“LAMPEDUSA IN WINTER” (2015): Abandoned in the Mediterranean Sea

Poster of the film.

20th century first decades will probably be remembered for the brutal mistreatment Europe and America inflicted on migrant people who knocked on their doors. Excellent documentary Lampedusa in Winter will be a first-rate testimony to remember the extent of rich (enriched) countries’ egoism, indifference, and amorality towards poor (impoverished) ones. It will be a good reminder of how the former freed themselves of the huge problems -destitution, famine, wars- they had often created in the latter through savage neoliberalism.

Lampedusa is southernmost Italy’s island, closer to African coast (113 km) than to Sicily (205 km). It’s little, about 20 square kilometres -11 km long for 2 or 3 of width, depending on the place-, is sparsely habited (about 5.000 inhabitants) and poor: it barely scrapes out a living through fishing, and tourism in summer. To make things worse, Lampedusa is, with the Greek islands, the main harbour for desperate migration. Those who arrive to Lampedusa come mostly from North Africa, and flee from countries sunk into violent conflicts or misery: Tunisia, Libya, but also Syria, Somalia, and Eritrea. Normally they are rescued in open sea by Italian Coastguards, who take them to the island, where they spend some time until they are sent to detention centres for migrants and other departments in peninsular Italy.

Lampedusa is sadly famous for the continuous arrivals of barges full of displaced persons and because, at few miles from its harbour, took place one of the worst of many wrecks in the Mediterranean Sea, in October 2013, when a boat arriving from Libya sunk, with more than 500 passengers, from which at least 366 perished and there were an indeterminate number of missing people. Several fishing boats ignored their relief petitions, and nobody in charge sent any official help. The boat was burnt after some occupants tried to start a fire to attract attention and be rescued. There were other tragic sinkings near Lampedusa, before and after, but none so multitudinous.

It was useless Pope Francis’ previous visit to the island, some months before -July of that same year-, when in a moving, stinging speech he protested against the world’s indifference to everyday arrivals of barges to Lampedusa, and to other wrecks:  “Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters? No one! We all respond this way: not me, it has nothing to do with me, there are others, certainly not me. But God asks each one of us: “Where is the blood of your brother that cries out to me?” Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility. […] We look upon the brother half dead by the roadside, perhaps we think “poor guy,” and we continue on our way, it’s none of our business; and we feel fine with this. We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference. In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business”.

One doesn’t need to regard oneself as a member of Catholic Church, nor ignore the corruption in its treasury, to feel deeply the strength of these words. They were pronounced three months before the sinking of October 2013, when the situation was already unbearable. It has been so since then. The world has maintained its indifference.

This cinematographic documentary, shot with artistic feeling -well-made scenes, reflexive editing, slow rhythm, good narrative structure- shows, as the title announces, the island in winter, when things keep quiet: there aren’t tourists nor massive arrivals of precarious boats. Islanders have to face many serious problems: the ferry linking Lampedusa and Sicily has been destroyed in a fire, and there’s no means to bring their captures, which condemns them to fall deeper into poverty. There’s a group of twenty-something sub-Saharans run aground in the island three months ago, waiting for the Italian or European authorities to decide something about their luck. These two serious problems disrupt life in the little community, which struggles to find some sort of solution in assemblies (dominated by the fishermen), where all the aspects of the crisis surface: indignation for the abandonment in which Lampedusian live, ignored by Italian Government and European politicians, faced by the economic crisis and the landing of displaced persons. Islanders and Africans are two groups of people who try to reach a difficult survival, an effort in which they don’t find any assistance. They are forgotten by man and God. Time goes by without anybody appearing to help.

African displaced persons pass the time in Lampedusa, waiting for the politicians to assign them to some destination. Meanwhile, they live in the street.
Fishermen debate local economy problems. The most grave, the loss of the ferry which brought their catches to Sicily, where it was to be sold. This fisherman complains -without reason- the Government helps migrant persons rather than Italian fishermen.

Lampedusa in Winter tells the evolution of these two parallel lives, the story of both attempts to keep their head above water without dying in the sinking. It restricts itself to showing what happens in the island and in the surrounding waters, doesn’t make any reference (in the form of commentaries exterior to images) to Italian or European politics, which all the while remain as a silence and an absence.

