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Between sleepy daily life and acute refugee crisis

If you go to the Short Film Festival in Grimstad in June, you can see the Berlin-winning refugee documentary Fire at Sea long before it is set up in cinema. But also the Norwegian documentary program has a lot of exciting to offer.


Fire at Sea / Ocean is burning
Director and photographer: Gianfranco Rosi

The short film festival in Grimstad is not only a festival for short films, but also for documentaries – long as well as short. In addition to the fact that some shorter documentaries appear among the short film programs, the festival also presents a competition program for Norwegian and international full documentaries.

At times, the Norwegian program has been characterized by the fact that many of the films have already been shown on television or cinema. And this is possibly difficult to avoid, if you want to get the best. Nonetheless, this year the festival boasts a sprawling Norwegian documentary program with several titles the festival audience has not had so many other chances to see.

clnyaeg2Hybrids and shape exploration. Among these is Camilla Figenschou's fascinating hybrid film Car and bow, who, with his searching and sensual film language, depicts an existing horse therapy farm in Northern Norway, where the most central character is embodied by an actor. But also Jørn Utkilens Statement Too, which is a form-exploring and self-reflexive portrait of the Trondean cult musician Arvid Sletta, is a film that will not necessarily settle within the fairly well-defined framework for documentaries in cinema and television.

Also heavily established names such as Margreth Olin and Aslaug Holm are represented on the program with respectively The man from Snåsa og The squatters (directed by Holm and Olaug Spissøy Kyvik). In addition, you can see Kari Anne Moes hooligans (which, like Olin's film, has been shown in ordinary cinema) and Pål Refsdals Dugma – the Button, both films that have been featured on previous occasions here in the newspaper.

Threats to litigation. And not least, the Norwegian documentary program will show the exile crusader and dissident Andrei Nekrasov's The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes. In this documentary, the filmmaker advocates an alternative to the "anti-Russian» the view of the Magnitsky case, which has already had major political implications for the foothold between Russia and the West. The film recently sparked controversy over the cancellation of a European Parliament premiere and a screening on the ARTE television channel a few days later – allegedly because the film's Norwegian production company Piraya Film and its financiers and partners (including the Norwegian Film Institute and Fritt Ord) have been threatened with lawsuit from Magnitsky advocate William Browder. This is undeniably a film that is associated with a certain expectation and excitement in Grimstad. Piraya Film has stated that they now go an extra round of lawyers before releasing the film, but that they are looking forward to showing The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes in Grimstad.

Across borders. Like Dugma – The Button, Nekrasov's film is an example of Norwegian documentary not just taking place in Norway. By the way, this gives a more or (perhaps rather) less elegant transition to a closer look at a film in the international documentary program, which is as relevant to us here at home as many of the Norwegian films.

In the previous issue of Ny Tid, we wrote about a film program at the documentary film festival in Thessaloniki, consisting of films that shed light on the very current refugee issue from various angles. In the generally strong program, however, there was one very significant film that was missing, namely Gianfranco Rosis Fire at Sea (Original title Fuocoammare). This is the Italian film that won the Golden Bear for Best Film at this year's Berlin Film Festival – an honor that is very rarely a documentary film. (Impressively, Rosi has also won the Golden Lion in Venice for the documentary Sacro GRA in 2013.)

Contrasts. Fire at Sea – or The sea is burning, as it will be called when distributor Arthaus puts it up in Norwegian cinemas in October – has some obvious similarities to one of the films I wrote about from Thessaloniki, more specifically Lampedusa in Winter. With a distinctly observational approach, both of these films depict daily life on the partially sleepy Italian island of Lampedusa, which is in stark contrast to the many refugees who come here on their way to a hopefully better life.

But where there was some weakness Lampedusa in Winter that it emphasized trivial actions over the situation and fate of the many refugees on the island, Rosi in her film alternates between similar elements with far greater success.

The film focuses for much of its playing time on nine-year-old Samuele, who with age-eagerness explores the surroundings of the island he grew up on, while at the same time nervous about not fitting into his father's and grandfather's role as a fisherman. Through a relatively static and discreetly controlled cinematic language – which can sometimes lead to the thoughts of Ulrich Seidl – we follow Samuele and other islanders in their daily activities, which are not exclusively about the many boat refugees who are constantly arriving on the small island. In a way, this draws an effective picture of how the new refugee situation has just plunged into our daily lives, which still goes to a relatively large extent as before – both good and bad, you might say. Without the filmmaker treating the islanders he has chosen as his characters with nothing but respect, albeit mixed with a certain portion of humor.

Hard facts. However, there is never any doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Even before the film begins, we are presented with the hard facts via text posters: Lampedusa is located 70 kilometers from the African coast, and just over 190 kilometers from Sicily. In the last 20 years, 400 migrants have arrived on the Italian island. An estimated 000 have died.

The film also tells the local doctor about some of the atrocities he has witnessed among the arriving refugees. These include severe burns from the reaction between salt water and the boats' fuel, which many have almost been soaked in along the way.

Oddly enough, boats are celebrating Winter in Lampedusa og Fire at Sea several scenes for each radio DJ – probably because these are a kind of unifying element in the small community. In addition, these characters can convey essential information about, among other things, newly arrived refugees and other events from the news scene, but they can also serve as contrasts to these elements with their frivolous cosplay and ditto music choices. Fire at Sea The borrower even borrows his title from one of the songs from the radio station, which is dialed in as a listening choice by Samuel's grandmother. At this time, she has also told him that during World War II it was talked about that the sea "was on fire" because of the many warships.

This strikingly poetic parallel to today's situation on the same sea can also serve as an example of the filmmaker's ability to capture powerful-looking situations, without even having to explain with narrative voices or "talking heads."

The local doctor also tells of some of the atrocities he has witnessed among the arriving refugees. These include severe burns from the reaction between salt water and the boats' fuel, which many have almost been dumped along the way.

Meet the gaze. Again, like Lampedusa in Winter also follows Fire at Sea some of the lifeboats trying to pick up the people who are coming, and just as it is leaving, with the overcrowded boats. Especially in the second half of the film, these scenes become prominent, and with this we finally get quite close to the desperate refugees. In one powerful scene, a young African man sings about the long and dangerous journey he has just lived, in another the camera allows himself to rest on a young woman's deeply despairing facial expression. And not least does it make an impression when Rosi almost in static tabs lets us see the faces of the newcomers, who are photographed on government records, in a sequence that ends with one of them looking straight at the film camera. Of course, this is not so much an intertextual reference to the closing picture in François Truffaut's new wave classic On the way to life, but to a much greater extent about a real human being who looks us straight in the eye – and with that challenges our conscience to endure as deeply as it is called.

Although Fire at Sea depicting both Lampedusa and the refugee situation there from a certain macro perspective, it is also an example of how documentary films can penetrate the statistics and show us the people who make up the numbers. Not least, I would recommend our immigration minister to look out for Fire at Sea and other of these films, when I dare say they give a much closer insight into the refugees' situation than splashing smilingly around the Mediterranean wearing a wetsuit. Good movie!

The Norwegian short film festival in Grimstad is organized
in the period 8-12. June. 

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