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In 'Fire At Sea,' Glimpse The Migrant Crisis From The Heart Of Mediterranean


We're going to hear about another location in the ongoing migrant crisis through a new documentary called "Fire At Sea." The film focuses on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which sits in the middle of the Mediterranean between Sicily and the coast of North Africa. The island has been a landing point for migrants from countries from Syria to Nigeria to the Ivory Coast. Here's a clip from the film. It's a distress call from 250 stranded migrants at sea begging the Italian navy for a rescue.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How many people? How many people?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hundred-and-fifty (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Your position.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) Please, we beg you, please help us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Your position.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...Of blood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Your position.

MARTIN: We later learned that this vessel and the people aboard were never found. "Fire At Sea" unfolds over the course of a year, weaving back and forth between the peaceful daily rhythms of life for the island's Italian residents and the dangerous, nightmarish conditions of the overcrowded migrant boats adrift at sea.

The film recently won the highest prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and has been selected as Italy's foreign language entry for the next Academy Awards. The film's director Gianfranco Rosi joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for speaking with us.


MARTIN: What drew you to Lampedusa? How did you even know to go there?

ROSI: Most of the time, Lampedusa was always covered by the media - by television, by newspaper - in moments of tragedies, when, you know, there was something horrible - death or some kind of very heavy things happen. But most of the time, it was left out the fact that, you know, on this island live 4,000 people and there are people that are there daily. So the idea was somehow to switch the point of view and telling the story, yes, of the migrant but through somehow the point of view of the islanders, people living there.

MARTIN: It's hard to find a clip, you know, or an excerpt to play because the film is so quiet. It doesn't have narration. It's the people doing what they do or going about their lives. You know, for the most part there's no voiceover saying this thing happening now. And I was wondering what made you choose that approach.

ROSI: I had the imagination when I arrived there that this was going to be a place where there was an incredible interaction between migrants and the population. And that was never the case. Somehow these two worlds of the burly encounter - and the boats are intercepted or rescued in the middle of the sea. And then from there, they're brought into the island, and then from the island they spend two, three days there. They go in a center where they first identification. And then from there, they go to Italy to start the process of political refugee status.

So since the last three, four years, there's been an institutionalization of the arriving in Lampedusa. And it's harder and harder to have an interaction between the people of the island and migrants. So somehow I felt that when I was there, Lampedusa became, like, almost a microcosm, a metaphor of what Europe is right now, you know? This is a world that we don't know, and we never have really chance of meeting and interacting with. So there's always a separation between our world and this world that is coming.

MARTIN: I want to play another clip from the film. It's a scene in which a group of recently-arrived migrants rescued - they're from Nigeria. They're gathering in prayer, and one of them gives his testimony of what led them to...

ROSI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Make that very frightening journey. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is my testimony. We would not go as (unintelligible). Many has died. Most, we are (unintelligible). And we flee from Nigeria, we run through the desert, we (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: And will you help us understand what he's saying there?

ROSI: Yes. It was a prayer of thanking the fact that these people coming from Nigeria, where they were under ISIS, and then through Nigeria to the desert and then from the desert to Libya. In Libya, they were in prison for six months. They were beaten up. And then at certain point, they have to decide either stay here and die or cross the sea and I might survive. And those people that were sinking, that was in a boat - we rescued them, and half of their friends didn't make it and half, they were able to survive.

And I had time to spend with them. I was with them in the boat. I was with them in the port. I was with them at the rescue center. And the next day when I went and tried to talk to them again, they invited me in their room and they asked me to witness this prayer and this thanking and asked if I could film.

And this is a moment for me which is very important in the film because you would really see a tragedy of this journey in just three minutes. In this very brief moment, everything is told, you know? The fear, the fact that they arrived finally in a place and the sense of freedom that they reach in Lampedusa and then the unknown of what's going to happen then in their life, you know, because of after they leave Lampedusa, these people are left on their own. And this is another big tragedy that I think we have to confront.

MARTIN: Do you ever wonder, say, five years from now or 10 years from now when we look back on this time what we think of ourselves?

ROSI: I don't know. I'm not very optimistic right now. I saw - I don't know in five years from now what's going to happen. If the whole world doesn't come together, like, you know, the way somehow they were able to put together all the head of states from all over the world for the climate issue, I think that's an issue that belongs to the world. And this cannot be left only to single country that are on the front line.

When Barack Obama made his speech at the United Nation about the immigration emergency, he said something very beautiful. He said who builds a wall, he' builds a prison for himself. And this is somehow what we have to understand that the world will never resist history. They never did - they will never resist, so we have to change completely our policy.

MARTIN: Gianfranco Rosi is a documentary filmmaker. His latest film "Fire At Sea" won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. It's been selected as Italy's foreign film entry for the 89th Academy Awards. It opened in the U.S. on Friday. Gianfranco Rosi, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROSI: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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