Samuele — a twelve-year-old local boy — is looking for something in a tree. The foliage is chilly blues and greens; he wears a coat. The sea is white noise in the background. This is Lampedusa, in Italy, one of the main ports of arrival for migrants crossing the Mediterranean. White-on-black captions inform us: “In the last 20 years, 40,000 migrants have arrived on Lampedusa… it is estimated that 15,000 people have died.” The island, once a fishing community, is now a hospital, refugee camp, and processing centre for people coming from Syria, the Ivory Coast, Libya, Eritrea, and all across the continent, a journey that bottle-necks in northern Africa and ends — for now — in Lampedusa. 

Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary is filmic and muscular, its scale geographical: there are boats on a vast sea, a rescue helicopter being yawned forth from the hold of a ship. But it focuses in on human activity on this landscape, following Samuele as he goes to the doctor, slurps spaghetti, and improves on his catapult skills, and the island’s kindly doctor as he cares for the migrants, discusses the conditions they arrive in, describes the autopsies he has to perform. The scenes with the Italians are mostly shot in daylight, the ones with the migrants at night, generating a tumble-drier sense of time’s rapid passing. 

Samuele is diagnosed with a lazy eye and given an eyepatch to affix behind a pair of round glasses. Like Samuele, our perspective is partially sighted; we are afforded only an accumulation of detail as opposed to something more plotted out. Rosi paints in precise detail the texture of daily life on the island, building a sense of the human scale of the crisis. This partiality is also reflected in Rosi’s frequent presentation of the speech of the migrants without subtitles, which leaves private their individual histories and journeys — a privacy that stands in contrast with their exposure during their journey and arrival, where they are photographed and processed. The documentary maintains, sometimes uncomfortably, the perspective of the islanders as opposed to the migrants’: the faces of the assembled refugees remain anonymous.

The Greeks referred to the sea as having two faces: polluted and polluting, yet capable of cleansing. In the documentary it is variably slick and glossy, or choppy as if painted by a pallet knife. An Italian sea urchin diver transforms from a portly man making his hesitant way across the rocks to a sleek seal-like shape underwater. The doctor tells the camera that the men pulled from the boats often have extensive chemical burns from the fuel that mixes with seawater in the bottom of the boat, soaking their clothes and skin. Those who go to sea do not come back the same, as one migrant sings/speaks: “The sea is not a place to pass by… the sea is not a road.” As the poet Warsan Shire writes: “you have to understand, / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.”

It’s not until the documentary’s final half hour that the horror of the journey is shown explicitly, as a dinghy with hazmatted occupants approaches a migrant boat, bristling with people. The aid workers haul off five or six profoundly unwell men, heaping them into the dinghy. Their bellies flutter in a deeply unsettling way as a result of dehydration and tachycardia, recalling the squid we saw earlier taken from the sea, pulsating in the bottom of a fishing boat. 

The refugees are arriving into a Europe grossly divided by its ethical responsibilities towards the people arriving on its shores. The tenderness of a scene where the doctor performs an ultrasound on a woman pregnant with twins, showing her the tiny craniums adrift in the greyscale onscreen, cuts to one in which Samuele and his friend practise firing their catapults at cactuses into which they have hacked faces: a suggestion of the violence that might await the migrants, that shapes the world the twin babies are born to. The film is a depiction of how care is administered from person to person, in the words of the doctor: “it’s the duty of every human being, if you’re human, to help these people.” Yet the film’s closing moments are of Samuele, sitting on a dock that surges in an unsettled sea, pretending to shoot planes from the sky: what violence, it asks, might be incubated in human suffering, at the outer edges of a continent, where the rest of Europe refuses to look?

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