The Island – Crusoe goes to Lampedusa

31 January, 2022

The Island – Crusoe goes to Lampedusa

Anca Damian is considered to be part of the pantheon of contemporary Romanian filmmakers, chiefly because she is the only local filmmaker who is consistently working in feature-length animation (although she has also helmed a handful of “conventional” dramas in the past, such as In Perfect Health, 2017, or Moon Hotel Kabul, 2018, lesser remarkable entries in her body of work). Hers is one that has a distinctive element in its cinematic discourse: the freewheeling combination of various graphical and animation styles within the span of a single film, thus making up for an eclectic approach, a perfect fit for the multi-faceted political and social topics of her first few animation features. Her debut, Crulic: The Path to Beyond (2011), a non-fiction film regarding the life and death of Claudiu Crulic, propelled her almost instantaneously to the forefront of the aforementioned pantheon; she followed it up with The Magic Mountain (2015), a retelling of the story of Adam Jacek Winkler, who joined the Soviet-Afghan war as a Mujahideen fighter.

Although these two titles were presented as the first entries in a trilogy which paid tribute to heroic figures, the whimsical Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2019) signaled a break in Damian’s animation oeuvre, one both from the non-fictional terms of the features which propelled her to the forefront of the Romanian New Wave, and from her aesthetical style (as photos and other “found” materials, realistic backgrounds and stop-motion techniques were discarded, while retaining the eclectic combination of multiple graphical styles). The Island – itself an adaptation, a double, even triple (or maybe even quadruple?) one: a transposition of The Island (2006), a concert by Romanian musicians Alexander Bălănescu and Ada Milea, which was adapted as a play by the latter at the Cluj-Napoca National Theater in 2011 and 2018[1], inspired by the eponymous play written by Romania’s finest surrealist writer, Gellu Naum, who was inspired himself by Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – is a further step away from Damian’s signature style, but also an attempt at regaining the politically tinged tone of her first two features.

On the one hand, the chameleonic changes in the characters’ graphical rendition is discarded (save for the grandmother, who changes her appearance, yet is constantly rendered in 3-D) – throughout the film, they maintain the same, digitally drawn shape, while some objects with which they interact (especially their clothing) seem to be fashioned out of scans or photos; some background characters in the latter travel sequence are rendered under a more poppy, simplified and saturated form. Even so, it’s a style that remains somewhat faithful to the collage-esque style of Damian’s early films, at least in terms of technique – but it’s certainly her most visually constant animation film so far.

So what about the political elements? The film’s complex network of inter-textual references offers us a primary key of access – starting with the words of Gellu Naum himself, the author of The Island, who recounts some of his intentions in the play’s 1979 preface:

“It wasn’t my ambition to dramatize or even to parody De Foe’s (sic) famous work […] As such, The Island does not aim to be a reply to The Adventures of Robinson, but a demystification of the essence of a character who, independently of his biographical frame, remains timely […] The Island wishes to face its spectators with the hero-limit who is tied to the feeling of loneliness, of isolation, imbued with the substance of fierce individualism […]”. Naum concludes his preface by citing Friedrich Engels’ analysis of the original protagonist: „Meaning, [he is] an authentic bourgeois.”[2]

It’s quite easy to see how, beyond the soundtrack composed by Bălănescu & Milea, that doubles as the film’s core (and not just in a narrative sense), Anca Damian is working in the same spirit as Naum. First, she is also updating the play’s timeliness without parodying it, setting it in during contemporary times, defined by the Northern and Central African refugee crisis, who wash up on the shore onto which dreamer Robinson has built himself a small shack, and, more subtly, by the pandemic (showed by the appearance of masks and golden thermal foils; if anything, Naum’s original notes regarding isolation should be a perfect fit for the Zeitgeist). In a certain sense, what Damian does here is to flip the colonial paradigm of Defoe’s original onto its head, of the westerner isolated amongst “savages” far away from the Old Continent, which is doubtlessly a courageous choice. Robinson gets shipwrecked within the margins of his own civilisation, apparently voluntarily inhabiting its margins, while still using some of said civilisation’s objects (amongst them, a magical tablet, which seems to reveal the true essence of his surroundings through its lens, but also to give godlike powers onto him), and dreaming of supermarkets, malls and other locations and habits that are characteristic of a consumerist society (meaning, an authentic bourgeois…). Thus, in a strict interpretation of the term, Damian’s Island can then be seen as a sort of anti-Robinsonade. Last, but not least, the film is faithful to the concerts and its theatrical adaptations – since it is constructed as a musical, one imbued by Ada Milea’s unmistakably dry and witty lyrics (rendered in English), which heavily relies on wordplays and often absurd situations, and is underpinned by sporadic dialogues or spoken-word style moments, which give the film’s narrative thread its distinctive shape.

