Fire at Sea is a documentary about the refugee crisis in Europe that sidles up sideways to a mammoth, urgent topic. Rather than attempt to make a film focused on the ongoing humanitarian emergency itself, trotting out charts and talking heads, director Gianfranco Rosi looks at a place — Lampedusa, an Italian island of about 6,000 residents. Due to its location, closer to Tunisia than to Siciliy, Lampedusa has become a hoped-for entry point for migrants making the journey by boat across the Mediterranean to Europe. In the opening title cards, the only time the movie prioritizes figures over people, we're told that 400,000 refugees have landed on the island in the past two decades, and that an estimated 15,000 have died making the journey.
Those are sizable numbers, but Fire at Sea shows how even thousands of deaths can become part of a day-to-day. It divides its time between the coast guard rescue operations, where men, women, children, and corpses are pulled off overcrowded, dilapidated vessels; the detention centers; and the lives of two locals. There's Samuele Pucillo, a 12-year-old kid from a fishing family who weathers schoolwork, plays with a slingshot, and tries out boating. And there's Pietro Bartolo, a doctor who treats the community and cares for the stream of migrants arriving on the island's shore, or dying in the process. Far from normalizing the crisis, the contrast between Samuele's boyhood and the sung-spoken story of desperation delivered by a Nigerian man who came off a boat ("We drank our piss to survive," he belts) highlights what it means to be a refugee — that your world can be ending, but that there's still normalcy, sometimes not so many miles away. It could be yours, if you're not killed on the way — and if, once you get there, you're allowed to stay.
How to see it: Fire at Sea is now playing in limited release — check out a list of theaters here.