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Refugee documentary Fire At Sea wins Berlin's Golden Bear

Fire at Sea

Story by Jack Foley

REFUGEE documentary Fire At Sea has won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival.

Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s film offers an unflinching – and some would say harrowing – look at life on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where thousands of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East have arrived trying to reach the European Union over the last two decades.

The prize was bestowed upon the film by a jury led by Meryl Streep, who described the documentary as “urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking”.

She said that her seven-member jury was “swept away” by the film, adding: “It’s a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It demands its place in front of our eyes and compels our engagement and action.”

The picture is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old local boy, Samuele Pucillo, and a doctor, Pietro Bartolo, who has been tending to the dehydrated, malnourished and traumatised new arrivals for a quarter of a century.

Eritrean-born Rosi, who spent several months on Italy’s Lampedusa making the film, accompanied coast-guard rescue missions answering the SOS calls of people on boats, most of them arriving from Libya. The footage includes many of the vessels packed with corpses of people who suffocated from diesel fumes.

Dedicating the prize to its residents, “who open their hearts to other peoples”, Rosi added: “I hope to bring awareness. It is not acceptable that people die crossing the sea trying to escape from tragedies.”

The win for Fire At Sea was an apt way to bring the Berlin Film Festival to a close given that the event, now in its 66th year, had placed a special spotlight on the refugee issue after Germany let in more than 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015.

As part of its commitment to raising awareness, donation boxes to support charities helping torture survivors were placed at cinema venues and festival internships and free tickets were reserved for migrants.

In other prizes, France’s Mia Hansen-Love won the Silver Bear for best director for her drama Things to Come, starring Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy teacher whose marriage falls apart just as her elderly mother dies.

And Tunisia’s Majd Mastoura won the Silver Bear for best actor for his role in Hedi, a love story set in the aftermath of the Arab spring, which also won best debut feature.

The Silver Bear for best actress went to Denmark’s Trine Dyrholm for her role as a wronged wife in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune, a semi-autobiographical take on his 1970s childhood, while Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic took the runner-up Grand Jury Prize for Death in Sarajevo, which examines the corrosive legacy of the 1990s Balkan wars.

And an eight hour plus historical epic by Filipino director Lav Diaz, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, claimed the Alfred Bauer prize for a feature film that opens new perspectives in cinema.