“Fire at Sea”: Documentary About Europe’s Refugee Crisis Wins Top Prize at Berlin Film Festival

PHOTO: Director Gianfranco Rosi, pictured with jury president and actress Meryl Streep, won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival for Fire at Sea, a documentary about Europe's asylum seeker crisis. (Reuters: Fabrizio Bensch)
PHOTO: Director Gianfranco Rosi, pictured with jury president and actress Meryl Streep, won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival for Fire at Sea, a documentary about Europe’s asylum seeker crisis. (Reuters: Fabrizio Bensch)

Fire at Sea, a harrowing documentary about Europe’s refugee crisis, has clinched the Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear top prize from a jury led by Meryl Streep.

Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s picture offers an unflinching look at life on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where thousands of asylum seekers have arrived trying to reach the European Union over the last two decades and thousands more have died trying.

The Eritrean-born Rosi dedicated the prize to the people of Lampedusa “who open their hearts to other peoples”.

“I hope to bring awareness,” he said as he accepted the golden trophy from Streep.

“It is not acceptable that people die crossing the sea trying to escape from tragedies.”

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 century.

In chilling footage, Rosi accompanied coastguard rescue missions answering the terrified SOS calls of people on boats, most of them arriving from Libya.

Many of the vessels are packed with corpses of people who suffocated from diesel fumes.

Three-time Oscar-winner Streep said her seven-member jury was “swept away” by Fire at Sea, which she called “urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking”.

“It’s a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do,” she said.

“It demands its place in front of our eyes and compels our engagement and action.”

The Golden Bear for Fire at Sea comes after the Cannes film festival last May awarded its Palme d’Or to Dheepan — a drama about Sri Lankan refugees living on the violent outskirts of Paris.

Rosi said when his film premiered that Europe’s refugee crisis marked one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since the Holocaust.

He told reporters after the awards ceremony that he would aim to show the film to the people of Lampedusa in an open-air screening in the spring.

The festival, now in its 66th year, placed a special spotlight on the refugee issue, after Germany let in more than 1.1 million asylum seekers last year, with nearly 80,000 arriving in Berlin.

Donations boxes to support charities helping torture survivors were placed at cinema venues, and festival internships and free tickets were reserved for migrants.

George Clooney, whose Hail, Caesar! opened the event, even met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel with his human rights lawyer wife Amal “to talk about how best we can help”.

Denmark, Tunisia scoop acting honours

In other prizes, France’s Mia Hansen-Love won the Silver Bear for best director for her drama Things to Come starring Isabelle Huppert.

Huppert wowed audiences — with her dignified, soulful turn in Things to Come — as a philosophy teacher whose marriage falls apart just as her elderly mother dies.

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.

“I give this gift to the Tunisian people, all the martyrs of the revolution, all of those who contributed to the revolution,” he said.

“I hope we will continue on being free, being happy, producing good art.”

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 movie about his 1970s childhood.

Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic accepted the runner-up Grand Jury Prize for Death in Sarajevo about the corrosive legacy of the Balkans wars.

A more than eight-hour-long 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.

Best screenplay went to Polish filmmaker Tomasz Wasilewski for his portrait of the pivotal 1989-90 period in his country as told through four women, played by some of Poland’s best-known theatre actresses, at crossroads in their lives.