Eritrean-Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi shot his fifth documentary, Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), with such care that it often feels more like a narrative feature than a nonfiction film (Rosi also served as cinematographer and sound man). Then again, there's something alien and strange about the rocky terrain of Lampedusa, an Italian island 70 kilometers from the African coast that has admitted more than 400,000 refugees. Like the Cuban exiles who have sunk beneath the waves while rafting toward the American dream, 15,000 refugees have perished over 20 years while attempting to cross the Strait of Sicily.
Other than a few opening intertitles, Rosi eschews narration, focusing instead on ordinary Lampedusans engaging in their daily activities: an elderly woman doing chores around her idol-filled home, a disc jockey playing soothing songs for his hardworking audience, a doctor running a scan on a pregnant woman, and a little boy whittling a stick. While they go about their business, the soundtrack gives away to distress calls from refugees fleeing Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Syria.
Rosi gradually narrows his gaze to 12-year-old Samuele, the whittling boy. He's a bright, energetic child with a lazy eye who slurps spaghetti, imitates bird calls, and constructs slingshots to torture innocent cacti. Rosi juxtaposes his mostly daytime perambulations with the mostly nighttime rigors of refugees entering the continent by boat. In one sequence, rescue workers give the new arrivals gold Mylar blankets. As they wait for processing, they glimmer and sparkle in the evening light. It's a lovely image followed in a later sequence by limp, dazed refugees suffering from dehydration. Worse yet: body bags wrapped in twine.
The message is clear: Water gives life and takes it away. It helps a 6,000-person fishing community to put food on the table, it provides the possibility of a better future for migrants fleeing war and dictatorial rule, and it kills thousands of others who will never know the freedom that Samuele enjoys. As one Nigerian refugee puts it, "It is risky in life not to take a risk, because life is a risk." Rosi's remarkable film won the Golden Bear, the top prize, at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival.