A Tale of 1930s Island Migrations….

Last night I went to see the film ‘The Galapagos Affair’ at the West Side Cinema in Orkney. The film is a documentary focusing on three groups of European settlers on a remote island in the Galapagos, a mysterious disappearance and the deaths of some of the inhabitants…

The story itself is gripping – however, as well as enjoying the film itself, it also got me thinking about key themes in terms of migration to island communities. In particular I was struck by this quote from the imdb.com database: “it is a parable about the search for paradise — about what happens when a handful of individualists settle on the same small island seeking their own distinct and sometimes clashing notions of Eden.” The motivations of the main participants in this film are indeed quite different – the first, the Ritters, move to escape civilisation and to allow Dr Ritter to develop his philosophical ideas. They are followed by the Wittners who are attracted by developing a sustainable lifestyle, and have read about the Ritters in the European press. They are then followed by ‘the Baroness’ and her two male companions who want to set up a hotel on the island for rich travellers. The difference in motivations, which could be characterised as ‘solitude’, ‘sustainability’ / ‘community’, and ‘economic’ are also infused with different ideals and images of islands – islands as refuge from society, islands as bounteous places, islands as close-knit communities, islands as ideal holiday destinations. As the motivations and ideals of the different migrants come into contact clashing is inevitable, but it is when the ‘reality’ of island life is intensified through a prolonged drought that tension in the island really intensifies and results in the disappearances and deaths of the inhabitants. Now, it is common for islands to be portrayed as a ‘paradise’, but it is also common for islands to be associated with confinement (for example the prison islands of Alcatraz or Robben island). What is interesting in this film is how quickly ‘paradise’ can turn into a claustrophobic prison for the settlers.

The film is a great watch if you’re interested in island movements – both in terms of the huge sacrifices made to move to island communities, and the (financial) challenges of finding a way ‘off’ islands. The challenges for incomers to island communities are also acutely portrayed, and some of my favourite quotes from participants were: “wherever you go, you bring yourself” and “paradise is a state of mind, it is not a place”.


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