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Gianfranco Rosi • Director

“Nothing can stop these people who are fleeing death”


- BERLIN 2016: Italian director Gianfranco Rosi discusses his new documentary about the migrants tragedy in Lampedusa, Fire at Sea, Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlinale

Gianfranco Rosi  • Director

Following the applause it garnered at the 66th Berlin Film Festival, where it was presented in competition, Fire at Sea [+see also:
film review
interview: Gianfranco Rosi
film profile
, the new, intense documentary by Gianfranco Rosi about the migrants tragedy in Lampedusa, hits Italian theatres on 18 February. The film, which was awarded a Special Silver Ribbon by the National Union of Italian Film Journalists for its display of a “cinema that reminds the world of its own responsibilities”, depicts the life of the inhabitants of Lampedusa – in particular that of a little boy, Samuele – and the lives of the migrants who wash ashore there in their thousands, like two parallel universes that never come into contact.

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Cineuropa: During the shoot, were you ever tempted to find a way to bring these two worlds together?
Gianfranco Rosi:
No, because I always film what happens in real life, and it would have been hypocritical to insert fake interactions into the film that didn’t really take place. One of the few moments when contact is made is when Samuele is drifting in his little boat and approaches the coastguard ships, but that was completely unplanned. All of the scenes in the film came into being a bit by chance really, as if by magic. Reality is always more exciting than things that are planned in advance.

When and how did you decide to balance the two aspects – that of the narrative and that of the lives of the Lampedusa residents?
During the edit, but while I was shooting, I always had three separate moments in mind. First of all, there is the story of the island, its empty space and the characters that I chose to accompany right from the start of this adventure. I wanted to portray the island as an independent element in itself, because that’s what it’s like – there’s a real division between the daily lives of the people and the world of the migrants. Then there’s the reception centre, which I had free access to. And then there were the landings, the trips on the Fulgosi ship, where I came across the tragedy. All in all, we filmed 80 hours of footage. When we started editing, I knew that the key ingredient was Samuele’s story, as with his “lazy eye”, he proved to be a metaphor for the lazy point of view of us westerners towards the migrants. Compared to my previous films, there’s a longer narrative arc here; we follow a character as he passes through various stages. And the changes in Samuele were also the changes in me, in the story of Lampedusa.

What was the main difference you found between how things are described in the newspapers and the reality in Lampedusa?
The media only turn up on the spot when there’s a tragedy in progress. But when I arrived, between October and November 2014, there was a feeling of absence because the centre was shut for improvement works; there wasn’t that invasion of migrants that is talked about so often, and that enabled me to engage with the islanders. It must be said that over the years, the procedures for the landings have changed a lot. At one point, before operations Mare Nostrum, Frontex and Triton, the boats used to arrive directly onto the island. Now that the border has been moved, the boats are usually intercepted on the open sea. In this way, a new phase has started for Lampedusa: a certain distance has been created between the islanders and the migrants. There’s the docking on the quay, the reception, the coach that takes them to the centre; there’s no interaction with the inhabitants.

In the reception centre, at one point we see a migrant saying a sort of prayer, and thanks to this scene, for the first time in the film we hear the voice and learn of the odyssey undertaken by these people. How did that moment come about?
I had the good fortune to bump into these Nigerians, and they opened up to me and let me into their room. There was a sort of gospel music playing in the background, and then each of them told me something about the journey; more than a prayer, it was an appreciation of having arrived in Lampedusa. Once I had managed to film that moment, I couldn’t add anything else to it, because that story said it all.

The film does not shy away from very raw imagery. What struck you the most when you found yourself face to face with that?
When I arrived with the boat on what seemed like one of the many transhipments – I followed so many; I was at sea for more than 40 days – the thing that really struck me was seeing those bodies so close to death there in front of me, the sound of their breathing. When the tragedy was revealed to me in the cargo hold, I felt a duty to go in and record it, but it wasn’t an easy decision. After that moment, I decided that the film had to be wrapped and edited with whatever I had by that point. I didn’t have the strength to go on filming.

What do you think about the closure of the borders?
I think it’s dreadful. But what scares me the most is the closing of minds, and I get that impression a lot from people. Tearing down the idea of Schengen is an appalling thing, also because nothing can stop these people who are fleeing death. I asked the group of Nigerians what drove them to set sail, and I said to them, “You might die”… And they replied that the key was in that “might”: in the place they left from, on the other hand, death was guaranteed.

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(Translated from Italian)

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