One of the two documentaries in competition at this year’s Berlinale happens to chime with the festival’s vocal and practical support of the refugees that have arrived in the city. But there’s nothing faddish about the presence of Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire At Sea” ("Fuocoammare") in the line-up, as is confirmed by the fact that it was one of the most persistent favorites for the Golden Bear.

Unlike so many documentaries about the refugee crisis that have been rushed into production in recent months — which in their frequently slapdash quality suggest filmmakers running at the subject without any clear idea of the actual film they wish to make — Rosi’s is a clear-eyed, sublimely made account of his heart-breaking, sometimes gut-wrenching subject.

As it happens, Rosi was initially invited to provide a reactive, brief and possibly unavoidably superficial approach to the migrant issue when asked to make a 10-minute film about Lampedusa, the Italian island that for years has been a primary transit point for people leaving Africa and the Middle East en route to the European mainland. One look at the complex reality of the place, however, and the director realized that a different approach was required. He ended up living on the island for a year, developing a richer perspective and this feature-length film.

Such immersion isn’t alien to the director of “Sacro Gra,” about life along the ring-road encircling Rome, which Rosi spent more than two years filming. Incidentally, that film became the first documentary to win the Golden Lion in Venice, in 2013. What a coup it would be to repeat such a rare feat at two different A-list festivals.

In Lampedusa, the question was how to reflect a situation that has been so frequently in the news, as thousands of refugees have headed towards the island from Africa in inadequate, overcrowded boats, many dying in the process. What Rosi has done is to show the mechanics of the problem — the search and rescue operations at sea, the identification and care of survivors on the island’s detention centre before they are moved onto the mainland — and to accompany this with a snapshot of the island residents, seemingly undisturbed, but with this tragedy and trauma creating a daily ripple across their lives.

"Fire at Sea"

The selection of characters is small, precise. The dominant personality of the film is Samuele, a nine-year-old boy and a terrific bundle of good humor and contradictions, not least the fact that while confidently clambering around the island’s rocky hills with his trusty, homemade slingshot, he’s uncomfortable on water, and prone to seasickness, which is a little inconvenient for an islander. 

We follow Samuele at school, with his uncle on his boat, and his grandmother at home, and roaming the island with his friend. When he has to wear an eye patch to deal with his lazy eye (a convenient metaphor for Rosi, perhaps, aimed at the less conscientious of those in the international community?) it plays havoc with his slingshot aim; when speaking to the doctor about his breathing problems, he wonders himself if it may be because he’s anxious, a little Italian Woody Allen in the making.

In contrast to the gallivanting Samuele, we only see his grandmother indoors, cooking or tidying her apartment, listening to the radio. Sewing as a storm brews, she recalls how during World War II nearby warships would fire rockets at sea, leaving fishermen too frightened to take their boats out at night. Hence the eponymous song, which the old woman requests on the local radio station. The film frequently nips back to the DJ, seemingly a one-man station, alone with his jaunty tunes in a darkened room, again perhaps a non-judgmental metaphor for an island isolating itself from the tragedy on its shores.

But that isn’t the case entirely. The most significant adult islander we meet is its doctor, first as he's performing an ultrasound on a pregnant refugee, her twins knotted together in a way that’s defeating his scrutiny and which he suggests may have been caused by her inhumanly cramped transit. Later, he reflects on the dead that have arrived on his autopsy table, “so many, too many” and the bad dreams they give him.

The doctor’s sober account is incredibly moving, yet still doesn’t prepare one for Rosi’s fly-on-the-wall filming of the rescue missions, as the living, half-alive and dead are plucked from absurdly flimsy boats. On land, as survivors endeavor to express themselves, we get a glimpse of the real people, their cultures, the tyranny and death they have escaped from.

Unlike the competition's other documentary, Alex Gibney's “Zero Days,” this is not controversial, or polemical; it’s not setting up a confrontation between islanders and migrants, nor is it merely repeating the news. Rosi’s purpose is subtler; observational, reflective, he’s offered a quietly profound study in contrasts, between a relatively straightforward and serene community, and the hundreds of communities we know to have been destroyed, between the simple lives of the islanders — in which all the grandmother thinks to pray for is “a nice day and a little health” — and the thousands of damaged, displaced lives whose tragedy is etched on the faces before us, between peace and chaos. This isn’t just an apt documentary, but a very fine film.

A statement from the Berlinale stated that last year 79,034 people sought refuge in the German capital, arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea and many other crisis regions around the world. “As a public festival and one of the city’s biggest annual events, the Berlinale feels a responsibility to do its part for Berlin’s culture of welcome,” it said.

Several projects aimed specifically at helping refugees have included accompanied cinema visits and behind-the-scenes visits to the festival offices. Guests and audiences were also asked to make a donation to a non-profit organization that supports people traumatized by torture, war and migration.