One might be surprised that one of the most important documentaries of recent years about the world's refugee problem doesn't really offer much in the way of interviews by experts and talking heads spewing their passionate opinions on the subject. Thanks to the recent devastating war in Syria, we have been inundated recently with heartbreaking news about men, women, and children, civilians who are simply trying to run away from an increasingly dangerous life, dying and suffering along the way as they're packed into unsafe boats.
Gianfranco Rosi's beautiful, hypnotic, heartbreaking, and harrowing documentary Fire at Sea doesn't give us a cookie cutter take on the subject, complete with graphs, statistics, and interviews by experts. Apart from an opening text informing us that we're in the Italian island of Lampedusa, a strategic point for African refugees to find new life in Europe, we don't get any historical or statistical information about anything that we see. Rosi instead focuses his camera on his three main subjects, an Italian boy going through the growing pains of adolescence, a doctor who struggles to help every refugee he can, and is haunted by the nightmares of those he couldn't, and unflinchingly brutal and honest footage of rescue mission, wherein hundreds of emaciated refugees are pulled out of boats made for, at most, twenty people.
Rosi employs a somber, quiet, fly on the wall approach. While doing so, he expertly manages to stay away from obvious politics and shows us the true human cost of such tragedies. The languid pace, full of gorgeous static shots of the island, lulls us into a sense of security and peace, as we witness the slice of life troubles of the Italian boy as he gets used to his new glasses, deals with an unknown source of anxiety, etc… Then, we are immediately dragged back into the tragic yet inspiringly hopeful world of the refugees, reminding us constantly that the two events take place in the same area. This tragedy unfolds around us, and is much closer to us than we'd like to think it is.
It's hard to remove some of the striking images from the mind. A scene showing refugees singing about all of the hardships they encountered along the way, as Rosi sticks to extreme close-ups, as well as a sequence that shows the aforementioned doctor breaking down his nightmares, are worth more to strike empathy in the audience's hearts than hours of talking head interviews ever could. In a way, Rosi accomplishes the impossible, and presents a true human aspect to such an overtly politicized subject.
Thanks to the advancement of digital video technology, a lot of documentaries have the ability to sport incredibly impressive cinematography. Fire at Sea is a great example of this, a purely cinematic experience created out of slice of life footage. The 1080p transfer is incredibly clear and crisp, as it captures the beauty of the island, as well as the glumness of the refugee experience.
As the visuals give us an uncharacteristically cinematic experience for a documentary, the immersive sound presentation brings us back to reality in a way that put us directly into the scenes. The DTS-HD 5.1 track goes to great pains to take us into the middle of the rescue missions, with immersive panning on all channels. We also get a decent 2.0 track for use on TV speakers. However, I strongly recommend experiencing Fire at Sea on a surround system, regardless of the fact that it's a documentary.
Interview with Gianfranco Rosi: In this brief 5-minute piece, Rosi discusses his inspiration for the film.
Interview with Dr. Pietro Bartolo: Bartolo goes into great depth regarding his experiences with the refugees and his working style with Rosi in this 20-minute interview.
Q&A with Gianfranco Rosi: This 20-minute Q&A, conducted by Dennis Lim after a screening at the New York Film Festival, covers a lot of the information provided in the previous interviews.
We also get a Booklet with an essay by Alberto Zambenedetti.
Touchingly poignant and intimately honest, Fire at Sea is a must-see for anyone looking to put a human face on the refugee crisis, from all sides of the aisle. This brilliant Blu-ray presentation is the optimal way to experience this beautiful and haunting film.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com