“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out,” Martin Scorsese famously said. I’ve had this quote saved in a document of quotes about cinema that I compiled when starting this site back in 2009. To the best of my knowledge, I have yet to deploy it in a review (though perhaps it popped up in a freelance writing assignment or academic paper). And, frankly, this is good news given that I grossly misconstrued its deceptively complex meaning for many years.
The truth of Scorsese’s statement seems self-evident. Of course these things make up the cinema. But the most important portion of this maxim reminds us that a director’s deliberate choices are not limited to inclusion. They also include exclusion, and we often forget to consider these decisions given the vast amount of things they chose not to do. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary chronicle of the current refugee crisis, “Fire at Sea,” makes for an exemplary film to demonstrate this concept.
This verité chronicle of life on Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Italy that proves a hub for refugees making their way across the Mediterranean, shifts frequently between several centers of gravity. There’s the town doctor who treats locals and migrants alike. There are the migrants themselves, some of which we see but many of whom we simply hear over the radio systems of the boats sent to rescue them. And then perhaps most prominently, there’s the 12-year-old native child of Lampedusa, Samuele Pucillo. We see him the most, receiving an excess of information about his glasses, his schooling and his breathing problems.
Samuele’s life is important, and his struggles are not to be dismissed out of hand. But while watching “Fire at Sea,” it’s easy to wonder why he’s at the forefront so often. As we learn more about his life, we gradually begin to lose touch with the narrative of the refugees. That’s not an accident, oversight or some kind of unconscious bias guiding suspect editorial judgment. Rosi executes a brilliant Brechtian maneuver, making us aware of what we are seeing – and, by extension, what we are not. What’s left outside the frame, the refugees washing up by the boatload, is what we expect to be the real story.
I suspect many people, like myself, will watch “Fire at Sea” with the best of intentions and varying degrees of bleeding hearts. Rosi does not reward intention alone and refuses to let us emerge with a clean conscience. How many of us were able to compartmentalize the sufferings of Aleppo and let some small agitation in our own lives take center stage? Rosi isn’t interested in putting the refugee crisis into some kind of grand perspective. He just wants to make sure we are all aware of the current perspective in which we have chosen to situate it, whether it appears as some distant challenge or a problem in our own backyard.
Far too often in “Fire at Sea,” as in our media and greater public consciousness, the refugee crisis is out of the frame. It doesn’t have to be that way, and the first step toward changing that is to do more than just watch Rosi’s documentary. We must let it guide our thoughts so that it can then motivate action. B+ /