This project began with two images of Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare, 2016): two close-ups of migrants looking back, breaking the fourth wall, directly into the camera. They do not fit with the metaphoric narrative about the lazy eye of the young Italian protagonist, Samuele. They complicate the relationship of the viewer with the film, reversing the direction of the gaze. To what extent do these close-ups interrupt the documentary narrative? Can moving images narrate the migration phenomena without stereotyping it? Italian films have tackled this question seriously, exploring narratives and experimenting with new audiovisual solutions to answer this question. Well received in the international network of film festivals, Fire at Sea has largely been considered by critics and scholars as being able to contrast the media stereotypes on migration and narrate “the migration crisis” from a humanitarian point of view. However, is it the case?
I started juxtaposing scenes distant in the film and realized that only through a video essay would I be able to show and discuss the ambiguity of some images and, in general, of the narrative of the film. Winner of awards and given feature distribution, the film indeed relies, as Giulia Scomazzon notes in her peer review of my video essay, on significant fictional elements. Unfolding before the spectators the daily life of Samuele and his family as innocent and idyllic, filmmaker Francesco Rosi invites viewers to align themselves with the local population and the impossibility for them of seeing or entering into contact with the migrants (Previtali 2018). In a different storyline, migrants are the focus of the technological eye of the Italian Navy. In its rescue operation, the Italian state gains control over migrant bodies through its procedures of reception/detention.
I argue that Fire at Sea presents a false contraposition between a humanitarian and a state vision of migration. Indeed, they belong to the same Western paradigm of visuality as does this documentary: the “exclusive claim to be able to look” (Mirzoeff 2011). Emergency, tragedy, humanitarian crisis: the Mediterranean Sea and Italian shores have been represented as the entry port for populations moving from the Global South toward the Global North for the last 30 years. Whether fleeing wars, economic hardship, climate change or dictatorships, the flow of people has never stopped and the rhetoric of emergency has never faded. One recurring image from the media has emerged with a specific frightening power: that of people crossing the Mediterranean and disembarking on the Italian island of Lampedusa. It is frightening to Western viewers because it echoes the danger of an invasion. It is haunting for the evocative power of its inversion: the sunken boats and the ghostly presence of the dead. The Mediterranean has been transformed in a symbolic seametery (Abderrezak 2016).
Providing shocking footage of the rescue operations, the film engages with this twofold symbolism in an ambiguous way. Rescuers from the Italian Navy intercept the boats of migrants in danger with the goal of saving their lives, bringing them to Lampedusa’s center for identification and expulsion of migrants. Who has the right to film and observe someone’s death? Can we do it to raise awareness of the plight of the migrants? In my video essay, I decided to keep the film sequence that includes three shots of dead bodies. I reduced the sequence’s duration, cutting out one of the shots, but I did not eliminate or blur these images as they are precisely the kind of images not usually shown by mainstream news broadcasters. Fire at Sea is a film not exclusively about migration but also deeply engaged with the way we look at the world.
Following two documentarian lines that never meet, the film produces a contrast between the pressing present of the rescue operations and the fiction of the timeless life on the island. Arguably, this disparity creates a sort of safe distance for the viewers to look at the migrants who are also mostly silent throughout the film. This distance ends up reproducing the binary of alterity “us/them,” multiplying it into a kaleidoscope of opposites (i.e.: viewer/viewed, inhabitant/migrant, citizen/military, Mediterranean space/European border, witness/protagonist), expelling the migrants from the space of “our” natural word. Even while countering mainstream representations of migration, I argue, the film narrative does not escape this same visual paradigm.
Offering the material to explore, think, and show the discursive effects of visuality, Fire at Sea reveals the progressive failure of controlling practices based on the power to look. Can we look at migrants without seeing only victims? I argue that when migrants look back at the spectator, their gaze interrupts the Western control over their bodies and the political and symbolic policing of their crossing. The world of the documentary suddenly collapses along with that of the audience. Migrants are not victims anymore but subjects with agency, whose gazes interpellate the spectator, urging viewers to participate in the migration crisis (from the Ancient Greek krísis: “separating, judgment, decision”). The two close-ups of migrants looking directly into the camera challenge the bystander positioning of the audience and its right to only look at the film.
As a filmmaker and scholar, I have never stopped asking myself if the camera can reverse North-South power dynamics or if it is fated to reproduce them. Working on contemporary representation of migrants in film, the question of power dynamics of the media remains central as the public discussion on migration gravitates to polarized and Manichean positions. In the case of Italy, for example, Teresa Fiore claims that actual narratives of migrants struggle to emerge and spread in contemporary Italian culture, as their space is already pre-occupied by the histories of Italian emigrants (2017). In this work, I argue that our lack of understanding of the complex dynamics of migration is based on the shortcomings of the dominant representations of these phenomena. If an emergency lasts more than twenty years, can we still call it so? When will we create new words, and images, to speak about the reality that is has become?
The video essay form has provided me the opportunity to work in this direction and share an interdisciplinary line of investigation which aims to generate more questions than answers. To facilitate the development of my reflections, I resolved to use the images of the documentary itself to support my readings, heavily re-editing the original material. I decided to provide some definitions on the screen to facilitate the viewing for people not familiar with film terms. I tried diverse solutions before creating a satisfying visual signposting composed of headings, intertitles, and quotes. Thinking of accessibility, I decided to use a sans serif font and I did not justify any texts in order to help those with reading disorders. Also, I added subtitles with the voice-over text to guarantee access to hearing-impaired people. Finally, I combined the use of film footage, voice-over, sound, and superimposed texts, aiming to foreground how my analysis develops in multiple layers and expands our critical vocabulary about migration.
Abderrezak, Hakim. Ex-centric Migrations: Europe and the Maghreb in Mediterranean Cinema, Literature, and Music. Indiana University Press, 2016.
Beaver, Frank Eugene. Dictionary of film terms: the aesthetic companion to film art. Peter Lang, 2006.
Fiore, Teresa. Pre-Occupied Spaces: Remapping Italy's transnational migrations and colonial legacies. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Duke University Press, 2011.
Perniola, Ivelise. L’età postdocumentaria. Mimesis, 2014.
Previtali, Giuseppe. “Fear Death By Water: Representations Of Migratory Spaces in Contemporary Italian Cinema”. Wide Screen, Vol.7, No.1, 2018.
Rosi, Gianfranco, Donatella Palermo, Carla Cattani, Samuele Pucillo, and Mattias Cucina. Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea). Kino Lorber Edu, 2016.
Erik Scaltriti is a doctoral candidate at The Ohio State University and his investigation focuses on contemporary representations of migration in the Global Mediterranean.
Scaltriti has worked as a freelance filmmaker in Italy, France, Spain and the US for over a decade. He has directed and produced documentaries, television programs, and short movies which include a variety of topics and testimonials: from war veterans and NGO volunteers to refugees and photographers of the Arab Uprising of 2011.