The Mediterranean island Lampedusa is about 20-square kilometres, and home to about 6,300 Italians. It lies closer to Tunisia than to Sicily; its name may come from the Greek for “torch,” because of lights placed outside for sailors. Those sailing to Lampedusa in Fire at Sea, though, scanned for in the night-shrouded ocean by a searchlight’s blue halo, are migrants from Africa. In many boats, those who can’t afford “first class” are packed in below deck, some of them starving, dehydrating, dying. Around 400,000 migrants have landed at Lampedusa in the past 20 years; around 15,000 have died in the Straits of Sicily.
Gianfranco Rosi’s brilliant cross-cutting narrative opens, though, with local boy Samuele cutting off the end of a tree branch to whittle it into a slingshot. We watch a community-radio DJ playing requests (one’s the folk song Fuocoammare—“Fire at Sea”—about a war ship, hit by Allied bombs, that burned in the island’s harbour). Another radio we soon hear carries a voice to a coast guard vessel: “Can you help us? We are sinking.” The realism of two very different worlds, brought together, is sharpened; we realize how relative our struggles are. Samuele, feeling stressed, gets a check-up from Dr. Pietro Bartolo, during which he explains that his special glasses are for a lazy eye. But we’ve already seen rescue workers in full protective scrubs helping black men and women off a boat and then migrant after migrant, sloughing off their bright, crinkly thermal blankets for a moment, patted down in a hallway by police in face-masks. They’re processed, but how do we process this humanitarian crisis?
Young Samuele does some English homework; we’re left to imagine what a struggle learning a new language will be for those migrants allowed to stay in Europe. Dr. Bartolo shows us pictures of his homework—autopsy photos of bodies taken off the ships. And then he offers the closest thing that this potent near-parable of a documentary has to a moral: “It’s the duty of every human being . . . to help these people.”