Form as Critique: On Fire at Sea

Curator's Note

A kid surveys a patch of woodland in search for an appropriate twig to be crafted into a slingshot. At night, navy warships patrol the dark waters while the radio relays the panicked voices of migrants lost at sea, asking for help. There is an obvious, though no less enigmatic, duality in the opening of Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare, 2016) by Gianfranco Rosi. A series of captions prior to this scene informs the spectator that the setting of the action is Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Sicily that since the 2000s has become a primary transit hub for migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, who depart from the Libyan coast on crowded makeshift boats inadequate to withstand the fury of the Mediterranean. This migration route (which exists partly because safer routes, such as the one across Turkey and Greece, had been blocked) is the deadliest in the world, as it became evident to European public opinion during the so-called migration crisis of 2015: from January to April, no less than 1,600 people died trying to reach the port of Lampedusa.

Of this unfathomable catastrophe, the slingshot-wielding Lampedusan kid—Samuele—seems to know nothing. A hand-held camera shadows him as he examines a tree and then clumsily climbs atop a branch to find the twig he was looking for. Then, a couple of long shots show him, followed by his dog, relocating to a massive rock to start working on his weaponry project. The series of images and sound that follows after an abrupt cut—the rotating radars at night, shots of a navy vessel, a beacon shining on the water’s surface—have seemingly nothing to do with the series that preceded them, if not a sense of relative geographical proximity suggested by the opening captions: the first series takes place in daytime on land, is almost entirely without dialogue, and portrays a kid engaging in carefree play; meanwhile, the second series of images is set at night-time at sea, features a harrowing exchange between navy officials and the shipwrecked migrants, and yet there is no visible human presence. At first blush, it appears obvious that the film’s juxtaposition of these two series is designed to highlight discontinuity and heterogeneity. Two worlds seem to exist next to each other: the Italian islanders and the materiality of their daily life on one side, and the disembodied voices of foreign victims (and their military rescuers) lost in the tumultuous darkness of the sea on the other—two forms of existence (and inexistence) running parallel to each other and never touching.

This duality constitutes the fundamental formal principle of the film as a whole: the cutting back and forth from one world to the other, with no points of direct narrative contact between them.[1] It is a striking choice on Rosi’s part, one that has generated more than a few misunderstandings. The most insidious of these misunderstandings is the assumption of some kind of moral judgment on the part of the film. When seen through the lens of a pure separation between the two worlds, the Lampedusans’ apparent obliviousness to the plight of the migrants may look like cruel indifference—thus prompting an understanding of the film as, alternately, a righteously indignant denunciation of European apathy (“look at how the migrants suffer, and how the islanders don’t care!”), or an exculpatory portrayal to be stigmatized (“why spend so much time with the islanders when it is the migrants’ experience that should be foregrounded?”).

As one might imagine, the fact that an interpretation can yield two largely contradictory readings is a telling sign of the inadequacy of its starting assumption, namely, the pure separation between the two worlds in the film. To be sure, the cut between Samuele’s play and the navy’s rescue mission in the opening scene is certainly there to indicate a non-relation. But the meaning of the scene resides not simply in the cut, but also in the ways in which the two series of images relate to each other across it. Four shared elements can be highlighted at a glance: both scenes center on an act of searching (the twig, the shipwreck victims); at the same time, they both foreground weaponry (the slingshot, the artillery on the warship), evoking an idea of violent confrontation; two long shots in the two series are structured in the exact same way (Samuele lying on the rock and the radars rotating at night, with the horizon situated at mid-frame in both instances); and finally, the presence of the sea in the former series as a sliver on the left side of the image—a sort of quiet reminder that as much as Samuele (and the Lampedusans, of which he is a synecdoche) would wish to ignore what is taking place off the coast of their island, the film just won’t let them.

These formal echoes extend in various forms throughout the film. For example, the radio conversation between the navy officials and the migrants in the opening resonates in the scene that follows, which shows a DJ in a local radio station playing a traditional Sicilian song and then a woman preparing lunch in her kitchen and listening to the same radio as the speaker announces the number of migrants rescued the night before.[2] The formal gambit of the film becomes clear: the deliberate separation between the two series of images constitutes the condition for the emergence of unexpected ‘poetic’ connections between them—rhymes across the abyss. Rosi described his film precisely in these terms: “The goal of my film is not to inform. We’re not lacking data, but they crush our perception and our emotions concerning the real. […] The twenty words of a poem, with their blanks, their silences, and the margins of interpretation therein, can tell much more than the 20,000 words of an essay.”[3]

An analogous belief in the power of poetry to reveal some truth about migration is found in Georges Didi-Huberman’s commentary on Niki Giannari’s poem “Specters are Haunting Europe,” a text accompanying the 2016 documentary of the same name on the Idomeni refugee camp directed by Giannari and Maria Korkouta.[4] In his essay, Didi-Huberman illustrates how Giannari’s poem exposes and, at the same time, reverses one of the fundamental Western fantasies about migration: when we treat migrants as barbaric invaders coming from an uncivilized elsewhere, we only do so in order to disavow the fact that they are already part of our own history of colonialism and oppression. “The Idomeni refugees,” writes Didi-Huberman, “appeared to Niki Giannari as specters because she understood that, when a specter appears, it is our own genealogy that is brought to light, called upon, and questioned. A specter would then be our ‘familiar stranger’ [‘étranger familial’].”[5] So, more than an invasion, the arrival of the migrant is a return—the uncanny return of a specter that splits our reality from within.[6]

