that has expanded itself to the current moment and dark, neon color-filled shots of migrants for whom Lampedusa is their sole possibility of life. Rosi visually discloses such contrasting states of humanity – the quality of inherited Mediterranean everydayness versus the unattainability of the biggest migration crisis of the 21st century – by juxtaposing highly differentiated imagery: while the tranquil, conventional coastal life of the European subject is framed with no visual artifices following a crystal-clear naturalistic style, the depiction of the displaced people displays a more intricate visual approach. In the latter, the highly graphic oriented, visually rich yet opaque shots function as a semiotic technique that inextricably conveys the current fluctuation of the object-problem: life intermingled with death in sub and meta – human conditions. By optically overshadowing figures of migrants, the filmmaker relays the actual existential overshadowing of such lives, which are not only politically fractured and socially forgotten, but essentially deprived of their humaneness. So, Rosi dexterously generates expressive imagery whose significance refers as much to something outside itself – conditions in the real world– as to just itself in a pure open possibility of meaning.
Fire at Sea’s camera relies on an anatomy of detail: scenes threading the endless transitory state of a ravaging, awry Odyssey achieve a powerful effect through the emphasis of certain elements such as golden emergency thermal blankets which serve as visual symbols of the critical circumstantial modes. An unstoppable permeating state demands something more than pre-determined ways of understanding and consequently, of framing. The cinematography cunningly recourses to the type of object which naturally belongs to the described subject-matter in order to create an exquisite, refined cinematic construction that investigates visual approaches based on the text itself. Migrants are shot on rescue boats in tight close-ups under such blankets providing a contemplative vision that feels as a reverie within a nightmare. Similarly, night shots depicting political technologies of refugees’ rescuing and inshore receiving, accentuate the glimmering of the rescue blankets begetting an eerie effect. Thus, Rosi formulates a symbolism going from micro-detailing to macro meanings.
Film’s methodology contemplates a deconstruction of those foreign temporalities and realities at Lampedusa and its surrounding waters in order to ensemble the multiple lines of action developing in such spatial coordinates. By interweaving such multiplicity of happenings Rosi is able to achieve a better delineation of the parallelism between an existing in-ground familiarity to reality and a new writing about life as an excessive break of the stable. The filmmaker produces an abstract form of neorealism that aims to depict an encounter between events that exceed established representative capacities and that seek no lecturing but amplifying text, context and contingency.