Feb 13, 1:40 PM EST

Documentary "Fire at Sea" opens at Berlin Film Festival

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Berlin Film Festival

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BERLIN (AP) -- The director of "Fire at Sea" - a documentary about the Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of asylum-seekers have been arriving from lawless Libya - says he wanted "to show the tragedy that's playing out in front of our eyes ... We're all responsible."

Director Gianfranco Rosi spoke after the film was screened Saturday at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it is one of two documentaries in competition for the prestigious Golden Bear award.

The Italian director contrasts the native islanders' everyday life with the arrival of the many men, women and children making the dangerous trip from Africa across the Mediterranean Sea on decrepit smugglers' boats. Longing for freedom and prosperity, many of the migrants drown on the perilous passage to Europe, their dead bodies often pulled out of the water in Lampedusa.

Rosi brings the viewer closer to the emotional world of some of the island's inhabitants, who are exposed to a permanent state of emergency. He also shows the dead bodies of those who did not survive the journey to Europe.

"This may be one of the biggest tragedies after the Holocaust that we are currently witnessing," Rosi said.

One of the film's protagonists, Pietro Bartolo, told the audience that he's been dealing with arriving refugees since they first started coming in the 1990s.

"I've seen many dead children. I've seen many dead women, who had been raped ... and that always leaves a hole in my stomach," Bartolo said. "It's horrible to remember this and often I'm haunted by nightmares."

He said he hoped that through the witness accounts in the documentary people with more power than him would do something to solve this "biggest contemporary problem of Europe."

A seven-member jury led by first-time festival jury chief Meryl Streep will announce the winners of the festival's Golden Bear and various Silver Bear awards on Feb. 20.

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