Robison, as written by Damian & Milea, also respects Naum’s surrealistic parameters: the refugee that is saved by the powers of Robinson’s magical tablet is given the name of Friday – his skin (and that of all refugees) a share of blue, already speaking the same language as his savior, like in the original play. (That he keeps on addressing Robinson with a high-pitched “Savior!” is ambiguous, even awkward: is this a cheeky commentary on “white savior syndrome”, or not – and if it isn’t, ouch.) Naum’s siren also gets her retrofitting: she becomes an NGO worker on the frontline, taking care of shipwrecked survivors, swaying between her job and her metamorphoses into a Homerian, Odyssey-esque seductress (which seems to have suffered a form of sexual trauma in the past). Other groups of characters also have adapted identities: the pirates are similar to modern protesters such as the Gilets Jaunes, and the cannibals turn into the agents of the European Coast Guard. Although it’s never clearly specified where the titulary Island is located, the film’s synopsis hints upon the fact that it’s Italy; it’s easy to infer that this might be Lampedusa, erstwhile of The Leopard fame, or more recently, as the infamous location in the proximity of countless nautical disasters in which thousands of refugees lost their lives, and such, also as a locus of inhumane anti-migration policies: the more overt actions of Matteo Salvini, and the insidious ones of the European Union, via its FRONTEX agency.

The Island, by Anca Damian.
The Island, by Anca Damian.

However, beyond how The Island can be situated within Anca Damian’s larger body of work, or linked to various other works across the other arts, be they universal or Romanian, some words must be said about how the film can be placed within the greater context of the representation of the refugee crisis in the last half-decade. Some have noted that Anca Damian is, in some ways, much closer to the French film industry than the Romanian one – and, truly, the film seems to be much rather attuned to the sensibilities of Mediterranean countries than to local ones. After all, the refugee crisis was felt in completely different ways here than in Central and Western Europe (the 2015 wave quite literally avoided Romania – bringing even news of refugees that accidentally crossed its border; how we implemented the European Cooperation Mechanism was also very different, compared to other countries). It also arrived much later and on a smaller scale, mostly on the edges of the country’s western border, rather than by sea. One could then say that the Romanian experience of these events doesn’t have much to say when it comes to the kinds of images that quickly became the crisis’ universal visual landmarks – from the tragic photo of little Alan Kurdi onwards.

The refugee crisis quickly turned into one of the major topics of contemporary documentary filmmaking in the last six years, be it features, observational films, essay-films, found footage films or anything in between – as filmmakers pursued the phenomenon of the sea crossing and its gigantic human cost, but also that of the refugee’s integration process (such as Sara Fattahi’s 2018 Chaos), with much fewer examples popping up in fiction cinema. It’s a massive phenomenon – a cursory look at the roster of One World Romania’s editions since 2016 is telling -; and, while I may risk sounding obvious by saying this, the vast majority of these films have a very serious and somber tone. A small exception is Gianfranco Rossi’s highly praised, yet controversial 2016 Fire at Sea, also set in Lampedusa, which follows the crisis’ most harrowing moments in parallel with the childhood of a sympathetic kid growing in a local fishers. In this context, and considering Damian’s initial preference for non-fiction, her choice of representing the crisis in a surreal social satire, underpinned by plenty of ridiculous scenes and choices that steer dangerously close to political incorrectness, is all the more intriguing: after all, maybe a break from the predominantly bleak tone of representing the crisis could be welcome, but one must truly beg the question – what is the fair measure in doing so, with a topic that is so delicate, not just because of its political baggage, but especially considering that it implies such an immense loss of life and so much suffering?

It’s a question that Damian & Milea seem to not have really thought out through to the very end, in many of the film’s points, especially in its latter half. That is not just because of the pretty uncomfortable ambiguities in the relationship between Robinson and Friday that I mentioned earlier, or of the ones present in the relationship between Friday and the Siren – but also because the topic is almost fully discarded for a big chunk of the film, when Robinson goes on a journey together with the Mother (Nature?) , as they arrive to a wholly different island, one defined by decadent consumption. Not that throwing barbs at last-capitalist consumerism wouldn’t be more than welcome (since this is also one of this film’s targets), but, fatally, this critique takes the shape of mostly scantily clad, drunken, cavorting women – in the scene of a grotesque banquet. This entire episode, which ends up eating more than half of the film’s runtime, becomes increasingly incomprehensible and drawn-out from a narrative point of view, as Milea and Bălănescu’s jokes miss their targets over and over, and the return to Friday’s story in the end almost comes across as just an attempt at to not leave his entire narrative thread hanging. If the film’s beginning is quite promising, its meandering second act proves to be a fatal blow – and together with other slip-ups (one might assume that the lead singers’ eastern accent is quite charming in live concerts, but it doesn’t translate that well to the big screen, coming across as left-handed, even strident), which slowly end up sinking the entire ship. A testament to the fact that certain plays (or opera pieces) are much better off if they remain within the bounds of their originally intended art forms.

Alas, just as so many other features that seem to promise so much on paper, and despite its clear intellectual and political ambitions (or rather, intentions), The Island seems to belong to that ilk of films that are much more interesting to discuss than to watch.

[1] Which also served as an inspiration for Mihai Măniuțiu’s The Diary of Robinson Crusoe, which played at the Odeon Theater in Bucharest during the 2016-2017 season.

[2] “Insula. Ceasornicăria Taus. Poate Eleonora…”, by Gellu Naum, Cartea Românească, 1979, p. 28.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.


Director/ Screenwriter