Berlinale 2016 Review: FUOCOAMMARE Breaks The Wave Of Migration Documentaries

Contributing Writer; London
Berlinale 2016 Review: FUOCOAMMARE Breaks The Wave Of Migration Documentaries
Given how long it takes to finance and make a film, you could argue that the film industry's collective consciousness has responded pretty quickly to the migration crisis which has unfolded in recent years, and Gianfranco Rosi's Fuocoammare is a moving example of the urgency with which filmmakers have responded. Riding on the crest of the 66th Berlinale's main competition, the Golden Lion award-winning director's documentary will also trail blaze a path for many other films about migration at this year's festival.

So you will probably see a number these powerful films hit other festivals, cinemas and TV channels across the world in the coming months, like a sort of potent wave of social scrutiny. Migration is currently a major topic for discussion in many countries now too, meaning this film has quietly been building a bit of a buzz around itself so far. It deserves it too, but at this point I do feel compelled to put a big shout out for Dutch director Morgan Knibbe's documentary short Shipwreck. To my mind, this short makes much the same journey to Lampedusa as Rosi's film, but I feel just edges it over this more recent effort in terms of creative technique and in its ability to acknowledge many of the ethical issues its own making raises.

Putting this aside, Rosi's film does face a number of challenges which Knibbe's film will have avoided simply by virtue of having been a short. For example, a feature-length film about the inhuman conditions people are subjected to as they make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, told in the bold style Knibbe marked out, would have undoubtedly been almost too harrowing. So how do you make a film which is deeply about the humanitarian crisis at hand, yet also involving enough to encourage change?

It would seem Rosi's answer was to cast his net more widely across Lampedusa's ancient fishing community than Knibbe did. For that very reason, the director's fifth feature-length documentary boldly begins by breaking the mould, seeing it behave in a way you might never normally expect. The camera opens its unblinking account by statically dawdling over a small boy climbing a pine tree. Shot from behind at an unnatural distance, this struggling figure we see isn't that of a migrant fleeing persecution but rather a boy in search of the perfect branch with which to make an expert sling-shot.

Repeatedly we are thrust into this world of timeless little traditions, whether it be the boy's undimmed passion for his sling shot or the very locally distinctive big square paddles which you sometimes see the boys using. The film's title also draws itself from a lyric in a local song, and an old lady tells us how the word also described times in the Second World War when the waters around Lampedusa were also troubled by conflict. Though we never remain far removed from the modern horrors of the 15,000 migrant casualties which this film tells us have occurred in these waters in recent times. And as night falls, we are frequently greeted by audio distress calls to the Italian emergency services.

These are the voices we hear so rarely in the news, and the palpable fear you can hear in them is moving beyond measure. What is fascinating, too, is to hear the Italian correspondences with these afflicted migrants. It is not so much that we hear any hostile native voices (nor should there necessarily be any), but what we do hear is enlightening nonetheless. Quite often the locals refer to those that suffer as "poveri cristiani," a sort of heartfelt Italian catch all term for empathising with the unfortunate. It seems genuine too, particularly with one doctor who goes from playfully trying to communicate with a pregnant mother to being full of grief at the memories of all the dead mothers and children he has seen.

But at other times you also hear a sort of Italian tone that almost amounts to impatience, and this certainly revealingly suggests a community that is struggling to psychologically cope. Though that of course dwarfs into insignificance with the suffering of the battered, bruised, dead and chemical burned bodies you repeatedly see in this film. Fuocoammare is certainly no easy watch, and quite often the documentary's studied realism does make it almost feel as if you could reach out and touch the dead. However, the film's frequent failure to explore its ethical relationship with its subjects, as well as its reluctance to really give them a voice does seem potentially troubling for viewer.

Equally, when the film finally meets these migrants face-to-face for the first time (and then after that almost always at night), it is unusually as if Rosi has managed to catch scenes from another world - which in itself is an unusual and perhaps problematic decision. Much as in Knibbe's short, the brightly contrasted colours of the migrants clothes seem hellishly unfamiliar under the Lampedusan dock's unforgivingly bright lights, and the mass of the migrants' bodies suddenly become robed in fluttering silver-golden HeatSheets, causing them take on this remarkably ghostly quality. In fact, a number of these twilight, silhouetted scenes have certainly been some of the stand out moments of Berlinale so far, even if it perhaps does controversially turn people into objets d'art.

Nevertheless, the suffering the migrants experience as they spasm and twitch whilst they're being wrenched from their horrifically overcrowded boats is truly eye-opening, and you can't help feel that it would help motivate people to rethink their attitudes. This is particularly true in one of the film's bluntest scenes, where the camera takes us deep into the bowels of a boat where many lifeless bodies now remain. It's this kind of footage which really makes you realise how blind much of our contemporary society is to the horror of the present situation. Though Rosi's decision to focus on wider Italian life does also come into it's own here, as it tangibly demonstrates how perhaps the saddest thing about these tragedies is the way that normal life can (and almost has to) continue so normally around it.

In a powerful demonstration of this, we are constantly drawn into this process of life going on thanks to the fact that it is hard to resist laughing at the boy's impassioned stories about his sling-shot. His wonderfully allegro, almost attention-deficit personality also fits nicely into the almost anthropological study of Lampedusa that film embarks on as it faithfully documents their fishing traditions, their blistering tastes in Sicilian music and hearty family meals which make up so much of this small island's culture. So it does sometimes become possible to almost slip the horrors we have seen in this film from our memory.

What's more, in what seems like an unmistakeable metaphor, we learn that the boy at the heart of much of this film actually has a lazy eye and only sees half of his full field of vision. Which is undoubtedly what we do as the film drives us towards its unremitting final scenes. But much like the boy, this proves to an error in our vision that can be rectified by challenging our lazy eyes on a regular basis, and this is probably a film that merits being watched more than once for that very reason alone.

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