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What It’s Like to Be a 13-Year-Old in the Eye of the Refugee Crisis

The awarding-winning documentary 'Fire at Sea' is a harrowing and personal look at the migrant crisis on a tiny island near Italy.
All images courtesy of Kino Lorber

This piece originally appeared on VICE US

When the documentary Fire at Sea won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin Film Festival back in February, jury president Meryl Streep called the documentary, "urgent, imaginative, and necessary filmmaking."

Director Gianfranco Rosi tells a personal story of the migrant crisis engulfing Italy as north Africans and others flee wars and strife by jumping en masse onto small rubber boats with the hopes of reaching the mainland to improve their lives. By choosing images that evoke the joy of life rather than the hardships, Rosi packs an unexpected emotional punch.


The 50-something Eritrean native's primary focus is Samuele, a 13-year-old local boy with a lazy eye as he goes about life on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. We see him play fantasy war games, and we learn of his dreams to grow up and become a fisherman just like his Sicilian uncle. He also visits a doctor for treatment on his lazy eye. This doctor is one of the few locals on the island who has any interaction with the huge number of migrants passing through after risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. The lazy eye becomes a metaphor for Europe's treatment of these homeless migrants as Rosi lyrically places scenes of the islanders' placid everyday lives against the momentous struggle of the migrants crossing the sea.

With this film, and his 2013 Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival for Sacra GRA, Rosi has established himself as one of the world's great observational documentarians. We caught up with the gregarious, sociable director to chat migrants, bodily metaphors, and the duty to film and share with the world.

VICE: How did you get the islanders to trust you to tell their story?
Gianfranco Rosi: For me, it's important to be in a place without a camera first. I was on the island for three months before I took the camera out.

There is a colonial link between Italy and Africa—Italy colonized Ethiopia when it was called Abyssinia. When and why did this link between Italy and Africa disappear?
[Between Italy and Ethiopia,] there was very little trade or exchange. But there were many people from Ethiopia and Eritrea who came to Italy to live there. What makes me—I cannot say upset—but surprised is that Italy is not a place that can create integration. We now have the third or fourth generation of these immigrants from Eritrea living in Italy and they did not become part of the social and economic fabric of the country as happened in France and Britain.


Why do you think that is?
When you live in New York, you don't have to integrate. There is a transcultural aspect, which is universal. But somehow in Italy it is a very conservative place where it's somehow very difficult to climb the social ladder and it is a very nepotistic society. It's not a meritocratic system. If your father is a doctor, you have to be a doctor, and if your father is a banker, you have to be a banker, and if your father is a filmmaker, you have to be a filmmaker. So, it's a very structured society, with a very stagnant system that doesn't allow shifting.

What is unique about your film is that in the moments that we see a little boy, we forget about the African migrants. Somehow that feels more true to the experience of life in the West.
Yes, absolutely. Lampedusa—this little island—is a metaphor of Europe. It's very important to understand that three years ago, [the Italian search-and-rescue operation] Mare Nostrum was created. Mare Nostrum saw the moving of the border from Lampedusa into the middle of the sea. Before, people would arrive in Lampedusa straight from Libya or Tunisia, so there was an interaction between the migrants and the islanders. The migrants were there for a few days and then they leave. Since Mare Nostrum, boats have been intercepting the migrants in the middle of the sea.

It has created a hypothetical border, [which] is moving, more and more, towards Libya. Before Mare Nostrum, there were more interactions between the islander and the migrants, because the migrants would land directly on the island and there would be an interaction. Now it is all organized and institutionalized. The migrants are taken on boats, they come into the port and then they are taken to the center, they stay two or three days there, get identified, and then they leave for the mainland.


But Mare Nostrum and Frontex, which superseded it, have been reported as saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Isn't that a good thing?
Since Mare Nostrum and especially now with Frontex, there are many more people leaving, but they are leaving in much worse conditions. Now they are being put into rubber boats, or these boats are completely packed full of people, like the boat you see in the movie, with three times the number of people that the boat was designed to hold aboard. Also the level of criminality is much higher. The business became much harsher. Before, the people used to buy their own boats and leave. Now it's only in the hands of the criminals, of the human traffickers, like the situation in Turkey. So yes, there are more people saved, but also more people dying, because they leave in worse conditions now.

So you're saying that the policy means that human traffickers have more power and the journey of the migrants has become much more precarious?
The traffickers say to the migrants, "Go into these boats and you'll be saved." Some are beaten up and put onto the boat. Like in my film, the man with blood-red eyes, the people were forced to go down into the hull of the boat, where it's packed with 300 people and they all suffocate. There is no air down there, it's hot, and there is engine fuel. So they die, like they are in a gas chamber.

Because Samuele is a young Sicilian with a lazy eye, his ailment and his behavior seem to become a metaphor for how Europe treat migrants. Was this your intention?
[His] eyes become this inflammatory metaphor. I don't know why, but it does somehow show the state of the emotional reaction towards migrants, something that goes beyond Lampedusa. The first three months I only shot with him and I never shot with the refugees because in that period the refugee center was burned. This allowed me to go deeper with the islanders.

Did you ever struggle to hold the camera to the refugees? Did you feel like you were ever exploiting them for your art?
I spent 40 days filming people arriving and then death came to me. When I was filming, I was completely in that moment and I then see a body and I don't know what to do. I'm agonizing. If you see that moment in the film, the camera goes high and then low, as I'm not sure whether to film. It was the captain of the boat who asked me to film that and I said, "I cannot do that," and he said, "You have to do that because the world has to know this."

Did you ever feel while making a film that you should have put the camera down and help?
Of course. But help? No, because that would be stupid. There are people there who know how to do that job and I would probably fall into the water and I don't think that is helping. The only way for me to help in that situation, and it was very hard, was to film because the camera has such a power in front of such weakness, where the people cannot even say, "Don't film me." So it was my duty to film.

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Find screenings of Fire at Sea.