Berlin: Director of Golden Bear Winner Talks Refugee Crisis Doc (Q&A)

Gianfranco Rosi with Meryl Strep Berlin Film Festival 2016

“People are dying, thousands, tens of thousands ... we can't just watch and do nothing,” Gianfranco Rosi tells THR about the motivation behind his documentary 'Fire at Sea.'

Italian director Gianfranco Rosi's documentary Fire at Sea, which won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival on Saturday, tells a story of the migrant crisis that has been in the news in Europe for so long that it has nearly become background noise.

But with his careful eye and subtle approach, Rosi — whose previous documentary Sacro GRA won Venice's Golden Lion in 2013 — conveys the immensity and immediacy of the crisis in a way the news can't, or won't.

The film was shot over a year on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where wave upon wave of migrants arrive, fleeing war and famine. Thousands die on the way, many drowning just miles off the shores of Europe.

Rosi intertwines two stories in his film: ordinary life on the island, as seen through the eyes of the rambunctious, but also troubled, 12-year-old boy Samuele; and, by following emergency doctor Pietro Bartolo, who runs Lampedusa's small hospital, the migrant crisis.

Rosi, who dedicated his Golden Bear to "the people of Lampedusa," tells The Hollywood Reporter that Fire at Sea is intended as a wake-up call for his continent and its politicians. "People are putting up walls again, building barriers," he says. "If that happens, it will be the end. The end of Europe."

In an interview with THR, the filmmaker also discusses how he decided to take on the topic, his experience in Lampedusa, the media coverage of the refugee crisis and what the wave of migrants means for the future of Europe.

What was your original motivation behind making this film?

Paradoxically, all my films I made came from me, from my own need to make the film, until Sacro GRA. I was asked to make that film, and then this one, which I was also asked to make. By Italian TV, a public broadcaster. I was asked to go to Lampedusa to make a film. It was supposed to be a short film, 20 minutes. When I went there, I realized it was impossible to do a short film to tell the subject. Then I wrote a script, enlarging the project, and asked the producer to enlarge the film. They accepted. They found a small budget to make the film, and I moved to Lampedusa for one year.

When I start a film, I never really know where it is going to take me. I need to be immersed in the place and the film starts organizing itself, it starts emerging, day by day. I don't want to have a pre-fixed idea of what I'm going to shoot. First, it starts with the place itself, and then once I see the landscape, the island and start meeting people, it starts to take shape.

Lampedusa is a place where people arrive from Africa. For years, this has been happening. The first person I met was the doctor in the film. Then Samuele, the kid. I started slowly filming with him, telling the life of a kid on the island.

At that time, Lampedusa was in a sort of suspension, because the center for the immigrants had been burned down before I arrived. It was being rebuilt. So, paradoxically, for two to three months there were no incidents of people arriving on Lampedusa.

I started immersing myself in the identity of the place, tried to find the identity of this island in the middle of the sea between Italy and Africa. It is closer to Africa than Italy. I started telling stories of the island itself.

Then they opened the center again, and the refugees started arriving again from Africa and the picture started taking another shape. I finished shooting on the 13th of January, this was a work-in-progress, constantly.

The news media only really started reporting extensively on the refugee crisis last summer. How do you view the media coverage of the crisis?

Before the summer, Lampedusa was the center of attention only when a tragedy was happening. Whenever there was a boat where 300 people died, say. Whenever there was a big tragedy, you had Lampedusa invaded by journalists. They'd stay one day and they all leave. And there was an emptiness.

Then with the big wave of refugees that came last summer, all the issues started rising up and become a big political issue. In Europe they started to realize that there are people escaping from the tragedy, and we might have to do something. Though still, I think it is quite weak, the reaction.

Why do a documentary on this when the issue is being covered so extensively in the news?

I wanted to bring more the impact of a moment and that is not being covered. To make it immediate and urgent. I didn't plan that, but it was something I couldn't dismiss. The tragedy came to me, and I started filming it. When you see the people, their faces, their stories.

