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Documenting life and death in Lampedusa

INTERVIEW! This year’s winner of the Berlinale Golden Bear, Gianfranco Rosi, sat with us to talk about his emotional documentary Fuocoammare (Seefeuer) and his approach to filmmaking.

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Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fuocoammare (Seefeuer) is a poetic yet harrowing depiction of the migration crisis and its effect on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Instead of fixating on the tragic or sensational, the film focuses on the emotional quality of a location that functions as a place of death, salvation and life. This year’s winner of the Berlinale Golden Bear sat with us to talk about life as a one-man crew, the hardship of falling in love with his subject, and his attempts to heighten the documentary genre.

Why make a film about Lampedusa?

It wasn’t my idea to make a film in Lampedusa. I was asked to make a film there by the Istituto Luce, an Italian institution for archival material. In 2013 there was a big tragedy in Lampedusa in which a large migrant boat capsized, killing more than 500 people. So Lampedusa became a centre for the media, a place for journalists to go to cover the news for a few days and then leave. But Lampedusa was always treated as a container for tragic stories. Nobody was really telling the story of the island, of its essence and identity.

How did you approach filming this project?

I like to be a one-man crew. It’s very important for me to take this approach because it creates the right relationship with the subject. I work alone because it gives me the freedom to stay in a particular place for a long time. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I had a crew. And secondly it gives me freedom to do whatever I feel like doing. Sometimes I’ll spend two or three weeks without filming. Sometimes I have to wait for the right moment. If there is something in your head, you have to wait until it manifests itself in front of you. So this can take a long time.

How did you gain the trust of the people you filmed?

I never think to myself that I should win the trust of a particular person. It’s actually something that happens in a very natural way. That’s why I try not to take the camera with me. I first got to know the island, and only after I had an impression of the place did I begin to meet people. I usually meet a lot of people, but then it’s a question of whether I fall in love with them or not. It’s like life. When you meet someone and you exchange numbers there is always some quality. You don’t say to yourself you have to become her friend. It’s something that just happens. A teacher used to say “don’t ask questions”. If you have 10 questions, you’ll receive ten answers. Instead you have to be able to capture something more intimate. That’s why in the film the part shot on the island has more depth than the part shot with the immigrants, because the immigrants were just passing through. They were arriving at the island and leaving as soon as they could. So I never had time to develop deep relationships. There was only one instance with a few people from Nigeria, where I got to partake in a rescue mission and I spent some time with them in sea. They then invited me to their room where they were praying, and I was able to film one of the most epic moments in the film.

Tell us some more about the editing process.

I could have actually have kept on shooting for another six months. But when I shot death, this tragic moment on one of the boats, it was as if something had broken my emotional stability. So, after that, I decided I could not film anymore and I immediately started editing. Editing is a problem because you have to bring everything to the present tense. You forget about your personal experiences. That’s why for me editing is a process that has to do very strongly with memory. I spent one year there. I shot 80 hours of footage. But not all 80 hours were relevant to the story. Once I decided to put in the footage of the dead people, I didn’t know where it should go, but I knew that this image had to be in the film. The editing process became a way to find a route that would lead to this moment of tragedy. So, in that sense, the editing allowed me to arrive at the essence of the film, which is essentially a cry for help.

Were you surprised to win the Golden Bear?

It’s always a surprise when you win an award like this. More so given that my previous film won the Golden Lion. So it’s statistically very hard to match something like that with an award as important as this. And to tell you the truth, to be selected for the main competition with a documentary is in itself a big achievement.

What would be your advice to someone starting to make documentary films?

I would say that you have to believe very strongly in what you film, believe that what you are doing is going to make a difference. If you don’t have that you’re going to get killed because no one needs new filmmakers. The world doesn’t need more images. The world doesn’t need more stories. So if you tell a story it has to be very special. You have to find that in yourself, your special point of view. If you have doubts, it’s most likely not going to work. You need to say: “this is what I want to do. Either I die or I survive”.

Fuocoammare opens in Berlin cinemas on July 28. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.