Berlin Diary: Two worlds

Posted on February 17, 2016


A powerful, non-hectoring documentary about the refugee crisis. Plus, women in trouble.

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare) must have begun filming much before the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe, but the recent events – those stories, those images – make us feel that this isn’t documentary, this is actually live footage. The question before Rosi was surely this: How do you document, in 107 minutes, the enormity of it all? Rosi’s technique is to submerge us, first, into the lives of fishermen in the Italian island of Lampedusa. A 12-year-old named Samuele teaches a friend to make slingshots. An elderly woman slices tomatoes in her kitchen, listening to Italian songs played by the local RJ. A scuba diver walks down a rocky cliff and dives into the calm waters. But of course these waters are anything but calm – for this idyllic island has, for years, been the destination of men, women and children trying to make the crossing from Africa in small, decrepit boats. The press notes put it best: “Thus, every day, the inhabitants of Lampedusa are bearing witness to the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times.”

Is Fire at Sea a political film? Most certainly. But we don’t see much politics. (At the press conference later, Rosi admitted that Samuele’s lazy eye is possibly a metaphor for politicians who just won’t see what’s happening.) But by keeping the two worlds – those of the fishermen, those of the migrants, those of whites, those of non-whites – resolutely apart, the film makes an implicit statement. Here are people like Samuele, going on as if nothing has changed (though his anxiety hints that everything is not okay). And here is a woman in a boat pleading to the coast guard, “We have small children. Can you help us? We are sinking.” Here are men smelling of diesel, because they could only pay enough for a place in the hold, where a combination of sea water and spilt fuel has left them with severe chemical burns. The biggest crisis in Samuele’s life is his English homework.

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This isn’t Samuele’s fault, of course – and neither can he do much about it. But it’s impossible not to feel how good he has it, even as someone from a poor fisherman’s family, when we hear an African man tell his story through song. We fled from Nigeria. We fled from Libya (city of ISIS). We stayed for many weeks in the Sahara, drinking our own piss. We ran to the sea. The film doesn’t shy away from the implications of this crisis. A local doctor examines a pregnant woman and attempts to tell her what he’s seeing on the ultrasound screen. But he could be talking to himself. She understands nothing. The doctor says, “The cultural mediator will soon be here, so we can communicate better.” The audience laughed – not the way we laugh at comedies, but the way we seize at anything that offers relief from tragedy.

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Can we put ourselves in the place of the other? That’s the question staring at philosophy teacher Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) at the beginning of Mia Hansen-Løve’s French comedy-drama L’Avenir (Things To Come). Soon, she discovers she’d rather be in someone else’s place – for she’s trapped between protesting students, a demanding mother and a husband who leaves her, after 25 years, for another woman. “After forty, women are fit for the trash,” Nathalie tells a former student, who’s given up studies and is now in a commune, making cheese. (He still harbours change-the-world ambitions, though, if his Woody Guthrie CDs are anything to go by.) But Nathalie’s admission isn’t an invitation for pity. It’s just a matter-of-fact indication – in this matter-of-fact coming-of-a-certain-age story – that you could know everything about Rousseau, Schopenhauer and Plato, but you need more practical philosophies to negotiate the messiness of daily life.

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If the childhood sequence of Kill Bill’s O’ren Ishii was transformed from animation to live action, you may have something like the opening stretch of Kaori Momoi’s Japanese drama Hee, where a patient (Azusa, played by Momoi) talks to her psychiatrist about the day her parents died in a fire – which she set off. “Did I intend to kill them?” she wonders. “Lighting a fire and stabbing someone are very different.” Azusa’s life (if we are to believe her) is a litany of sorrows – an abortion while in middle school, a husband who had an affair, a current career as a prostitute, and the charge of murdering a client. What’s fascinating is the presentation of this material – not as a series of sensational highs, but as the kind of monologue you’d see in a one-woman show on stage. Only, with close-ups that highlight the creases on Azusa’s nose as she laughs. This is the perfect filmmaking choice. Hee is as much about an actress performing for an audience (us) as Azusa performing for her shrink, who, in her opinion, manufactures traumas out of life’s drama.

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