We are told quite early in Själö – Island of Souls that the first inmates of the island hospital were lepers, but these were soon joined by the blind and the generally infirm, and then those who lacked the Holy Spirit.
Finally it became an asylum for women, many of whom who were incarcerated there for the remainder of their lives. When it closed in 1962, there was at least one centenarian who had spent the majority of her years within its walls.
But two years later the place was repurposed as a biological research centre, dedicated to the study of “nature and the dying seas,” and populated by vocational scientists determined to measure, observe and record the flora, fauna and insect life on the island, including the humble, if potentially deadly, tick.
The tick was, ostensibly, the reason that director Petronella went to the island, to study the scientists who were themselves studying the bloodsucking insect, and then produce a short film. But it didn’t take her long to realise that the island offered a lot more than entymology as subject matter for her documentary.
“Själö is an island that has a disturbing and strange past. It is a place that makes you think about power structures, science, lunacy, the ecological disaster and the soul in the same sentence. It is a place where both human history and that of nature collide,” she stresses.
“A place that is haunted by its past until we accept that the ghosts are and will always be there to remind us and to challenge us to ‘see’ or sense something that is hidden. Here the beauty and the grotesque occupy the same space. The film is a mystery, like a modern gothic story.”
Whatever horror resides on the island is buried every springtime beneath an ocean of yellow primula veris (cowslips), she adds. “These places of horror, there is something quite seductive in them.”
Part of the asylum’s history is told through the letters which never made it off the island, confiscated by the authorities and filed away, written by women who are categorised by their different psychotic conditions.
Years later these same taxonomic processes are deployed by the scientists in gathering, dissecting and studying fish from the surrounding waters and myriad species from the swarms of insects that the island plays host to.
So, back to the tick which, we are told, transmits a bacteria which is very similar in construction to that which causes leprosy, which afflicted the asylum’s first residents.
But when, in the film, the insect is examined under an electro-magnetic microscope, it is transformed into a thing of wonder after the application of chemical gold onto its surface, so as to enable keener scientific observation. When the tick is removed from the machine it resembles a priceless 24-carat objet d’art or, as Petronella observes, a decorative beetle from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Given that core themes of the film are order and categorisation, whether seen from institutional or scientific perspectives, is a sense order something that is characteristic of Petronella’s documentary work?
“I am completely the opposite,” she responds, adding how, “the way we measure and archive and collect gives us a kind of evidence or proof, but at the same time it doesn’t, and maybe underneath all that there is something more to be discovered… I think we know that the world is not as well ordered as we maybe thought ten years ago.”
But in these times of coronavirus, isn’t the increased application of order exactly what we need, in a purely scientific sense?
“Absolutely,” Petronella agrees.