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On an Italian island, a documentary and a tragedy

My husband and I visited Lampedusa in June 2010. At the time we still had no kids so we were able to have a proper relaxing vacation. Just the two of us, wandering about the beaches, reading Andrea Camilleri’s books, eating delicious food. screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-02-01We always loved small islands, they’re the perfect solution for a stress free vacation. In fact, the island is a defined space: the sea sets the boundaries for your imagination. The restless traveller – as we are – knows he/she has a limited amount of land to explore, so he/she will be moderately tormented by the curiosity of knowing more and going a little farther every time. Lampedusa had always aroused our geographical curiosity for its being a sort of Finis Terrae. The ancient Romans used this expression to define “the end of the earth”. As you can see from the map, Lampedusa is the southernmost land of Europe. As restless travellers, of course we managed to reach the southernmost part of Lampedusa, which looks like this:

I got stunned by the high cliffs. It gave me the idea of a deep, violent cut, of something separated from something else. Geologically, Lampedusa belongs to Africa: it parted from the continent about 2 million years ago and its trip is still going on. I never realised Lampedusa itself is a migrant. Being so close to Tunisia and Lybia, Lampedusa is the first available landing place for the desperate crossing of migrants from all parts of Africa. Sadly, the island often makes Italian news when a crumbling boat is rescued by the coastguard or, worst, when a new shipwreck is found. Lampedusa is also home to the controversial “detention centre” (another way of saying “jail”) for the migrants.

A 2016 documentary about Lampedusa, Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), has been nominated for the next Academy Awards. It will be the only Italian movie running for an Oscar this year. The documentary has no commentary and shows the two parallel realities of the island: the local population and the migrants. We follow a boy and his games, his grandmother taking care of the house, a DJ playing Sicilian traditional music, a man fishing sea urchins, the local doctor. We listen to their dialect and their silences, we see their gestures, their routine. And then there are the stunning landscapes of Lampedusa in winter: infinite skies, roaring waves, old trees, barren land. Tourists are absent: it’s just the local population dealing with the sweet tediousness of living on an island. The images of Lampedusa’s life alternate with those of the migrants’ arrivals: two opposite worlds yet so close one to another. We assist to the rescue operations of the coastguard: seeking boats overflowing with desperate people, helping them to get on board, escorting them to the detention centre. It’s not easy to look at the faces of these human beings, only imagining what they came through before arriving in Lampedusa.

Fuocoammare Poster

So now compare the images of desperate people stranded at sea to relieved people arriving at Pearson Airport in Toronto, cherished by applauses and “welcome home” billboards. Still, don’t misunderstand me: I don’t want to compare Italy and Canada. On this subject the two countries have a completely different situation: geographically, politically and economically. What I want to stress here is the perception of immigration we get from everyday news in Italy and in Canada. As first outpost of Europe, Lampedusa (and Italy) are directly exposed to this tragic diaspora. Therefore, Italian news are too often filled with terrible images of boats and tears and bodies. Of course those images raise piety, but they also de-humanise the migrant who is deprived of his/her dignity. Probably, the Italian public opinion would benefit with watching them as real people with a story, a family, a profession, a hope. At the same time Canadians would benefit by realising what those people came through, what countries like Italy are doing every day to save as much as possible, how many migrants aren’t able to make it, how terrible is the situation over there.

In Fuocoammare the doctor says it is every man’s duty to do something for these people. In today’s world where immigration is too often stigmatised by a political class feeding on xenophobia, telling and showing Lampedusa to the world is something we can do. That’s why I do hope this documentary will get as much attention as possible at the next Academy Awards.

Watch Fire at Sea Official Trailer:

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