Fishermen meet many times to talk about how to demand a ship fit enough to take their catches to Sicily and the Italian Peninsula. They have the support of the mayor, who tries to act as a mediator between them and the Italian Government. When the latter and the fishing company offer them a little, rickety ship, a worthless boat which is an insult and half a death sentence, fishermen decide to launch a protest and prevent its docking in their island, in order to get a correct one.

Lampedusa mayor reads a protest for the lack of a fit ferry able to take to Sicily fishermen’s catches.

Africans, meanwhile, go on passing days, surviving with the food some few charitable Lampedusians give them. They are an almost merely physical presence, for they hardly speak English not to mention Italian. But their presence is an awkward reminder of what many people would like to forget: that they exist and need help.

At the beginning, both communities survive without mixing nor communicating: fishermen lost in their claims, African migrants waiting for the decision on their destination. Immobility and standstill turn out to be stifling. The only connections between both groups are a Lampedusian woman called Paola, who acts as an interlocutor with the migrants, and some young activists who struggle to create a favourable, or at least a compassionate, conscience toward that neglected people. In a meeting of international activists is said that indifference to migrants has reached the awful point of denying them help even when their lives are clearly in danger. They demand at least this minimum to be respected, so low has fallen cooperation and humanity.

Maybe migrant persons expected to find a land of plenty and well-being. What they find in Lampedusa is a fishing community struggling barely to keep afloat, and which don’t receive them with open arms.


Rescue of a migrants’ boat.

Lampedusa in Winter tells its story in a well-structured fashion, from some intertwined narrative elements. Local radio station dj offers the background when talking to the microphone while putting music: he describes the first ferry destruction, Italian Government inactivity, fishermen pressure, etc. Repeated images of steep, rugged cliffs and of waves breaking against them may play a metaphorical role (impregnable European fortress closed to migrants), but they also stress the feeling of time elapsing. Local junior football team training seasons reflect everyday life resisting to be sunk by economic difficulties. Fishermen meetings, chaired by the mayor, show the crisis evolution, with different degrees of anguish and conflict. Cutter and coast guards sequences show the scant resources assigned by authorities to humanitarian matters. Sermon pronounced by the island priest to the few parishioners he has in this island forgotten by God express the religious perspective on the calamity. During the carnival, islanders disguise themselves and imagine for a little bit they are other beings, less afflicted by scarcity and pain. All the facets of the complex polyhedron of life in Lampedusa, a microcosm synthesising the growing helplessness of European impoverished people and migrant persons trying to enter the stronghold, are perfectly assembled in this illuminating documentary.

The film begins in absolute darkness: at night, a woman’s voice talks through radio in Arabic to another woman in a barge adrift, the displaced persons representative who explains they are Syrian. The former gives her instructions, tells her she is going to inform Coast Guards immediately, asks her to keep calm. We won’t know what happens to these first displaced persons. At the end of the film there is another dark sequence, after which we do see how an insufficient Italian cutter helps African people out of a barge in open sea and takes them to Lampedusa. In the island they are received by some officers dressed in insulating clothes and wearing protective masks. One of the officers, when talking to an African, takes off the mask in order to be able to communicate with him. This final image may be a metaphor about what Europe should do to avoid losing the moral nature it may conserve.

Next, the credits. The filmmaker dedicates his film to Europe, and it seems that this is an ironic, sarcastic, recriminatory inscription. But it could also be a last call to conscience.

¿Are there, in our ocean of indifference, some islands of compassion? Yes, and this documentary shows some of them: Paola, who says humanitarian action is a duty not towards displaced persons, but in the first place to ourselves (so as not ceasing to be moral beings); international young activists who seek improvised solutions or at least palliatives in the absence of authorities; the mayor, who understands that the islanders’ difficulties and those of displaced persons are parallel aftermaths of the same economic and social predation.

Newcomers put thermal protections on.


Filmmaker: Jakob Brosmann
Country: Austria, Italy, Switzerland
Original language: Italian
Location: Lampedusa
Running length: 93 minutes
Web and trailer: http://www.taskovskifilms.com/?film=lampedusa-in-winter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s