We can see a similar logic at work in Fire at Sea as well, in the spectral presence of the tragedy of the migrants haunting the apparently placid routines of life on the island. The film articulates the poetic, enigmatic linkages between the two worlds as nothing other than symptoms—and what is a specter, after all, if not the uncanny manifestation of a symptom as the return of the repressed? It is not difficult to see how the film casts the spectral migrant as the unsettling reminder of Italy’s unresolved relationship to its own repressed imperialist past—from the occupation of parts of Eritrea and Somalia and the ensuing conflict with Ethiopia in the second half of the 19th century to the Fascist colonial project of the 1930s. A scene later in the film reveals that Samuele has a lazy eye and that he suffers from unexplained anxiety attacks. Obviously, at the center of these two medical conditions stands the specter that Samuele (the Lampedusans, the Italians, the Europeans) don’t want to see, and that nonetheless announces its presence symptomatically in the onset of a suffocating sense of disquiet. (Samuele explains to the doctor that he suffers from spells of shortness of breath that resemble panic attacks—something that conjures both the anxiety-inducing presence of the migrant as revenant and, more literally, the thousands of people cast adrift and gasping for air off the coast of the island.)

The sinister rhyming between the slingshot and the artillery on the navy vessels in the opening scene functions in a similar way, evoking the fantasy of the migrants as barbarians at the gates, outsiders who must be kept out at all costs—hence the global phenomenon of the militarization of borders and the deployment of state violence against migrants, which come back to haunt the world of the islanders in the form of children’s play. These instances in the film, along with the more subtle ones (such as the sliver of sea in the opening scene) function as something akin to what Didi-Huberman, referencing Benjamin, calls “thought-images”: minor, simple visual singularities whose enigmatic nature activates thinking and connects past and present, the singular and the universal (“the way in which the whole world breathes, in the exact place of this small strangeness [étrangeté]”[7]). The languid pace of the film, with its prevalence of mostly static long takes, can be read precisely as a careful scanning of time and space in search for such images (encouraging us, perhaps, to interpret the emphasis on the act of searching in the opening scene as a programmatic declaration about the film’s own artistic project).

As a result, the constellation of thought-images in the film prompts a defamiliarization of the two worlds it portrays, showing—without telling—the unavoidable, and often unsettling, imbrication of one into the other. This is where the critical dimension of Fire at Sea lies: not simply in the denunciation of deadly traveling conditions and the exhibition of wounded bodies, but in the separation between the worlds of the islanders and the migrants, and in the tentative linkages between them that the film creates. By way of this formal organization, the film offers a radical critique of the habitual media imagery of migration and its attendant reflexes of empathy and indignation. This imagery, now largely commodified, has a tendency to function as a sort of fetish: it commands our attention with its almost unbearable pathos, while in some way freezing our capacity for thinking critically—that is, our ability to connect the events represented in these images to their larger (and largely invisible) historical, political, and economic causes. There is always the presupposition of a certain fullness of meaning attached to catastrophic images of migration, a concreteness and immediacy that negate any attempt at abstraction and, with it, at critique itself: there are bodies and there is suffering and nothing more needs to be said. With its thought-images suspended across the abyss, Fire at Sea embraces instead a certain incompleteness and tentativeness of meaning as a basic condition for thinking with images, and beyond them.


[1] The only conjunction is the figure of Pietro Bartolo, the island doctor who is shown providing healthcare for both Samuele and the incoming migrants.

[2] The song playing on the radio is “E vui durmiti ancora” (“And you still sleep”), another implicit reference to the islanders’ obliviousness.

[3] Joseph Confavreux, “Making Fuocoammare,” interview with Gianfranco Rosi, in Above Sea Level: A Notebook on the films of Gianfranco Rosi (Rome: Istituto Luce Cinecittà, 2016).

[4] Situated in Greece near the border with North Macedonia, the camp was a transit point for tens of thousands of migrants from South Asia and the Middle East until being cleared out by Greek authorities in May 2016.

[5] Georges Didi-Huberman and Niki Giannari, Passer, quoi qu’il en coûte (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2017), 32 (my translation).

[6] The political potentialities of the figure of the migrant as specter have recently been explored in the mesmerizing Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019). For a discussion of the figure of the migrant that resonates with the argument presented here, see Luka Arsenjuk, “Between History and the Discord of Time: The Figure of the Migrant in A Seventh Man and Transit,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and Migration, eds. Corina Stan and Charlotte Sussman (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2023), 61–75. The argument articulated in the essay I’m presenting here has benefitted from many conversations with Luka.

[7] Didi-Huberman and Giannari, 30.

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