The Chennai International Film Festival began here on Thursday evening with the brilliant documentary, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea.
Winner of the top Golden Bear at Berlin in 2016, Fire At Sea is a moving account of a summer in the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which has become the destination for thousands of men, women and children running away in sheer fear from bloody wars, unimaginable violence and horrifying famines in Africa.
Rosi spent many months in the continent to document the migrant tragedy, which hit endemic proportions in 2015. He saw hundreds – including babies in arms – dying as they tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded leaky boats to reach Lampedusa.
It was heartrending to hear the desperate voice of a woman – as the film began rolling – pleading for help to the coastguards at Lampedusa. What was remarkable was the calm assuring voices of the guards as they asked the woman and the dozens of people on her small boat to just hold on a little. “Help is on the way”, they said, while she wailed, “We are dying. Our boat is sinking. There are women and children here”. In those few minutes, Rosi takes us most graphically into the enormity of this human tragedy.
Fire at Sea also transports us to the other side of the human story – where we see the simple lives of the fisherfolk who live on the island. There is a 12-year-old boy who makes slings from the barks of trees, and he and his friend practice their aims. In fact, a large part of the narrative is seen through his eyes. Then there is an old lady, who asks the local radio jockey to play her favourite song. There is also a doctor, the only one there. Rosi has this great ability to contrast peace and tranquillity with horror and suffering – giving the viewer breathing space, so to say.
Interestingly, there is no voiceover, and Rosi conveys all that he wants to through hauntingly beautiful visuals.
Most importantly, Rosi does not get into any analysis. No judgments. He lets his audience decide what it wants to. And as we leave the auditorium, we begin to wonder where the world is going to, and why men are so obsessed with transforming it from one of peace and beauty to one that is violent and ugly.
Earlier, the Festival, organised since 2003 by the Indo-Cine Appreciation Foundation, was inaugurated by the veteran Tamil director, Bharathiraja ( whose 1977 debut work, 16 Vayathinile with Kamal Haasan, Sridevi and Rajinikanth – in one of his career best performances – was a huge hit). In a short speech, Bharathiraja shared how he was so moved after watching Mother India in a touring tent theatre in his village that he decided to make cinema. “I could not sleep for two days”, he said, and added that his initial impression of films being a medium of entertainment changed. “I soon realised that movies could be an effective tool of social uplift”. True enough, he made several films that while narrating strong stories had powerful messages for societal betterment.
The eight-day Festival – which will be held on a low key in keeping with the sombre mood in Tamil Nadu following the recent death of the state’s Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa – will screen 150 movies from 52 countries. These will include titles from Berlin, Cannes and other major film festivals, including the International Film Festival of India. Some of the Indian Panorama works will also be screened.
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