Gianfranco Rosi wins Berlin's Golden Bear

Unanimous decision to award documentary Fuocoammare.

Fuocoammare is a film about ordinary people, the every-day heroes of Lampedusa, and a monument to the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees who made it to the small Italian island halfway between Tunisia and Malta, and to those who did not.

The film, which has just won the Golden Bear, the highest prize of Berlin's film festival, was made during the period Gianfranco Rosi spent in Lampedusa after the tragedy that took the lives of over 360 migrants and refugees who drowned just off its coast in 2013.

It is a story about a young boy, Samuele Pucillo, and the local doctor Pietro Bartolo, who has been looking after the new arrivals who have made the sea crossing from north Africa – terrified, dehydrated and malnourished – for over 20 years.

Lampedusa discovered the tragedies, anxieties and hopes of migrants and refugees– about 400,000 have transited through the island – long before the rest of Europe woke up to one of the biggest waves of migration in human history.

In an interview after the prize-giving Rosi called the work “a film of love”, in part echoed in the Italian title which doesn't survive into its English translation, Fire at Sea.

The film, the first documentary to win Berlin's top prize, was sponsored by Italy's state broadcasting authority RAI.

Fuocoammare
Fuocoammare

Italians have never had the same reverence for their state broadcaster as the British have for the BBC. But its importance is often underrated. It has in its own way had much the same role in forging the national identity (for good and bad) in the last 50 years, as the BBC did in mid 20th-century Britain.

It has been instrumental in standardising the Italian language – even in the 1960s Italians were divided by their regional dialects – as well as the formation of many other aspects of its culture, whether cinema, art, dance music or theatre – today's non-stop culture on RAI5 is a welcome new addition. Nor should the formative influence be underestimated of such mass-audience programmes as the Sanremo song contest and the now defunct Raffaella Carrà talent show, Carràmba! Che sorpresa. Both were in full swing long before other countries adopted talent-spotting blockbusters such as The Voice (which now brings Carrà back to the RAI screen this spring) and We got Talent.

Along with Fuocoammare two other RAI productions have recently thrown light on the broadcaster’s role as part of the national conscience.

Since the beginning of the year RAI 1 has screened two prime-time stories, Il Sindaco Pescatore and Io non mi arrendo, about two of Italy's determined but little-known public servants who battled corruption and crime at the cost of their lives.

Angelo Vassallo, a fisherman who became mayor of Pollica south of Naples in 1995, cleaned up the town and transformed it into a tourist attraction so successfully that it then fell into the hands of speculators and organised crime. Vassallo was killed by a gunman as he was returning home one evening in 2010, just a few months after he had been re-elected mayor for the fourth time with 100 per cent of the vote in a 72 per cent turnout. For more details about Angelo Vassallo see Laura in Italy blog.

Roberto Mancini was a policeman who uncovered the links between organised crime and the traffic of toxic waste in Campania and around Naples in the 1990s, despite the political and judicial indifference of the time and long before it came to public attention. He died in 2014 of a cancer related to his investigations.

Mancini's Polish widow and Anna Magri and Marzia Caccioppoli, whose young children, Riccardo and Antonio, died of cancer caused by toxic waste in the so-called Terra dei Fuochi, were interviewed by Bruno Vespa, anchorman of the RAI talk show Porta a Porta, immediately after the first episode of Io non mi arrendo. All were extraordinarily articulate, lucid and determined to prevent similar tragedies happening again.

To compare RAI to the BBC is perhaps unfair. Neither of the RAI's television dramas (fiction as they are called in the Italo-English lexicon, along with such expressions as jobs act and stepchild adoption) had the polish and certainly not the international pull or the budgets of the big BBC productions. The RAI doesn't deal in grand country-house dramas, historical tales of military glories or gripping spy narratives, which in itself says something about the difference between British and Italian culture. But Italy's RAI does have an unerring eye for what is going on in the street – the real mass audience that so fascinated the late Umberto Eco. Italy's great philosopher, semiotician, novelist, essayist and literary critic who died on 19 February would certainly have had something to say about the increasing use by media people and politicians of such phrases as fiction, jobs act, stepchild adoption, bail in, bail out.

Mary Wilsey

Photo: La Repubblica