Interview: 'Fire at Sea' Director Gianfranco Rosi on Blurring the Line Between Documentaries and Fiction
Jose here. Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, takes a look at the migrant crisis with completely new eyes. He creates a parallel narrative in which the dangerous journeys of migrants trying to arrive in Europe seem to go almost unnoticed by the people of the island of Lampedusa, where many of them meet their fates. The island vignettes, which pay tribute to the Sicilian lifestyle, mainly focus on the misadventures of Samuele, a little boy who spends his days playing with his slingshot, worrying about diseases he’s much too young to have, and admiring the sea, perhaps unaware of the nightmare it represents to the migrants’ struggle. Rosi doesn’t create a story of ironic contrast, instead he offers a snapshot of the world we live in, and invites us to reexamine our role in the world. The documentary won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival where Jury President Meryl Streep called it “urgent, necessary filmmaking”, it also went on to be selected as Italy’s entry for the Foreign Film Oscar.
As the film opens in New York, I sat down with Rosi to talk about his views on documentaries, storytelling and how the worlds of his films are interconnected.
JOSE: You spend years working on your films and shooting. How do you know when you have a story?
GIANFRANCO ROSI: When I start the film I never know which story I’ll end up doing. I start from something a very simple structure, there’s an island, migrants, this is what happens when migrants arrive, this is where they come from. I have a geometrical idea of what’s going on - when I have this idea of the place I look for elements and people who will become my protagonists...
These people have to reflect the story of the island, in this case the world of the migrants and the island people don’t cross paths. Usually the first structure I have reflects the film, but I never know what the evolution will be like. My biggest investment is time because it’s the only way to see changes. I hope my choices are the right ones (laughs).
JOSE: Are you ever concerned with not finding a story then?
GIANFRANCO ROSI: No, because my films are about missing things. I try to film thinking of storytelling and cinema. Although everything in my film is real my approach is very narrative. Since I have no control, I trust on the gods of documentary, so they’ll give me the energy to go through the end. So far I’ve never been disappointed, you need confidence in that you’ll arrive somewhere.
JOSE: Can you talk about the cinematic idea of the island, it made me think of Neorrealist films like Stromboli for instance. Did the movies shape how you saw the island?
GIANFRANCO ROSI: I had never been there before, so all I knew was I wanted the point of view of a little kid. When I found Samuele I knew I had my protagonist, he has an incredible inner world, it helps us create a metaphor for the world of the migrants which we’re unable to encounter. We have the story of Samuele, the migrants, a doctor that links both world, and a rescue ship. We have all these parallel stories, and outside the frame of the film there is the story of politics and what they push into the frame.
JOSE: The original title was Mare Nostrum (Our Sea in Latin) which has some hope to it, the new title Fire at Sea, is the complete opposite.
GIANFRANCO ROSI:Mare Nostrum is also a political term, it’s a political operation, a division. Fire at Sea is an oxymoron, it’s also political, and it’s linked to a song I listened in the island about a boat that caught fire and the light illuminated the island. The song is very catchy though, I liked that such a catchy song held a drama. I like to work in between lightness and harshness.
I found myself very frustrated seeing these worlds that are so near but never clash, it made me think of Sacro GRA which is about the same.
It’s about a mental space.
What keeps you from wanting to become involved in the stories of your subjects?
It’s a documentary so I film what’s going on. I couldn’t take the kid and introduce him to a world that has nothing to do with him. I could have done that, but it would have been fake. There are two approaches in telling this story, and it was frustrating when I filmed it. The kid’s inner world serves as a link.
My favorite moment in the film is when Samuele and his friend destroy all these plants with their slingshots and then tried to tape them back together.
It’s what we’re constantly doing, we create damage and try to repair it. We go to war, try to fix things and move somewhere else.
In the film you get a sense of time moving differently in Lampedusa, and you show this through repetition.
There’s an ancestral world there that Samuele represents well, it’s an ancient quality about things not changing. There is a strong sense of tradition, everything is a ritual there, it goes with the pace of the island where there is not much to do. Then we see the tragedy of the migrants.
You get the impression the people are living with ghosts.
