Lampedusa in Winter

April 19, 2017

Jakob Brossmann

On April 19, 2017, Cornell Cinema screened the award-winning documentary Lampedusa in Winter by Jakob Brossmann, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2015. Both the director Brossmann and the film’s translator and interpreter Stefania Schenk Vitale were present for riveting discussion with a diverse audience. The event was introduced by Sabine Haenni (Performing and Media Arts), who,together with Leslie A. Adelson (German Studies) taught this year’s University Course titled “Imagining Migration in Film and Literature.” Brossmann and Vitale had been invited to campus in connection with that course and extended their multifaceted discussion of the film the next day in class.

As the European territory closest to Libya, the Sicilian island of Lampedusa has, since the early 2000s, become a location for horrific depictions of the so-called refugee crisis in the mass media, because the island serves as a destination for streams of migrants in crowded boats making their often fatal journey across the Mediterranean Sea. By contrast, Brossmann’s film stages the horrors that could not be captured by a journalist’s camera . The Brossmann documentary opens by juxtaposing a late-night distress call by a refugee boat that was ultimately not found by the Italian Coast Guard with pictures of empty refugee camp containers and abandoned shipwrecks with personal belongings salvaged and then carefully displayed by Lampedusan artists.

The film also concentrates on the permanent inhabitants of the island of Lampedusa, and on the melancholy of life in winter, when tourists have left and the structural problems of everyday life become apparent. It documents struggles that pervade the island, such as those of mayor Giusi Nicolini and local fishermen petitioning for a new ferry that would connect the island to mainland Italy after a fire destroyed the old one. Here the film shows that the struggle of Lampedusa’s residents in the face of an overpowering bureaucracy unites them with the refugees, who are struggling to migrate to the European mainland.

Unlike the stream of reporters that visit the island, Brossmann stated during the question and answer session following the film that he originally wanted to portray Lampedusa without refugees. But in what would become a major turning point for the project, the mayor Nicolini made it very clear that the refugees are Lampedusa inasmuch as they are shaping the face of the island. This aspect is most impressively taken up in the scenes that portray the Lampedusan activist Paola La Rosa. Coping with having witnessed one of the numerous tragic boat accidents close to her home, La Rosa started searching for ways to facilitate exchange between inhabitants and refugees as well as to integrate them into the Lampedusan historical record by fighting for memorial places for them in the local graveyard. Opening with the shocking number of people that have recently died in the Mediterranean Sea, Lampedusa in Winter closes with a long aerial shot looking down on the island, lying in the calm sea on a sunny day, an image that sets the horrors of a global conflict of interests against the backdrop of what might once have been seen only as a tourist’s paradise. (Pauline Selbig)