But his is not an island like the others, its name is Lampedusa and it is the most symbolic border of Europe, crossed by thousands of migrants in the last 20 years in search of freedom.
Once on the island, however, I discovered a reality that was far removed from that found in the media and the political narrative, and I realised that it would be impossible to compress a universe as complex as Lampedusa into just a few minutes.
Understanding it would require complete and prolonged immersion, it wouldn’t be eas, I knew I would have to find a way in.
Then, as is often the case in documentary filmmaking, the unpredictable happened. I went to the local emergency room with a nasty case of bronchitis and met Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who I learned was the only doctor on the island and had been present at every landing of rescued migrants for the last thirty years. It was he who determines who is sent to the hospital, who goes to the detention centre, and who is deceased.
Not knowing I was a director looking for a possible story, Dr. Bartolo told me of his experiences in medical and humanitarian emergencies. What he said, and the words he used, deeply affected me.
A mutual understanding developed between us, and I realised he was someone who could become a character in the film. After an hour and a half of intense discussion, the doctor turned on his computer to show me images, heart-rending and never shown before, so that I could “touch with my hand” the reality of the migrant tragedy. At that moment I knew I had to transform the 10-minute short I’d been sent to shoot into my new film.
After setting up production for the project, I moved to Lampedusa and rented a little house in the old port where I stayed until the last moment I needed it. I wanted to tell the story of this tragedy through the eyes of the islanders, whose way of seeing and hearing things, and living, had undergone a massive change over the past 20 years.
Thanks to the help of Peppino, a guardian angel of the island who later became my assistant director, I gradually came into contact with the locals and came to know their rhythms, their daily life, their way of seeing things. And as had happened with Dr. Bartolo, I had another fundamental encounter, with Samuele, a 9-year-old boy and son of a fisherman, who won me over. I realised that through his clear and ingenuous eyes I could tell the story of the island and its inhabitants with greater freedom. I followed him as he played, with his friends, at school, at home with his grandmother, and on the boat with his uncle. Samuele allowed me to see the island differently and with a clarity that I had not known before, and through him other characters were gradually introduced into the film, one after another.
My decision to move to Lampedusa changed everything. In my year on the island I weathered the long winter and then the sea-going months, and I came to know the true rhythm of the flood of migrants. It was necessary to go beyond the media’s habit of rushing to Lampedusa only when there is an emergency. Living there I realised that the term emergency is meaningless. Every day there is an emergency. Every day something happens. To grasp a real sense of the tragedy you need to be not only close, but to have ongoing contact. Only in this way was I able to better understand the feelings of the islanders, who had been watching this tragedy repeat itself for twenty years.
After the inauguration of rescue operations like Mare Nostrum, which tries to intercept boats at sea, migrants are no longer seen on Lampedusa. They pass through like phantoms. They are unloaded on a wharf in the old port, bussed to the detention centre for assistance and identification, and a few days later dispatched to the mainland.
As with the landings, of which I filmed dozens, the only way to understand the detention centre is to go in and see it up close. It is very difficult to shoot inside one, but thanks to the permit I obtained from the Sicilian authorities, I was able to show the centre, its rhythms and rules, its guests and customs, its religions and its tragedies. A world within a world, sealed off from the daily life of the island. The greatest challenge was finding a way to film this universe that could convey a sense not only of truth and reality but also of the humanity within.
However, I soon realized that the border – which had once been Lampedusa itself, when the boats still landed right on the island - had moved out to sea. I asked permission to board an Italian naval vessel operating off the African coast and I spent about a month on the Cigala Fulgosi as it took part in two missions. There, too, I learned the rhythms, rules and customs of life on board until we ran into tragedies, one after another. The experience of filming these cannot be described here.
In my films I have often found myself depicting circumscribed worlds, whether literally or ideally so. These universes, at times as small as a room, have their own logic and internal movements. To capture and convey them is the most complicated part of my job. So it was with the community of dropouts in the American desert (BELOW SEA LEVEL), an isolated world with its own rules where the border was one’s affiliation with an idea, or one’s condition. So it was with the narco-assassin turned informer, holed up in a motel room, re-enacting his crimes and explaining the rules of his criminal community (EL SICARIO). The same can be said for that other human community that lives on the margins of the ring road around Rome (SACRO GRA). So, in Lampedusa, I found myself understanding the workings, if I can call it that, of another set of concentric worlds, with their own rules and their own sense of time: the island, the detention center, the Cigala Fulgosi.
It is impossible to leave Lampedusa, just as it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when filming is complete. If this is true for all my films, it is especially so for this one. One incident made me realise that the circle was somehow closing. Because it was after meeting Dr. Bartolo that I decided to make this film on Lampedusa, to close the film I felt it was necessary to return to that encounter. I went to see Bartolo, but with a camera this time, which I turned on to film his testimony, his story. And as before, looking into the screen of his computer where his archive of twenty years of rescues is stored, Bartolo, with his immense humanity, and serenity, was able to communicate the magnitude of the tragedy, and the duty to offer assistance and shelter – exactly what was needed to close the film.
In 2008, BELOW SEA LEVEL, shot in Slab City, California, won the Orizzonti Award at the Venice FF. The film also won the Grand Prix and the Prix des Jeunes at the Cinéma du Réel FF in 2009, the prize for best documentary at the One World FF in Prague, the Vittorio De Seca prize for best documentary at Bif&st 2009 and was nominated as best documentary at the European Film Awards in 2009.
In 2010, he shot the feature EL SICARIO – ROOM 164, a film-interview about a killer turned informer from the Mexican drug cartels and won the Fipresci Award at the Venice IFF and the Doc/It prize as the best documentary of the year. It also won Best Film at DocLisboa in 2010 and at Doc Aviv in 2011.
In 2013, he made the documentary feature, SACRO GRA, that won the Golden Lion at the Venice IFF.
2013 - SACRO GRA
2010 - EL SICARIO - ROOM 164
2008 - BELOW SEA LEVEL
2001 - AFTERWORDS
1993 - BOATMAN
Cast & Crew
Directed by: Gianfranco Rosi
Written by: Gianfranco Rosi
Produced by: Donatella Palermo, Gianfranco Rosi, Serge Lalou, Camille Laemle, Roberto Cicutto, Paolo Del Brocco, Martine Saada, Olivier Père
Cinematography: Gianfranco Rosi
Editing: Jacopo Quadri
Sound Design: Stefano Grosso
Main Cast: Samuele Pucillo, Mattias Cucina, Samuele Caruana, Pietro Bartolo, Giuseppe Fragapane, Maria Signorello, Francesco Paterna, Francesco Mannino, Maria Costa
Nominations and Awards
- European Documentary 2016
- People's Choice Award 2016
- Documentary Selection 2016