Germany is a country that has taken, so far, around one million desperate people from the war-torn Middle East, so this year’s Berlin Film Festival could hardly ignore the refugee crisis. After opening with the Coen brothers’ comedy Hail, Cesar, the festival confronted the subject with Gianfranco Rosi’s competition entry, Fire at Sea. Set in Lampedusa, a little Sicilian island, only 70 miles from North Africa, this documentary shadows the experiences of the rescue teams while offering a portrait of the inhabitants of Lampedusa, through Samuele, a 12-year-old kid. .
The relief operations continue day and night. Using sophisticated radars, they listen out for SOS calls. A wood boat arrives, with more then 850 refugees, organised in travel classes. Tickets for the first class cost 1,500 euros, they are the privileged, allowed to travel on the upper deck. The third class is a hell, crammed in the hull.
Many arrive dead or burned by the hot fumes. They arrive from Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, long journeys, travelling by desert, with no food, and no water, escaping from war or the so-called Islamic State. Among them are many women and children.
A doctor from the island gives the most moving account: to look after these people is a hard job – so hard that it becomes a nightmare, even to talk about them is hard, but that is the way to encourage awareness. Not to help them is unhuman.
Meanwhile, Samuele makes rudimentary toys, with wood, and learns English at school. His father is a fisherman, also his grandfather, and his grandmother cooks fish.
The local radio broadcasts traditional music. The people of Lampedusa are doing their best to support the refugees and never protest. As the doctor explains: “They are fisherman and they have learned to welcome anything that comes from the sea.”
In few frames, Rosi shows the most moving rescue operation, from a boat that arrives with 40 corpses. The movie captures the pain of a people that goes beyond history; another genocide, where we are all responsible. Shocking and forceful to watch, these minutes of simple reality provide a complete detox from television news reports.
Gian Franco Rosi, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival few years ago, has been able to respond to facts with tenacity and sensibility, bringing to the big screen an urgent humanitarian tragedy. His wonder and interest in the refugees’ plight is impressive, and so is the dynamism evident in looking at the heart of the subject matter.
The standing ovation at the Berlinale first screening was one of the longest in the festival’s history. This is a movie that is hard not to describe as a masterpiece. It’s no surprise that Fire At Sea won the Golden Bear prize for Best Film.
The Festival had announced this year’s edition would have its eyes wide open to the refugees’ crisis and was promoting several initiatives to support the issue, among them 1,000 free tickets for asylum seekers through a programme to attend the cinematic event, plus numerous initiatives with Berlin’s schools, and donations boxes.
But the refugees have played a role at the Berlinale since 1951. Back then, many Germans were refugees and the festival was founded to foster understanding in German society and among nations.
As the director of the festival declared: “We have always dealt with the refugee issue at the Berlinale. Now it’s time to understand each other, show tolerance, accept each other and to show that with the films we present. We can show people how exciting and harmonious it can be to spend 10 days with migrants and people from other countries.”