Samuele in Gianfranco Rosi's "Fire at Sea"

Gianfranco Rosi had thought about turning back. He had been in Lampedusa, the Italian island just south of Siciily in the Mediterrean Sea that has long been a way station for migrants desperate to leave such war-torn countries as Tunisia and Libya, for a few days and he was suffering awful bronchitis. A year after a boat carrying over 500 Eritreans burst into flames before capsizing, leaving only 155 survivors, Rosi had been contemplating making a short that would demystify the island, which had become an international fascination after the tragedy off its shores, but he hadn’t found a point of entry himself, and now getting sick, he had set a 5 pm flight back to Rome, with only a trip to see a doctor before taking off, quite possibly for good. As it turned out, when Rosi visited Lampedusa’s lone physician Dr. Pietro Bartolo, he was able to receive more than just a check-up, but a reason to stay when the doctor gave him a USB drive after they spent the afternoon talking about life on the island.

“There were images [on the USB drive], underwater images that the Fire Department [had of] taking out the bodies from the boat, kids lying down on the bottom of the sea, burnt people, all kind of women that were pregnant and died — it was a terrible sequence of images of 15 to 20 years being on this spot,” said Rosi, who learned that in addition to the 6000 residents of Lampedusa, Dr. Bartolo would often treat the migrants that were still alive after their treacherous travels. “It’s a very tragic thing to watch.”

Rosi would spend the next year in Lampedusa, renting out a house near the sea in which he could keep track of the tides, and as he patiently waited three months for his Amira Camera to show up and another few before he had access to the immigration center through which all incoming people must pass, the filmmaker let the culture of the island and all of its tensions sink in. The result is the breathtaking “Fire at Sea,” which divides it’s time between running roughshod across the largely deserted land with Samuele, a 12-year-old boy who fantasizes of war with his slingshot and occasional bursts of finger guns to the sky, and on the boats of migrants during rescue attempts where the weary brave dehydration and the constant threat of violence to flee the real-life horrors of armed conflict that they’ve seen. Between the two ends of the spectrum, Rosi creates the space necessary for a startlingly sophisticated and nuanced look at the issue of immigration, eliding any discussion of politics or policy to directly depict the cost of putting up borders in vividly human terms.

While “Fire at Sea” opens up the world in such a way that all can understand it, it emerges from a deeply personal vision, owing to Rosi’s insistence on working without a crew to capture the visuals and the sound by himself, only turning the camera on when he feels it necessary (the 80 or so hours shot for “Fire at Sea” is a pittance by documentary standards), and a deep empathy for everyone who reveals themselves before his lens, whether it is Samuele and his tradition-bound family, whose pasta recipes and fishing techniques have been passed down for generations, or the migrants whose wails for freedom can be seen in their eyes as readily as they can be heard. Bringing out the beauty that ekes through a truly ugly situation, Rosi lets reality unfold like a dream to touch the subconscious as well as the heart. As “Fire at Sea,” which has been selected as Italy’s official entry to this year’s Oscars, arrives on American shores, the filmmaker spoke about knowing when to film, keeping a distinctive perspective, and how the film’s structure came about.

Samuele in Gianfranco Rosi's "Fire at Sea"You actually were asked to do a short at first, right?

I was, but then I felt to tell this story, it would engage me for a longer time. It was all so tragic. [The process is] not so rigid – to go there and see what you’re feeling to go there and see if make this film and I said [to the producers], “Well, okay, but it has to be a long project.” I need time to develop a story. I’m not good with short film. Since NYU, I always had the need to expand the storytelling. There were kids [that were classmates] that were doing very easy short films. For me, it was difficult to have the synthesis.

That’s so antithetical to the way most productions, even nonfiction films, work typically.

I like to always start from scratch. I don’t like to arrive there with an idea. I always say that when you write a script on a documentary, you start already with a lie. That’s why there are certain movies that you immediately realize they’ve commissioned [the same] editor, they are all the same. After five minutes, you already know where this film is going because it’s a cliche approach. There’s a thesis and there’s the good and the bad, and there’s people complaining about something and then explaining why they complain. [laughs] It’s like the Sundance format of documentary.

Since you mentioned NYU, was it easy to keep your own way of thinking about the best way to tell a story as you progressed?

For me, the best way to tell a story [in documentary] is to think about the same elements you think about in fiction – character, development, storytelling and everything has to happen in reality, so I have to wait for that moment to appear in front of the camera and be able to grab that. But I want the same kind of tension, the same kind of structure, the same kind of cinematography that I think of in a [narrative] feature film, so I like to use the language to cinema to somehow reinforce the reality and make it stronger. [For instance] I like the place to become a mental space. It starts with something very strong, but then Lampedusa has to become a universal space – it cannot just be Lampedusa. So that’s what’s important – to enlarge the vision of that and to be able to go beyond the point of departure where the film starts and then to create an element that has universality. I love this transformation of reality when you can grab it – a very strong emotional world of the person you’re filming. It’s almost like a character study.

