In the Italian documentary Fire at Sea, African migrants saved from a sinking boat off Lampedusa are wrapped, by rescuers, in same-colour cloaks. If you’re imagining monochrome blankets or dun waterproofs, don’t. These are glittering gold capes that flash with sparks of emerald green, iridescent as magical tinfoil.
It could be a metaphor for documentary cinema today. Once upon a time non-fiction movies were stern, dour, earnest, educative. But Gianfranco Rosi’s Berlin Golden Bear-winning film, like the same director’s Venice Golden Lion-winning predecessor Sacro GRA (2013), and like many new-age docu-features (from Touching the Void to The Act of Killing to Leviathan), is kaleidoscopic, unclassifiable, hypnotic. Set on the Italian island that sits closer to north Africa than to its fatherland, this mirror held to reality is so multi-faceted that it mesmerises like fiction.
The scenes of migrant misery are harrowing. Those boats so heaving with crowded life that they are near-certain candidates for crowded death. Those dying bodies hauled from the fresco of pain and horror. And that shot of a boat’s lower deck after the rescue of the living: a charnel house of the dead, a freeze-frame of purgatory.
Assembling other “plots” around this infernal pivot couldn’t, you’d think, enhance its power. Yet it does — by deepening the sea of humanity that washes the world of headline horror. A teenage scamp catapults birds from a tree at night and by day plays with a semi-delinquent pal. When he is later instructed by a doctor to wear a right eye patch to strengthen his lazy left eye, it sounds like a filmmaker’s stab at political symbolism. It isn’t. It’s just serendipity: a sample event from the year Rosi spent in Lampedusa story-gathering.
There are scenes of family life; scenes with the island’s doctor dazed by overwork as refugee crisis is piled on routine care; scenes even with the island radio’s DJ, pouring the balm of pop or Verdi over beleaguered lives. It’s an amazing film. Life and death; mundanity and mortality; growing up and growing old; family and country; conflict and concord. Each is made more vivid, more complex, more intricately human, by its interaction with the other.