Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) and “Practices of Reception”

by Eleanor Paynter, PhD Student, Department of Comparative Studies

An audience of OSU students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered at the Wexner on Tuesday, Jan. 24, for a viewing and discussion of the award-winning and Oscar-nominated Italian documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), directed by Gianfranco Rosi and released in 2016. Set on the island of Lampedusa, south of mainland Sicily, Fuocoammare follows two main narratives: the daily life of Samuele, an inquisitive Lampedusan boy who plays in the island’s rugged landscape; and the regular rescue of asylum seekers as the crowded boats in which they cross the Mediterranean approach Italian territory.

After the viewing, three panelists discussed the powerful juxtaposition of these two narratives: Vera Brunner-Sung, filmmaker and Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre at OSU, and member of the Global Mobility team; Peter Gatrell, historian at the University of Manchester and expert on displacement in the modern world; and Jonathan Mullins, an Italian Cultural Studies scholar and Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian at OSU. Their conversation covered issues ranging from the representation of what has become known as Europe’s refugee crisis, to the treatment for Samuele’s lazy eye, to an emphasis on the technology of what Mullins called “the practices of reception.” Rescue scenes are usually preceded, for example, by shots of the large equipment used to intercept SOS calls and visualize the location of arriving ships.

In connecting the two primary narratives, the panel raised the question of the documentary’s essential focus; Gatrell commented that Fuocoammare seemed, in the end, to be not about migration, but about the island itself. As Brunner-Sung discussed, the film uses long shots and slow camera movements to allow the viewer to engage with the physical space of Lampedusa; these techniques, said Mullins, also play with notions of near and far. How close is a boat? How distant is the crisis?

Yet, panelists agreed, the film is also troubling and prompts viewers to consider the representation of asylum seekers and refugees and the film’s seeming insistence on keeping Samuele’s story separate from that of the rescue narrative: this is not about an encounter. One of the challenges for any writer or filmmaker dealing with precarious subjects is the issue of representation: Does the depiction essentialize? Does it, at another extreme, anonymize? Gatrell noted that, other than rescue, the circumstances shaping the “crisis” occur, for the most part, off-screen.

I weigh in here as someone focused on contemporary migration to Italy in my own work, and as a viewer who found herself quite moved by the film’s oscillation between narratives about Samuele and about the arrival of asylum seekers. In this juxtaposition, I see Lampedusa itself emerging as a place of reckoning: Samuele tries to come to terms with his physical relationship to the island (a fisherman shouldn’t get seasick); border patrol agents and rescue workers transport hundreds of asylum seekers from sinking boats to coast guard vessels, to identification/detention centers known as CIE (Centri di identificazione e espulsione). For arriving asylum seekers, the island represents rescue and extreme precarity and, as such, appears as a space of trauma. Finally seated on a coast guard ship, many seem in shock; one asylum seeker pours water over her head.

Since Gatrell’s lecture on historicizing refugees and displacement and the public viewing of Fuocoammare, U.S. immigration and asylum policy has entered a global spotlight. In light of President Trump’s recent executive orders on border security and immigration, I find it difficult to reflect on this film without asking about its reception by a U.S. audience, and its relevance for a U.S. viewership. Is Lampedusa too far away for U.S. viewers to connect the urgency of Mediterranean migration with questions being asked about U.S. borders? The film’s Oscar nomination, in the documentary category, and its celebration by critics, makes it likely to reach a wide international audience in the coming months, including U.S. cinema-goers. How might a film such as this affect public responses to forced displacement and immigration policy? Can a film that emphasizes the mechanized routine of migrant reception at Italian shores provoke compassion in audiences outside Europe for the 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world, and for those in other countries who want to come to the U.S. for study, for work, for family, or for their own safety?


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