Yesterday evening, I joined the screening of Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) by Gianfranco Rosi at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. I had wanted to watch this documentary ever since its release, as my own research is exactly on the topic Rosi has decided to engage with in this multi-award winning documentary; in other words, the issue of migration on the island of Lampedusa, where the director spent more than one year.
I am afraid that what you are going to read here does not match the praising reviews that have been written recently on this documentary all over the world (such as the one written by Peter Bradshaw for the Guardian two days ago).
Rosi says he made a documentary not a film...and I have a problem with that! Here we go.
In my research, I look for examples of counter representations of migrants and refugees in the so-called 'crisis' where they are NOT depicted as mere masses of nameless bodies and mysterious victims - as we have become accustomed in treatments in the contemporary media - but where they actually take the word, tell their story, engage with the causes of their desperate passage of the Sicilian channel, and talk back to the European border policy that forces them to undertake these unsafe journeys. I am afraid Fuocoammare does nothing like this. It is, in fact, a missed chance! What Rosi tells us, through an undoubtedly well-shot film with beautiful cinematography, does not add anything to what we already know about the current 'crisis' through the news media. And certainly, it does not raise awareness, as Rosi stated in the Q&A after the screening.
The film mainly revolves around the figure of a little boy who is depicted according to a series of stereotypical gestures and practices that after a while become unbearable. Samuele, this is the name of the boy, apparently spends all his time playing with his handmade slingshot in the wildest part of the island, where, to be honest, I have never seen kids playing, especially not at night, but he might have been luckier than me! We learn a lot about Samuele through long and slow scenes that you desperately and unsuccessfully try to connect to the other main narrative of migration. He has a lazy eye that the doctor treats with special glasses, he is very interested in listening to the stories of fishing from his uncle and grandmother and he spends his time, when not in school, hunting birds with his slingshot (he ends up chatting with one by whistling: probably the most surreal scene of this film!). Now I want to reassure the reader who knows nothing about Lampedusa that kids there have TV and play video games as well!
This poetic and romanticised representation of the island through the story of Samuele is alternated with scenes of rescue of migrants at sea through the military apparatus, where what we see is not very different from what we have seen many times on TV, while sitting comfortably in our sofas. What differs is the proximity: we see the migrants - still as a mass - very closely, we can even hear their voices, their singing and their desperation is so tangible that you are compelled to cry (well I didn't cry of course, I am used to these strategies of pity that just give you the impression that you are participating in the suffering, albeit at distance). Despite the fact that we are all anesthetized to these kinds of iconic images by now, the film drags you to compassion and pity through a spectacle of suffering that breaks your heart. Luckily there is Samuele who promptly arrives to cheer you up with some funny behaviour such as slurping his pasta at dinner next to his uncle and grandmother, who do not react to his bad manners. I want to reassure the reader again that even in Lampedusa kids would be scolded if they do not show good manners, especially at the table!
The film relies heavily on the spectacularisation of suffering together with the sensationalism of the rescue operations carried out by a military apparatus that appears in all its gloriousness and majesty in order to cope with the 'massive' invasion of people they need to rescue, while still protecting the borders from their arrival. Military figures are of course wrapped in white hazmat suits, there is not a corner of their body that can be 'contaminated'. Migrants in the film are named through numbers, checked for scabies and, unfortunately for the rescuers, almost all of them are soaked with gasoline that passes through the protective suits they are wearing. Rosi even accesses the 'detention' centre where migrants are 'stored' for an undetermined period in Lampedusa before being sent to other centres in Italy. Not many people have access to this very controversial space that has been under lots of criticism for the poor conditions in which migrants are kept. Don't worry, Rosi does not show any of these unpleasant images! Rosi's visit to the centre only produces a beautifully shot scene of a football match in the darkness as to suggest that despite their trauma, the migrants still have joy and love life. What a reassurance!
Other topical moments in this film are the scenes showing another main character, Bartolo the doctor, who seems in charge of absolutely everyone's health on the island: visiting migrant pregnant women, carrying out autopsies on migrant wretched corpses and even checking Samuele's health when he goes with concerns about his hyperventilation and anxiety. Now, again, I want to reassure the reader that in Lampedusa there is more than one doctor!
Bartolo is probably the figure whom Rosi confides in in order to create a link between the humble story of the Lampedusan inhabitants and the 'tragedy' of the migrants. Otherwise I cannot see any other ‘meaningful’ link.
Now why am I so hard on Rosi's film? Well I think as an intellectual who decides to engage with a pressing issue such as the Lampedusa and migration one, you cannot limit yourself to producing a poetic and sentimental film that asks the viewer to 'stay human'. This is NOT what we need, not anymore! We have had enough of sentimentalism and the humanitarian approach is not helping us understanding the real implications of this cruel and complicated story where we are all involved. We need to dismantle the paradox of a militarised/humanitarian travesty that has chosen Lampedusa as its ideal stage of a made up crisis. Why are these people escaping? why are we not making their passage safe, while at the same time spending millions in order to rescue them from the perils of this very passage? Why not showing Lampedusa for what it is: the centre of a border spectacle about which the inhabitants are very aware; people who are resisting the travesty, who are concerned and reject the growing militarisation of their land, people who are tired of the politicians and celebrities parading on the island, inhabitants who do not want a Nobel prize for peace. Lampedusans want instead the EU to come to terms with its responsibility about a crisis that it has fabricated and to let the island deal with its old problems: lack of a proper hospital and playgrounds, run-down schools, disappearance of fishing etc.
In his film, Rosi shows migrants’ corpses (lots!) through long shots that are probably meant to beautify death, but how is this raising awareness? If, as a filmmaker, you show corpses of people who cannot consent to your act of spectacularisation of his/her suffering, then you have the duty to engage with the reasons for his/her very suffering, rather than spending more than half of film’s running time to show a completely unrelated story of a child and his family, whose characters are mere caricatures that satisfy the anthropological expectation of the audience (especially an international one) who want to look at a ‘Sicilian’ story! (I am Sicilian myself, this is probably why I felt particularly annoyed by this insistence).
At the Q&A after the screening I asked Rosi why he did not engage with the paradox of the border spectacle happening on the island and after labelling my intervention as too political and ideological, he said that with this film he did not want to do propaganda only raise questions, and he added that if I wanted to see a political documentary I should watch Michael Moore’s works. But Rosi, there is no way you can make a DOCUMENTARY about Lampedusa without being political and without engaging with uncomfortable issues, otherwise you make a film (like Crialese did with Terraferma) which is what Fuocoammare essentially is!
Lampedusa is much more that what Rosi has shown (or actually has NOT shown) in Fuocoammare. Too bad he did not challenge the spectacle especially since so many people on the island itself do so on a daily basis (see for instance what the local collective Askavusa does in this regard and read their review of Rosi’s film); too bad he did not show Lampedusa as the vibrant place it is in the name of an act of aeasthetisation that preserves the idea of an uncontaminated beauty of a far away picturesque island, a beauty that unfortunately is nowadays heavily endangered by the presence of military radars that are there to, presumably, protect us from the invaders, the same we need to feel pity about because after all…we need to stay human!