Fire at Sea: An Exploration of Cinematic Realism
Not Your Average Refugee Flick
I recently watched the academy award nominated documentary Fire at Sea (2016). While most media sources were focusing their coverage solely on globally recognized cities and regions affected by the European migrant crisis, documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi pointed his camera toward the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Though geographically small, the territory was massively affected by the influx of migrants seeking refuge. Within Fire at Sea, Rosi uniquely employs a combination of narrative and documentary techniques that reveal an underrepresented region's current issue while captivating audiences through cinematic audio and visual elements. This is an exploration of what made Fire at Sea so dang compelling and motivating for myself.
The film primarily follows the lives of a doctor, Pietro Bartolo, and a boy, Samuele Pucillo. While Samuele takes us through his quiet life of shooting slingshots and being a kid in Lampedusa, Dr. Bortolo is the bridge connecting us to the greater issue of immigration affecting the island. Through Samuele, audiences have the opportunity for emotional stasis. We can sit back and watch this young boy happily play with his friends and chuckle at his mild case hypochondria. But worlds flip upon entering the perspective of the refugees. The juxtaposition of these scenes create a contrast that twists the stomach's of viewers.
As a documentary filmmaker, it is easy to enter a project already predetermining conclusions and themes. Though it's essential to have some sort of direction when starting, often times we may find ourselves manipulating content in order to arrive at the conclusions we want. Rosi takes the opposite approach in his film. In an interview with No Film School, he explains the importance of remaining unscripted throughout the documentary process. He expressed, "There's no surprise in that because you didn't let reality talk to you. You already go there with an idea, with an agenda, and with a thesis, and you have to demonstrate that they're right or wrong. I think that kills the thing completely." Rosi allows the discovery process within documentary to unfold in front of you.
One of the biggest differences between documentary and narrative cinematography is the luxury of planning. In most narrative situations, we have the opportunity to plan our lighting, composition, and camera movement. Almost all of this control is abandoned when making documentary films. In order to capture emotions or events in way that upholds the ethics of realism within documentary, we're forced to shoot into blown out windows and awkwardly frame subjects. Fire at Sea demonstrates the feasibility of runnin' and gunnin' in a style that is beautifully lit and framed. Below are sample stills from my favorite lighting and compositions within the film.
Every frame is cemented by a cool toned color grade that ultimately reflects the unsettling feelings within the film. Life in Lampedusa is painfully stable while the migrants' fate is as uncertain as their shades of blue.
Documentary films establish a communicative relationship between the maker and the viewer. The documentarian does their best to transmit a theme that is informative and entertaining while audiences are the receptors that decide if their work was successful. A key component of this process is trust. Without it, audiences will disconnect themselves from the film and disregard any information as being true. Rosi ultimately manifested his credibility by being as hands-off as possible during the process. By trusting his viewers to connect conclusive dots themselves, he in turn receives their attention and respect as an informational sender. Fire at Sea enforces the idea that a message doesn’t need to be shoved down throats to be received. Powerful imagery can speak for itself.