Editor’s note: This is the first of two interviews (next up: Nanni Moretti) our correspondent Amir Ganjavie conducted with directors at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival (Feb. 11-21). Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare) documents the European refugee crisis, focusing on one of the major landing points, the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Rosi tells the story through the eyes of a 12-year-old local boy and the doctor who processes the refugees. The film caused a stir among critics and audiences with devastating footage of some of the mostly Libyan immigrants dying or dead in the cramped boats, suffocated by diesel fumes. Rosi, who filmed these scenes while accompanying the Coast Guard on rescue missions, debated on whether to include them but ultimately decided he had to in order to draw attention to the refugees’ plight.
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Although this year’s Berlin Film Festival featured a number of notable films, to say that documentarian Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea being awarded the Golden Bear was surprising is something of an understatement. Rosi’s filmography is relatively small (five documentary features and two documentary shorts since 1993), but this is his second major festival award, following his Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Film Festival for Sacro GRA. Rosi is now an important name in the film industry and impossible to ignore. His films seem to be popular with viewers as well, as evidenced, for example, by the high hit count for his documentary El Sicario, Room 164 on YouTube.
What makes Rosi’s cinema so fascinating are his ability to immerse the viewer in the experience and his determination to get exactly the effects he wants, regardless of how challenging the process or long it takes. I first noticed these qualities during a screening of Boatman (1993), in which the director put his camera on a canoe piloted by the film’s sole major character, a boatman. A man with a keen sense of the absurd, the boatman beguiles the viewer with his discussion of the culture of Benares and the way that Hindus bring their dead to be cremated or cast them into the holy water. Rosi’s perfectionism often necessitates unusually long production times. His 2008 documentary Below Sea Level, a group portrait of the marginalized denizens of a California Sonoran desert community who do whatever they can to survive, took five years to make.
Focusing on outsiders, renegades, and social issues, Rosi’s cinema is also uncompromising in subject matter. El Sicario, Room 164 (2010) explores the world of a Mexican drug cartel hitman, who speaks directly to the camera in the hotel room where he tortured his kidnap victims. El Sicario was followed by Sacro GRA, which, shot and edited over a nearly three-year period, finds Rosi in a minivan documenting the lives of a gallery of vibrant oddball characters living on the famous road that encircles Rome. In the following interview, which took place at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2016, Rosi talks about Fire at Sea in terms of his filmmaking philosophy, how he uses the documentary form, and the political possibilities of cinema. – Amir Ganjavie
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AMIR GANJAVIE: How would you describe this kind of film? Can we still call it a documentary?
GIANFRANCO ROSI: I’m glad to call it a documentary.
But it also has some resemblance to neorealism.
You know, in neorealistic cinema they take people from the street and make them interpret various characters. I don’t call them characters because I don’t like that word. The people who work in my film are themselves and they are re-enacting their own daily lives; we never tell them what to do. There’s only one scene in my film that is a staged one, and you know which one it is.
No, which one?
You have to tell me.
The scene in which the young boy eats something?
No, no, that one was real. The staged scene is when the boys play and then the camera pans and there is the fisherman going into the water. There is an exchange that introduces the character, but that happened completely by chance. I knew him already, and we started talking. I wanted to create an interaction between him and the kid, but nothing was happening. He was leaving, and the kids were playing when I called him back so that he walked in the background, at which point I followed him, thus making it the only kind of staged moment in the film.
There are many formal documentaries that can take the form of an investigation, like a BBC or National Geographic documentary; I like documentaries that give the space of poetry. For me, when I make a film there is my point of view. Unfortunately, Michael Moore killed the documentary completely because his films became propaganda and entertainment. For me, a documentary still represents a very strong point of view from an author as he or she watches something, but this also happens when you are investigating. You want to know your truth, which is different from someone else’s truth.
Since my first film, I wanted to break this barrier between documentary and fiction. When I start to film, I never think that I’m going to make a documentary or fiction; I want to make a film. I want to use the tool of cinema, the dramatization of cinema into reality, and for me the difference between true and false is always in art. The truthfulness in a documentary for me is as close as you can get to the reality of the people that it represents. Thus, the distance and the trust that they create between you and me and my duties will show exactly who is the person in front of me. In this film, Fire at Sea, I have a very strong boy portraying the main character and doing a great job of being him in every moment. I never say to the kid, “Let’s go together to some place and do something.” Sometimes people ask me, “Why do you never show him going to the center where the migrants are?” I could have brought him to the center and shown how these kids interact with the little kids coming from Africa, but this never happens in reality, so I would have felt completely hypocritical doing something staged like that.
