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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.

Kino Lorber

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. 4.1 Miles, a short documentary by Daphne Matziaraki recently featured in The New York Times, follows a single day in the life of a Coast Guard captain on Lesbos. In the film, he is repeatedly called to locate and rescue sinking migrant boats and passengers at risk of drowning. “Every hour that goes by, ten of us are asked to rescue an influx of 200 people,” he says. Matziaraki captures the chaos and drama of each rescue, as the camera lurches with the waves and the shuddering arrival of each rescued migrant dragged on board the Coast Guard ship. Once on shore, more chaos awaits, as a crowd of volunteers and professionals try to revive the unconscious and aid those in critical condition. At the end of the film, the camera zooms in on the captain writing down the day’s events in the ship’s log, tabulating the lives saved and lost. Matziaraki’s film contains an urgent warning; that those who are bearing the brunt of the responsibility for the humanitarian crisis are reaching a breaking point, unless they receive more support.

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.

Instead, Rosi follows a 12-year old named Samuele Puccillo as he works on his slingshot aim and grapples with his homework—the quotidian activities of any boy’s life—oblivious to the rubber dinghy packed with 250 migrants that has just capsized off the coast. It is the same for nearly everyone in the young boy’s orbit—his father steers a fishing boat over choppy waters, his grandmother cooks her son’s fresh catch for dinner, and they both urge Samuele, who hates the sea, to build up his sea legs and get ready to follow in his father’s footsteps. As Rosi intersperses these domestic scenes with distress calls from migrant boats and the Italian Coast Guard’s rescue efforts around the clock, we keep waiting for an interruption that never comes.

Instead of Lampedusa residents, the migrants are greeted by faceless figures in white Hazmat suits and gloves who silently pat and prod them through a series of bureaucratic procedures. The migrants themselves are obscured by the metallic space blankets handed to them, which give them the appearance of iridescent, otherworldly beings as they are funneled from one processing point to the next. We are only privy to whatever information the intake process requires, involving the sparest of details—eye color, hair color, country of origin—with the exception of one extended scene, in which a Nigerian refugee recounts his harrowing journey in a moving soliloquy that is half-rap, half gospel song. Even on land, the migrants are largely left alone in each others’ company, before being sent to temporary housing and holding centers across the rest of Italy after just a couple of days on the island.

The mystery of this parallel existence is the slow reveal at the heart of Rosi’s film. The paradox of Lampedusa, he has said, is that on an island that is barely eight square miles, its residents only experience the refugee crisis as “an echo from the news.” Indeed, in one of the film’s early sequences, we segue from the local radio station to the kitchen of Samuele’s grandmother as the DJ announces that a boat with 250 passengers has sunk without a single survivor. “Poor souls,” tsks the elderly woman as she cuts tomatoes. But neither she nor any other resident has anything more to do or say about the sinking. Life goes on.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the rescue efforts on Lampedusa were placed under military command in 2014 and the sea patrol line moved closer to Libya, migrant boats landed directly on Lampedusa’s shores, where residents would aid them. Now that the rescue has become institutionalized, that link has been cut.

In his film, Rosi chooses to show the rescue crews as anonymous figures, and casts the military ships and helicopters in silhouette, without a trace of national insignia. Neither the rescuers nor the country funding their efforts are portrayed heroically; sometimes the vessels and uniformed personnel even appear ominous and foreboding. But the film’s open-ended ambiguity can serve many purposes. Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi brought 27 DVDs of the film to hand out to fellow European heads of state at an EU summit, in order to underscore the point that Italy could not continue this effort alone.

Fire at Sea doesn’t condemn the streamlined system that processes migrants on Lampedusa, but it does leave viewers with a conundrum: What is lost when governments begin to manage humanitarian operations so efficiently? What happens to the broader understanding of the refugee crisis when migrants are so thoroughly removed from the public eye? In Fire at Sea, we can see that this approach has translated into a sort of banal obliviousness among Lampedusa locals, an absence of connection that is neither ill-intentioned nor malign, but is felt sharply nonetheless.

