High Tide: Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea (2016) – DVD review
An outstanding example of Slow Documentary, which faces the complex horror of the migrant crisis with an unblinking, calm but incandescent stare.
Fire At Sea
(Gianfranco Rosi, 2016)
Slow Cinema is the term used for a kind of art-house cinema where directors encourage us to adapt to a more glacial pace, all the better for watching the world with close attention. But there’s also a kind of Slow Documentary: the likes of La Quattro Volte and Two Years At Sea have achieved the same kind of calm observation with real-life situations. But the genre’s master is Gianfranco Rosi, who follows his Venice prize-winner Sacro GRA with Berlin prize-winner Fire At Sea, making him the century’s most-garlanded festival favourite next to Michael Haneke.
On this evidence, it’s well-deserved. If the social comment in the earlier film’s portrait of life around the edges of Rome was flecked with a wry aburdism, this time the subject hits altogether harder. Rosi shows life on the island of Lampedusa, inadvertent weigh station in the journey of thousands of migrants from Africa, and a sleepy bastion of survival for those making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
It’d be very easy for Rosi to sound the claxon, with earnest narration and emotive music – but that’s not the way of Slow Documentary. Instead, the situation washes over you as gradually but inexorably as the sea itself, in waves of sadness, angry and numb terror. The imagery itself is enough to convey multitudes, especially in the continually surprising ways that Rosi shapes his material. Faced with a choice – follow the rescue efforts? or look at how the locals are dealing with this crisis? – Rosi boldly opts to show the whole picture.
Much of the focus is on Samuele, a young local boy set to follow in his family’s fishing trade, but for now struggling to deal with seasickness and a lazy eye. Mostly, he wants to practice his favourite hobby of playing war with a homemade slingshot. Stories of life on the sea are an exotic mystery, to file alongside his grandmother’s memories of wartime, when nighttime navy boats caused the sea to catch fire – incidentally, Fire At Sea is a traditional Sicilian tune played by the local DJ.
Rosi builds up the irony in increments, until you realise how starkly exposed the situation is. This is a culture in denial, going about its business even as the news reports the latest fatalities and fishing boats bump against patrol vessels in the dock. For at night, a war is still being fought – to protect the thousands in deadly danger, who have escaped the conflicts that Samuele daydreams about. Rosi’s compositions are like sci-fi, with helicopters framed against the dawn sky as if this was a Ridley Scott film, while the survivors are wrapped in shiny heat blankets as masked, hazmat-suited officials march them about.
There’s a sudden, savage inversion. Despite not being interviewed, the nameless throngs of people, mere statistics on the news, regain their humanity, faces bearing the trauma of their plight but the hope of something better through defiant songs or jubilant games of football. Meanwhile, it’s the rescuers who become anonymous, and somehow callous despite the dedicated rescue work they’re doing. The rescuers remark with distaste about survivors whose clothes reek of diesel fuel… but then a local doctor – in the film’s only moment of conventional interviewing – explains the awful truth of what that fuel does to people.
The doctor is the film’s moral arbiter: his duty to tend to the sick, whoever they are. We see him with Samuele, patiently tending to what appears to be nothing more than hypochrondria – but then he fights tears as he discusses the necessity of post-mortems on those who haven’t survived the journey from Africa, “one more affront to the dead.” Rosi’s film is an atonement to those affronts. As philosophically nuanced as it is politically barbed, it forces us to confront the unimaginable and makes it our duty not to turn our heads away.