I had the chance to see “Fire at Sea” or Fuocoammare (Italian title), a documentary film by Gianfranco Rosi, at the New York Film Festival. While a part of me was and remains wary about how people have tried to cover the migrant crisis (thermal images, anyone?), the long process of making the film and the early reviews seemed to indicate that it was less about sensationalizing the tragedy and a little more probing about that boundary between the societies that receive and host migrants and the migrants that are searching so desperately for an opportunity to survive. This is a piece I wrote for The New Republic.
Oct. 31, 2016 “The Migrant Crisis as an “Echo From The News”
‘Fire at Sea’ documents what happens when refugees are completely removed from the fabric of daily life.
Last week, the world watched as French authorities dismantled the 6,000-person refugee settlement in the port city of Calais nicknamed “The Jungle,” one of the most visible reminders of the massive refugee influx into Europe. As migrants boarded buses out of the encampment and crews with sledgehammers began the demolition, the camp itself began to resemble a war-torn landscape, a desolate and smoking stretch of rubble where intermittent fires broke out. Those who agreed to leave on the buses were, at least for the time being, forced to surrender their dream of passage into the United Kingdom, submitting to the possibility of asylum in France instead.
Beyond Calais, a handful of other highly visible flashpoints of migrant arrival have drawn widespread media attention. The Greek island of Lesbos, situated only 4.1 miles from the coast of Turkey, is one of them. Since 2015, over 600,000 migrants have taken the sea route from Turkey to the island in the hope of receiving asylum in Europe.
Off the Mediterranean coast, another small island has quietly confronted a steady flow of migration from north Africa and the Middle East, but over a much longer period. For over two decades, over 400,000 people have made their way from northern Africa to Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa. This island of fisherman is closer to some parts of the north African coast than it is to Sicily, and smugglers in Libya have sent an increasing number of rubber dinghies dangerously packed with migrants to make the crossing. While the rest of the world may not know much about Lampedusa, in Italy, the island is associated with the refugee crisis and with tragedy, especially in 2013, when a boat of 500 migrants capsized off the coast and over 360 passengers drowned.
Fire at Sea, a new documentary by Gianfranco Rosi, turns a spotlight on Lampedusa after that tragedy, when the Italian government began to devote serious resources to the prevention of such catastrophe. Before making the film, Rosi spent several months on the island without a camera to immerse himself in its daily rhythms. One thing he heard, Rosi said, was that on an island of fisherman, people “always welcome whatever comes from the sea.” But in his film, no crowds of locals can be seen swarming the new refugee arrivals with blankets and first aid, as they do in Lesbos.
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