How did you find those people?
I found them in my daily life.
You knew you wanted to find a little boy?
I knew I wanted to make a story with kids this time because in my first film, Boatman, I worked with kids, but then I was never able to do this again. This time, I wanted to get the point of view of the kids because it is the most genuine.
In your opinion, why are the immigrants and other people in this movie living parallel lives?
It’s because that’s the reality in Lampedusa. I stayed there for a year and a half and saw that there is a huge separation between the migrants and the people who live on the island. In Lampedusa, people hate journalists. The last time I was there, the residents were throwing stones at journalists because they only go there when there is a tragedy. The people there say that they have been in an island of migration for twenty years and only now is anyone talking about them. People have always been going there and then leaving. The locals gave them food, clothes, and other things. In the last three or four years, this became institutionalized, and you know that all of these big boats are in the middle of the sea, so the border has been moved from Lampedusa to the middle of the sea.
Now the boats that come to Lampedusa are stopped at sea, and nobody arrives just anywhere on the island. Instead, they go to the port, where they are given a health check and things like that before proceeding. From the port they go into the center, where they are identified, stay two or three days, and then go to Italy or to Sicily. Now there is no longer any contact with the people who live on the island. Now it is something detached, like when we see the woman listen to the radio and hear that 250,000 people have died. We think “oh, those poor people,” but there’s no sense of it being real anymore – they are just a number. For me, the difference in the film was how suddenly the tragedy came to me. One day I was filming routine things, and then I saw death arriving. So it is different, the contact, the eye contact with the people. There is a difference between when you hear a story that two hundred people have died and when you actually see the people who are dying.
So is that why only Doctor Bartolo appears to understand the problems of immigrants? The one who has the most eye contact with the people.
Yes, because he is the only doctor on the island. The doctor is there every time a boat arrives so he can check to see if anyone needs medical attention at the hospital. He checks every single person who arrives on the island.
How did the people of Lampedusa react to you?
Journalists are the enemies of Lampedusa because every time someone dies on or near the island they report this, sometimes exaggerating it, so Lampedusa is always associated with death and disease. Also, Lampedusa might be attacked by ISIS, so tourists won’t go there. This summer a newspaper published a headline that terrorists are coming in with the migrant boats, and the next day five hundred people canceled their planned trips to Lampedusa.
So the islanders depend on tourism?
In the summer they do. For example, in the summer, fishermen go out to fish and they rent their room to the tourists. So to be associated with the terrorists, the fear, with dead people floating around Lampedusa, is not good for them.
You were supposed to shoot this as a short film, but ended up staying more than one year and making a feature.
In some places, such as the desert, you need to stay for four years to make a film. In Lampedusa, it took me only one and a half years. It’s different when you just go there and cover an episode and then when you leave, you try to understand the reality of the place.
Is it difficult for you to distance yourself from the tragedy there when you’re editing your film later? How do you see the drama of what’s happening and then put that aside?
Well, that’s my duty. When you start editing, you have to forget about your personal experience and bring everything into the present tense. I shoot eighty hours of film in one year, and then I close my eyes. It’s like how in life if you close your eyes right now you don’t have every single moment of your life happening. You have ten, fifteen, twenty episodes of your life that are very strong memories. For me, editing is the same; there are some moments that are very strong. There are maybe ten hours, but they emerge from these eighty hours. Then I start working with these ten hours and start structuring the film. This becomes the second writing. I write when I shoot, and the story unfolds while we set the camera. Then editing is the second part where you structure all of these elements.
You got access to the rescue operations in a way that we have never seen before. How did you convince both the people of Lampedusa and the people in the rescue operations to take you along?
I think this is because of my previous film, which people in Italy saw. They saw the kind of work that I do, and so the people from the navy completely trusted me. When we went on the naval boat for the first twenty days, they put me in a boat that was not on the front line, which I didn’t know at the time, and nothing happened. However, that meant that I had an opportunity to get very close with the crew, including with the commander, and we had a relationship. Then we arrived back to the port, and I didn’t shoot a single image of a rescue, but I shot a lot of things relating to the navy, like the helicopter and the emptiness. When I asked them to go back, they put me in the front line, and then I was able to shoot a lot of things, including the moments of tragedy. However, when I showed the tragic moments, I felt so much compassion from everyone. They asked me to go inside the boat and film that. I didn’t want to film those scenes, but the captain of the ship told me that I had to show them. The world had to see these horrible things happening.