There's the scene in the film when [a group of refugees] narrate their story with a rap song. This rap, this sort-of prayer, for me, tells the whole story of these people ... how they escaped from a tragedy, through the desert, drinking their own pee, crossing the sea, arriving. When you hear that, from one person, one individual, you feel the need, the urgency, that we have to do something.

You know, this is the first time we are living a tragedy in real time. The images are coming to us in real time. And yet people are looking away. 40,000, 50,000 ... who knows how many people have died in that sea? People are dying, and I wanted to make this film because I wanted to raise an awareness. People cannot die because they are escaping from war, escaping from hunger and we just watch this without doing anything.

This is a problem that's not only in Europe, it is not only in Italy. This is the world's problem. It is a problem that belongs to all of us. The war in Syria is a global war, and the people here are escaping from that. And the politicians, so far, have not been able to do anything. My film doesn't give any answers, but I want to create an awareness. People cannot die when they take a boat to escape from a tragedy.

How do you assess the change in the reaction, in Europe, to the crisis over the past year?

It has changed, unfortunately, in a horrible way. Now, I see Europe building up walls again, creating barriers. And we know, from the history of time, that barriers never work. When we are here in a place [Berlin] where there was a wall and then the wall collapsed. So the Europe that is raising up walls, it is a Europe that does not fit anymore to me. It is not a Europe I want to live in.

Unfortunately, people are closing up and being afraid. You know — this is the enemy. The politicians have to understand, this is a human tsunami that is happening. You cannot stop it.

The only thing you can do is try and find solutions. First, solutions at the place where the people are escaping from, and second, once they have arrived here, to embrace these people as part of our reality, and you cannot raise walls.

What do you hope the reach of this film will be?

When I start a film, I never think of how many people will see it; for me, a film is a personal medium, a way of telling a story, something. I have made films that nobody has seen. Sacro GRA, which won the Golden Lion, maybe a few thousand people saw that. (Laughs.) That's not something I usually think about. But a film like this, I realize right now, has become enormously important.

When I started the film, no one was talking about this. In the past year, things have changed enormously. Here, in the center of Europe, this has become an enormous issue, a very political thing. I don't think the film is a political film, but somehow it is embracing a political issue, so that I realize I can't control it anymore.

I don't know where this film will go now, what will happen with the film. But I think at this point, I want as many people as possible to watch this film, to create, at the very least, an awareness of what is happening.

Do you see any positives signs from politicians in Europe in regards to this issue?

There are politicians that are opening up. [German chancellor Angela] Merkel, for example ... a politician from a center-right party, and she is the only politician who has tried to open up. The consequences here in Germany have been very heavy for her.

Even left-wing people are closing up and are afraid. Look what happened after the incident in Cologne on New Year's [where a large group of men, many of them recent immigrants, molested hundreds of women]. It was so crazy. Suddenly everyone started saying: “They are all coming here and will touch and grope our women!” This points to an enormous fragility in the country.

But I didn't perceive this before ... because I was living on Lampedusa, I had no contact to the outside, no newspapers, nothing. I was completely immersed, like a guy underwater. Only now am I surfacing and I see the issue is becoming huge.

How big a crisis is this for Europe as a whole?

This is a tragedy. People dying crossing the sea. Women, kids. It is a tragedy we cannot accept. We are only 20 miles from Libya. When it happened, I said: Why not go there? There are 500,000 people trying to escape from Libya at this moment. A continent [Europe] that has 500 million people, why can't we take these 500,000 people and distribute them around? And not let them cross the sea and die. Thousands of kids have died in the last three to four months.

You know, we built Europe as this idea of a space where people can move, without anymore barriers, without borders. When you start putting borders in Europe, it is the end of the Europe I wanted to create, the Europe I want to be part of.

But I am scared right now. Scared that the politicians won't be able to take a decision. When Europe starts talking about closing up, it is the end of Europe. People are putting up walls again, building barriers. If that happens, it will be the end. The end of Europe. And I don't want this to happen.