But the film also hints at the possibility that the locals are not completely insulated from the crisis. When Samuele goes to the doctor because he has trouble breathing, the official diagnosis is that this symptom is anxiety-related, nothing more. His disappointment is palpable. Isn’t there something seriously wrong with him? This scene echoes another doctor visit in the film, but in this case, the doctor runs an ultrasound scan on a rescued migrant woman pregnant with twins. As he searches for the second twin’s heartbeat, he determines that the refugee mother and her unborn children still bear the effects of their traumatic journey in their bodies. He tries to sound optimistic about their prognosis and recovery, but this scene contrasts starkly with the one involving Samuele’s imagined illness. But the film’s attitude towards Samuele’s anxiety is compassionate nonetheless. It suggests that perhaps the central tension of the island is not entirely forgotten, but manifests itself in an undercurrent of malaise.

Since the tremendous refugee influx into Europe last year, a field of documentary projects has emerged to counter the hostility and xenophobic sentiment that has greeted the newcomers. Most focus on humanizing refugees and questioning the response, or lack thereof, of the host nations who receive them. In VICE’s “Europe or Die” documentary series, the figure of the intrepid journalist stalks through camps to interview Syrian families waiting for a boat to Greece and interrogates smugglers who freely admit that they are only concerned about their profits when they sell passage on flimsy rubber dinghies. The facts and stories fly by fast and heavy, determined to shock and outrage. In “Exodus: Our Journey to Europe,” a BBC film series that features footage shot by refugees themselves, the films delve into first-person accounts of children and adults fleeing war and persecution, who unflinchingly share every moment of their treacherous journeys, from their negotiations with smugglers to the long wait for a boat to their near-death crossings made across the sea.

While the overall approach of these documentaries is intended to be expository, the aesthetics of the films reflect a mood of emergency and crisis: rough camerawork, a shaky hand-held focus, scenes that are dimly lit and heighten the dangerous conditions they are shot in, including the risk to those holding the cameras themselves. These choices attempt to bring the viewer closer to the refugee’s point of view, to elicit sympathy for the perilous choices they have no choice but to make.

In contrast, Rosi’s film holds a mirror up to Europe and the world at large without much noise or editorializing. Rather than zero in on the humanity and suffering of migrants, the rapaciousness of the human smugglers who exploit them, or even the rightwing rhetoric that keeps many European countries in a deadlock over immigration policy, his film is full of silences and shot with a steady, careful hand. This highlights the intensely introspective world of Samuele and other Lampedusa residents, and emphasizes how deep and impenetrable that state of insularity has become. It also makes the final scene of the film, where the camera silently pans over the entangled bodies of more than fifty dead migrants below the hull of a boat, all the more devastating. Somehow the truth of this portrayal and its human cost stings more than if he had made a bombastic portrait of one-dimensional heroes and villains.

As the rest of Europe grapples with the scale of the refugee inflow entering their borders, Rosi’s film shows a model of migrant reception that is a far cry from the Calais-like tent cities and the ad-hoc medical clinics on the shores of Lesbos. In Lampedusa, at least from the outside, it seems to be all figured out. Is this the future of the refugee welcome for other countries in Europe, as time passes and procedures get set in place? Will the other ports of migrant entry aim for this level of bureaucratic normalization and efficiency? At the present, it is hard to say with any certainty that any such standardization will take place. Many European nations, like Austria and Hungary, have staunchly refused to allow for legal and safe measures for migrant entry along their borders, while other nations like Germany are often credited with providing stable housing and integration services to those migrants who are successfully able to enter. While the Italian media and government are comparatively more sympathetic to the humanitarian plight of migrants, the country has a flagging economy and little of the infrastructure in place to employ and adequately house migrants settled across the country. This wide variation in resources and approaches across Europe, rather than anything resembling a comprehensive, EU-wide policy on refugees and asylum, seems to point to a future where refugee hotspots, like Lesbos and Lampedusa, will continue to struggle with the limited resources of their national governments for some time to come.

When the finished film was screened in Lampedusa’s main square, Rosi told the Guardian that many of the island’s residents had cried. They told him they hadn’t known. But now that they know, what can they do? It is unclear whether the residents will be able to plug into any part of the intake process that the Italian government has established on Lampedusa. But perhaps Rosi’s film points to the possibility of a middle way, between Calais and Lampedusa, where civilians are meaningfully included in the process of welcoming and receiving refugees alongside the official channels provided by the state.