Heartbreak By The Boatload

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Fire at Sea
RPL Theatre
Jan. 4-7
3 out of 5

Eclipsed by the referendum and election follies in Britain and the U.S., the refugee crisis continues to be one of the most pressing matters at a global level. As Africa is ravaged by a number of conflicts, the migrant influx shows no sign of slowing down, and Europe struggles to come up with a solution both safe and humane.

The documentary Fire at Sea tackles the subject in the most dispassionate way possible: by focusing on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a bit of land that has become an epicenter of the crisis because of its geographic location.

The film doesn’t exploit the humanitarian catastrophe to manipulate viewers. Instead, it documents the everyday lives of those incidentally touched by the crisis. They include a Lampedusa preteen for whom the onslaught of refugees is the new normal; the local physician who aims to treat the migrants humanely, even after death; a diver scouting the many wreckages in the area; emergency services so jaded, they don’t see people, just numbers.

Unlike most North American documentaries, Fire at Sea breathes. Director Gianfranco Rosi lets the different vignettes unfold at their own pace. Sometimes it’s thrilling, like when a Nigerian refugee freestyles over his journey. Other times, we watch riveting spectacles like the preteen eating spaghetti. I can appreciate the contrast, and the kid is tolerable, but after a while it feels redundant.

Fire at Sea limits itself to provide the facts (the economies of refugee transportation, the health issues that arise from travelling in overcrowded boats) and empowers the audience to do the moral judgement. Eventually, the weight of the catastrophe overpowers Rosi’s silent witness approach, a perfect way to establish that indifference is not an option.