Fleeing on Seas of Fire

Marie Orton introduced the film Fuocoammare, an Italian documentary about the refugee crisis, for its BYU International Cinema Premiere.  

PROVO, Utah (Nov. 2, 2016)—The refugee crisis has been especially evident in Lampedusa, Italy. Located only 70 miles from Tunisia, thifuocoammares seven-square-mile island acts as the entrance for people migrating from Africa to Europe. “Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia than it is to mainland Italy. So Lampedusa represents the outskirts of the outskirts,” said Marie Orton, a professor of Italian at BYU

Introducing the film Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea) of 2016 for BYU International Cinema, Orton explained the refugee crisis in Lampedusa. This island has represented a safe haven for over 400,000 men, women and children, according to Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian. They come for a variety of reasons, explained Orton, including “famine in Africa, unrest in Libya [and] the violence surrounding the Arab Spring of 2011.” Most recently, the civil war in Syria has caused many to flee to Italy. These are what Orton called “push” factors that cause people to leave their country. The main “pull” factor of Italy is its location, just across the Mediterranean from many different war-torn countries. Another reason for emigration to Italy is human trafficking.

“The Mafia has become heavily involved in trafficking refugees, which is a criminal offense in Italy. In fact, the mafia makes more money trafficking people than it does trafficking drugs,” commented Orton. She continued explaining that Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had been particularly against letting illegal migrants into the country, going so far as to deport them to violent areas where they were sure to be killed.    

In Fuocoammare director Gianfranco Rosi uses the eyes of Samuele, a young boy from Lampedusa, to express the difficulties of the refugees entering the country. “The child’s innocence acts as a kind of moral standard against which we are called upon to judge the events of the film,” said Orton. Rosi’s intent, Orton continued, is that we can “approach this crisis innocently” without any “political, ethnic or racial prejudices.”

Orton then described the origins of the title Fuocoammare. It comes from a wartime Sicilian song about an Italian warship that was bombed in 1943 at Lampedusa while still in the harbor. The lyrics, Che fuoca a mare che c’ e stasera (“What fire at sea there is tonight”) inspired the title of Rosi’s film. This allusion would remind “the Italian audience that just a couple of generations previously, they were the ones in crisis, they were the wartime refugees,” said Orton.

The film has been highly acclaimed, receiving the Orso d’oro–the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Orton explained that an aspect that makes it striking is that it is filmed in the neorealist style. Instead of the talking heads or voice-overs of other documentaries, this film tells a story through scenes of daily life.

“I feel compelled to point out that it feels morally wrong to talk exclusively about the director’s art when he’s using that art to display a panorama of human suffering. What should most compel us is the plight of the migrants,” Orton said.

“While this story takes place in a tiny little lost island, the issues are universal and current and urgent. They impact all of us in Europe and in the United States, Orton explained. ”These issues are universal, they are geopolitical, they are economic, but as Gianfranco Rosi’s film shows us so beautifully, ultimately, these issues are moral.”

Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the French and Italian Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.