Dr. Pietro Bartolo in "Fire at Sea"How did Samuele, the young boy, become such a focus?‎

His inner world is so strong. I like to create this point of view of a kid because it allowed me a lot of space for interpretation. A kid can be unaware of things that happen around him, so his inner mood, his link with the past, his link with the rituals creates a very strong spirit of observational point of view. [Samuele’s] always a source of metaphors and a source of transforming reality [into] the emotional. He’s a balance on the echo of tragedy that’s coming from outside of Lampedusa and he somehow sustains it in an interesting way.

You‎ mentioned having four months where you didn’t have access to the immigration center, so you couldn’t really start on the migrant side of the film. Did that turn out to be a lucky break in being able to observe things before shooting?

Yes, because for me, it’s very important the time I spend before I start filming – it gives me enormous freedom, not having the anxiety of having to film and to really encounter the story and the situation to really be sure where I want to put the camera. It’s important that I embrace the truthfulness of the place and the people as much as possible to reflect the place itself and then it becomes an element of narration for me. Even when I start filming, I don’t film obsessively. I don’t have this bulimic feeling I have to film every day. [laughs]

I have to feel when it’s the right moment. I think documentarians always have to know when to start and when to stop. There’s a moment that you know you have to stop and then we come back two or three weeks or [sometimes] after a month or six. I shot very little [on the boat], only four times in one year, but they had to be the right moment always. So it’s all about waiting for that moment – somehow that moment is in your head, you know it’s going to happen and you have to be ready the moment it appears in front of you to take out the camera and film.

A scene from Gianfranco Rosi's "Fire at Sea"Once you did interact with the migrants, did your ideas about the film change after being embedded with the people of Lampedusa?

No, I had a general idea when I did my pitch to raise the money from French television. I didn’t really have much idea besides a few elements so I started improvising this pitch with the commission editor of Arte France. I designed all my diagrams of how I envisioned the film and a year-and-a-half later when he came to see the film, he told me the story was exactly how I told him in the first moment. But I completely forgot about that, so there’s always an element which is very subconscious. You have to start from a very strong core idea that’s more emotional and you develop the film around this.

What’s it like to cut a film like this with these two sides?

Well, I have a very strong, intimate relationship with my editor. We’ve known each other for over 25 years – we don’t even need to talk any more. We don’t need to analyze. Everything’s very emotional and direct. There is no intellectualization of what we are doing. so we rarely talk about what we do. He hates to talk about that, and I would like more to talk sometimes, but he doesn’t, so everything is very emotional. The editing is like a rewriting process and you have to have a very strong, trusting relationship with your editor. I had an experience once where he was not around and for 10 days, I was editing with someone else. It was impossible because I didn’t trust what the person was doing, and I was completely freaking out. I didn’t have that communication or trust.

Did news coverage of the global migrant crisis shape how you wanted to tell this story in any way?

When I was there, I basically didn’t read any newspaper. I was completely isolated. I didn’t want to inform myself besides the fact that it was happening on the island and I tried to keep the journalistic approach away from it. It was not interesting because there was so much work done on that. You go on to Google, you have one million stories on Lampedusa, so I wanted to do something different and change the point of view. To close the door of information rather than opening it up was a big challenge for me.

A scene from Gianfranco Rosi's "Fire at Sea"There’s an incredibly striking image where you’re under a plastic sheet with one of the migrants‎ – how did you get so close to that person with a camera in that situation?

Yeah, but if you look, there’s a glass in between and I am on the other side. I’m inside the boat and they’re outside, so I wanted to underline that these two worlds are separated – it’s almost like an aquarium. But then there’s an encounter with [the migrant’s] eyes, which is very strong in that moment. There’s a hundred people [there], [and in the migrant’s] eyes, it’s like an encounter with someone, but somehow I wanted to underline the fact that I wasn’t there myself – I didn’t want to pretend I was so close to them.I was really on the other side of the [glass] and that was the reality.

Were there certain people you identified and made a point of following on the boats?‎ I’m thinking about the man with the red tear drop on the boat, specifically.

That was really like being on a war scene – that moment. I was completely confused and trying to understand what was happening. There were people arriving, there were people dying in front of me, there was a complete tragedy and I got so emotionally involved that when I saw this man, he doesn’t have the energy to talk, and at a certain point, I saw him there and someone was giving him a drop for his eyes and I see this tear, I thought it was a very strong and emblematic, so I started filming. They said the Madonna was crying blood, according to the popular legend, and it is a miracle, and this was an atrocity. It was something so painful to watch.

In Lampedusa, this wave of people come constantly and it’s very difficult to have personal contact unless you ask questions directly. But I didn’t want to ask questions because I knew already the answer I would get, so I had to change again the point of view – not be journalistic, not be inquiring, not ask questions. My teacher used to say, “You ask 10 questions and you have 10 answers, it’s not interesting. You have to be able to grab something that is stronger than an answer.” So you create a space of suspension – and maybe you have to be open to questions, because my film requires a lot of Q & A after. [laughs] At the same time, I wonder…sometimes I wish I were [Werner] Herzog. He does a voiceover and gives all the answers. [laughs]

“Fire at Sea” is now playing in theaters. A full list of theaters and dates is here.