The rescue boat is almost like a phantom too, you never see people there. I wanted to give a sense of aliens saving the aliens.
Your documentaries don’t have talking heads or title cards, how have you been able to escape this format that’s so prevalent?
I don’t like explanatory films. I don’t want a thesis, I want emotion, it’s the difference between poetry and an essay. We live in a world with enough information, I want documentaries to touch an emotional core, rather than to have them give answers. The structure of my films is more like an experimental film.
Have you been tempted to make fiction?
No, I like the emotional journey of not knowing where I’m going. If I wrote a script I’d be too bored to film it, I like to write with the camera and discover stories. I like entering this labyrinth and finding the exit.
Your films are also beautiful, you’re your own DP as well, is it hard to find beauty and aesthetic value when you’re shooting moments of horror?
I never think too much about that, it happens. I chose elements that help me, I shot the migrants at night because the night gave me a sense of protection. I don’t have the anxiety of shooting everything around me, for example the rescue scene was of course completely improvised, I have no control, but when I have time to shoot something I think about the language of cinema.
Since you shoot real people, do you worry about the judgment audiences will pass on them?
I have love for the things and people I shoot and I think it comes across in my films. Everything I’ve read about Samuele is positive, if they don’t like someone I can’t do anything about it. My duty as a documentarist is finding moments of truth in these people. When I see Samuele I see a beautiful, smart kid, I wanted to protect him. People will say whatever they want, they might see the opposite of what you wanted them to see. Today in The Village Voice review the critic thought the positive thing was the danger of the world, and some people might not agree with that. I want people to leave the theater thinking.
The film has had a very successful run in festivals and has won multiple awards. Italy chose it as their submission for the Oscars, what are your feelings on that?
For me it was important when my previous film was selected in the official selection at Venice, I want the line between fiction films and documentary to disappear. There are documentaries that use cinematic language, so for me it was important to break this barrier. Of course when you win you never think about that. Winning is so fragile, there are so many good films in festivals, the fact you win doesn’t make your film the best. Maybe your film was the third choice but people hated the other two so yours wins because everybody agrees on the third film. I’m not Bolt, he makes 100 meters in 9 seconds, he’s a champion!
Meryl Streep liked it though.
Absolutely, you are happy, you win the award and go to work on something else, you can’t hang in there forever. The fact that the film was submitted by Italy was a victory for me because it was the first time Italy has submitted a documentary. It was important that Venice and Berlin broke the rules, accidentally both films won (laughs). It would be funny if I didn’t make the Documentary shortlist, but made the Foreign shortlist, that would be a defeat for me (laughs).
Maybe you’ll end on both?
That would be too much. I hope I can end in the Documentary shortlist, the opposite would be a bit strange.
To break these conceptions, do you think audiences need to be educated differently?
Audiences are educated, we’re the ones who are afraid they’re not. The film was shown in Italian television and 3 million people watched the whole film, and 10 million people would switch back and forth. That’s 13 million people who were aware of the film, this was incredible. It means people want to see things like these. In theaters in Italy it did well. We don’t have to be afraid of showing these things to audiences.
Other Foreign Film Oscar Interviews
Singapore - Boo Junfeng on the prison drama The Apprentice
Colombia - Jose Luis Rugules on Alias Maria
Israel - Elite Zexer on Sandstorm
Brazil - Daniel Burman on how Little Secret became Brazil's submission
Cuba - Pavel Giroud on the Havana HIV drama The Companion
South Korea - Kim Jee-woon on The Age of Shadows
Finland on the boxing drama The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
Austria - Maria Schrader on Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
Foreign Film Contender Reviews
Death in Sarajevo - Bosnia & Herzegovina | Neruda - Chile | Mother - Estonia | Elle - France | Toni Erdmann - Germany | The Salesman - Iran | Chevalier - Greece | Sand Storm - Israel | Fire at Sea - Italy | Desierto - Mexico | A Flickering Truth - New Zealand | Apprentice - Singapore | Age of Shadows - South Korea | Julieta - Spain | My Life as a Courgette - Switzerland | Under the Shadow - UK | From Afar - Venezuela