Islander review – change and contradictions on Robinson Crusoe island

In an age of overconsumption and technological saturation, many yearn for an abstract “simpler” time in the past. Opening on a vessel bobbing on the ocean waves, Stéphane Goël’s Islander takes us on a journey that transcends both the past and the present, effectively dissecting and uncovering many contradictions and preoccupations dormant under this utopian ideal.

At the centre of the documentary is Robinson Crusoe island, west of Chile, and one of the inspirations for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel. Booming over the magnificent landscape of volcanic mountains is Mathieu Amalric’s evocative narration, as he takes on the role of Swiss aristocrat Alfred von Rodt who bought the island in 1877. Juxtaposed with these ghostly recollections are intimate interviews with Von Rodt’s descendants who are still living there. Also carefully observed are the inhabitants’ daily routines; at one point, a young boy is taught how to shoot a rabbit.

The idyllic scenery in fact conceals incredible hardships, as recounted by Von Rodt and his great-grandchildren. It might be tempting to think of an island as a refuge from the demands of capitalist life but, while Von Rodt endured funding shortage and a lack of support from back home, the current generation suffer the effects of the climate crisis. A tsunami and earthquake in 2010 wiped out nearly all of the village. The islanders are resistant to change, which comes via tourism, migrant workers, and even the overbreeding of rabbits; this is a challenge to Von Rodt’s own wish for Robinson Crusoe island to be a transnational utopia. But as the heirs do not consider themselves to be either Chilean or Swiss, the merging of old and new narratives in this poignant film brings up crucial questions about national identities, to which there are no easy answers.

Islander is available on 10 September on True Story.

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