It isn’t that difficult ethically if you are there in the moment.
Ethically, you knew what was the right thing, but it was still difficult seeing this happening in front of my eyes. That’s the hard thing, not me filming it; the hard part is that these things should not fucking happen. People cannot die like that. This is the hard part – not me filming.
I don’t want to accuse you.
Yeah, but the hard part is that these things should not fucking happen. It’s like asking someone to film the gas chambers in operation during the Holocaust whether it was hard to show that image. The hard part was that image should never have existed, not me filming it.
What is your objective in directing this movie?
I want to create an awareness that this is one of the biggest tragedies since the Second World War. We are witnessing the images like those of the gas chambers that came out after the war and people say, “Oh, we didn’t know about that.” Now we do know about that. Every day we see this. Every single person in Europe, in the world, is responsible for this atrocity. All of us are responsible because we keep turning our faces away. “Oh, poor people. We’ll take five thousand Syrians, they’re very nice Syrians. In Canada we said, yes, we’ll take five thousand.” Five thousand people arrived in Lampedusa yesterday alone.
You believe that’s our responsibility, so what should we do? Should we open borders?
It’s the responsibility of the politicians to do something about it because it is unacceptable that thirty or forty thousand people die as they are escaping war. They are escaping a tragedy that most of the time we created. They are facing death, and kids die because they were not able to save them between Turkey and Lesbos Island. We let them die, and we know that they have to pay money to some horrible people in order to be stuck in a boat like animals. Not even animals would be in a boat like that.
We know that, but what concretely can be done?
That’s not my job. Some people have to get together and find the solution. Arab countries, African countries, South America, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan – they all see together that the world is collapsing, so let’s do something. There are three million people moving in the world. And we can stop them with walls?
Do you know what happened to the immigrants after they arrive at their destinations?
They arrive there with hope, but then what happens to them is horrible because nobody gives anything to them. They live in the streets. What can they do?
When I talked about your film with other people, some of them told me that Rosi’s films are very art house and don’t have popular appeal. Do you see that as a problem for reaching your goal?
I’m not sure since, you know, one million viewers on YouTube saw my last film (Sacro GRA). One million people. I didn’t get one cent out of that, but it is good that one million people saw that film.
Were you impressed by the almost clinical way that the navy deals with the process of rescuing the migrants?
Personally, I was scared. I had to film while wearing that (haz-mat) suit and it was horrible. I said to one of them, at least let me take off my mask. I wanted people to see my face while I was working, but they had a very strict rule to not do that because there are many infectious diseases that you can get from the migrants. These people are coming from months of traveling, and they can have a wide range of sometimes very severe diseases. For example, this was at the time of Ebola, and people were arriving from places with outbreaks of that disease. These people were there every day, sometimes rescuing a thousand people in three days and that happened with physical contact, with people who were coughing, breathing, and sometimes dying.
The visual character of the movie is amazing for a documentary.
For me, the photography is very important. It is my cinematic approach – the lights, the sound, the work of cinema. I think that I shoot my films like Spielberg would. I want to have the best camera, the best frame, but I don’t think much when I shoot. First I place the camera, and then I let things move in front of me. I have to find the distance, but the light for me is a character. If I had shot this film during the summer, it would have been a different film, but I decided to shoot it in the winter. I am also photophobic; I don’t like the sun itself since I always get sunburns. That made shooting in the winter perfect.
You shot everything with the same camera?
Yes, but with two lenses. Now the technology is so helpful. The Arri Amira is the new camera. It is a small, compact camera that is fantastic to shoot with even at night. [Editor’s note: Fire at Sea is the first Amira-shot film to receive a major festival award.]
And because you’re a perfectionist you also work as the cameraman and editor?
Editor, no, but I work on the sound and camera. This is not very professional, and I would like to have a good cameraman working with me, but it would break the intimacy. If I am alone, then I am able to decide in the moment, but if I had a cameraman and sound person, it would break the intimacy.
Thanks for speaking with me, Mr. Rosi.
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Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the trailers freely available on YouTube.