What happens when we die? We tend to linger on the existential questions rather than the simple practical facts of death; the topic explored with subtlety, imagination and stark honesty in Steven Eastwood’s enigmatic documentary, which screened in the Official Selection at Rotterdam 2018.
The island of the title is both the Isle of Wight, where Eastwood has befriended a handful of individuals facing death from cancer, and the implied psychological island established by a terminal diagnosis. Following his subjects as they approach the end – attending hospital appointments, spending time with their families and living day-to-day – Eastwood depicts, with a clear-eyed lack of sentimentality, not just the consoling rituals but also the physical realities of the dying process: from cellular changes in his subjects’ bodies to the actual moment of death itself. Death seems both entirely natural and explicable, while also retaining its mystery, essential strangeness and power.
Combining observational footage of its subjects with contemplative shots of the surrounding coastal landscapes through the seasons, Island ignores taboos and eschews sensationalism in favour of sensitive investigation. At times necessarily harrowing as it reveals, through scenes of unblinking duration, the final stages of of cancer sufferers’ lives, it is also a work of great delicacy that evinces a tender respect for every one of the people involved.