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?


Refugees in Modern History: A European Perspective

peter-gatrellRefugees in Modern History: A European Perspective
By Peter Gatrell, Manchester University
Date: Monday, January 23, 2017
Time: 2:00-3:30 PM
Location: Enarson Classroom Building, Room 100
OSU Event
Sponsors: The Office of International Affairs

We have just finished editing the higher definition video of the lecture.  You can watch it here:

Synopsis: The plight of refugees has again become a dominant focus of public debate as it was in the aftermath of the two world wars. It seems to speak to the desperation of displaced people and the intransigent stance adopted by many governments. In reflecting on the stance and role of historians, this talk proposes a history of population displacement that is attentive to the circumstances, actions and trajectories of refugees in different times and places, and what it means for refugees to encounter government officials and aid agencies, and to interact with one another as well as with people who had not been displaced. In thinking about refugees as agents rather than as flotsam and jetsam, the talk considers how refugees have expressed themselves, including as historians of their own predicament. My talk draws upon my own research and upon the growing historiography on key sites and moments of displacement in the 20th century. Ultimately it invites the listener to think about the category of ‘refugee’ and the contours of ‘refugee history’.

Peter Gatrell is at professor of history at Manchester University, UK.  He primarily a historian of population displacement in the modern world. Most of his current research activity is devoted to a monograph on the history of Europe since 1945, with a focus on migration in/to Europe. This will be published by Penguin Books and Basic Books.

His latest book is entitled The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford University Press, 2013; paperback 2015). http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199674169.do#.Um2DOBC7TK0

Video recorded on January, 23, 2017.

Produced and edited: Lisa Beiswenger
Introduction: Theodora Dragostinova
Speaker: Peter Gatrell
PowerPoint: Peter Gatrell
The Global Mobility Team: Vera Brunner-Sung, Jeffrey Cohen, Theodora Dragostinova, Yana Hashamova, and Robin Judd
Produced with the assistance of the Office of International Affairs

Episode 3: A Chat with Peter Gatrell

OSU Podcast
On Tuesday, January 24, 2017, Dr. Theodora Dragostinova sat down with Dr. Peter Gatrell, Professor of History at Manchester University, to have a chat about migration, immigration, and repatriation in Europe. In the discussion, Dr. Gatrell discusses the value that arts and humanities can have in discussing and understanding migration, as well as what happens when citizens relocate because of war or economic reasons and then return to their home country.

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Episode Credits

Interviewer: Dr. Theodora Dragostinova
Guest: Dr. Peter Gatrell
Audio Production: Paul Kotheimer
Audio Editor: Lisa Beiswenger
Video Production: Laura Seeger
The Global Mobility Team: Vera Brunner-Sung, Jeffrey Cohen, Theodora Dragostinova, Yana Hashamova, and Robin Judd