THE WHITE ISLAND: Coming of Age in Ibiza *
The smallest of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain was my first home as an inde-pendent filmmaker. It was a magical place of extraordinary beauty and taught me much. So did the remarkable freedom it offered.
An ancient cathedral dominated the walled Old Town and the splendid harbour that lay beneath it. Between the harbour and the old town lay streets shops, hotels – one grand, the others cheap – and a town square lined with plane trees, shops and bars. We first lived in an old house, which was half cave, dug into the cathedral hill; its back wall was clay, which sweated and dripped in the heat of summer. Walking down the cobbled lanes and under the huge arched portal to reach the town one passed stones said to date from Phoenician times, with Greek, Roman and who knows who else’s building blocks laid on top. The island was often attacked.
In fact my childhood friend and first cinematographer, Rolph Blakstad, discovered that his Norse ancestors got to Ibiza long before we did. In the cathedral library Rolph learned of a Viking raid a thousand years ago and wrote about it to his father. ‘The White Island?’ his father wrote back, ‘our family raided and brought stuff home from there.’ ‘Home’ was a thousand year old village called by the family name, Blakstad, at the westernmost tip of Norway. The stories dated from its earliest days and spoke of a river where they drove their ships ashore and carried off cattle and women. It sounded just like Santa Eulalia del Rio. Finding Ibiza Town too crowded with tourists we moved out to Santa Eulalia, where the serious expa-triates lived, and rented a farm houses for $10 a month.
By ‘we’ I mean Rolph and his wife, Mary, her sister, Phyllis, who was my wife then, and me. Rolph and I both had both worked at CBUT in Vancouver. A painter and architect, he quickly tired of designing talk shows and set out for Ibiza. It was Phyllis’s determination to rejoin her sister in Europe that, in turn, compelled me against all good sense, to quit my job at CBUT in Vancouver and become an independent filmmaker.
Through the eyes of 10-year-old Brian, the film becomes a portrait of childhood face to face with the inequities of an adult world. The film gathers impressive power as it arrays the wild and natural forces of the prairie against the cruel and vindictive, though civilised, forces of the town. Without bitterness or cynicism, this flawlessly acted film reminds one that life does continue, no matter how transitory experiences may be. Refreshing and lyrical, this drama is suitable for the entire family and is an excellent choice for any classroom.
The freedom of Ibiza was a paradox since it was still governed by Franco and his Falange – this was 1958, long before it came to be called ‘the playground of the world.’ The civil war was still fresh in memory. We heard and treasured, as young progressives, stories of the anti-Fascists. Ibiçenco poverty also gave us expatriates freedom. A shave and a haircut, a cognac and a coffee, a pack of smokes, each were a dime. Food was cheap, gossip even cheaper and more abundant, especially at the Kiosko, a bar at the top of the Ramblas, a long avenue of plane trees whose arching branches formed a perfect frame for the brilliant blue Mediterra-nean beyond. Everyone gathered there at noon.
The routine was simple: work in the morning, down to the village post office at noon for mail then stop for a coffee and cognac before lunch. But gossip was the magnet. Not just for the news and reviews of what books just got published – and the fiercely defining debates about literary values. Or which galleries in New York, London or Paris were showing whose paintings, and passionate debates about painterly virtues and failings. Or about films and filmmakers: Bergman, Fellini and de Sica were hot, the New Wave was about to break. Even more delicious were the accounts of the night before: who got drunk at Sandy’s Bar, who went home with whom, who left home, who shacked up with…
It was the beginning of that epochal shift in mores, which marked the end of the Eisen-hower era and the beginning of the Kennedy – the Depression generation giving way to the post-War. And, too, the freedom of Ibiza, like that of Paris, was based on the apparent indif-ference of the Ibiçencos to the often-outrageous behaviour of the foreigners who came to live among them. Tourists and expatriate artists brought a glimmer of prosperity to the island, prosperity it hadn’t seen for a generation, if at all. Foreigners, especially expatriates, felt licensed to behave however they chose. It was always a characteristic of bohemian life – but we didn’t have much of that in Canada, where I came from. Evidence? When I was invited back in 1960 to make any film of my choice, I chose to make a short film called Dreams for Ross McLean’s innovative series, Quest. (long lost in the CBC Archives, now found and showing in the TIFF retrospective) It was about a young couple living together ‘without benefit of clergy,’ as my mother would say. The subject was then thought fresh and daring.
Not in Ibiza. The paradox of the White Island was that in this paradise one could sink or rise to whatever depths one wanted – drink till one drowned, screw, smoke, shoot or snort anyone or anything. Do nothing or work round the clock. Or walk to the top of the hill be-yond the town long after midnight, looking up at the dazzling diamonds in the sky; in that clearest of all Mediterranean midnight light, one could be seized by that sense of awe without which life is unendurably shallow.
In Ibiza, De Sade could be king or queen of the day – or so it seemed in those days. In ret-rospection forty and more years on, it all seems remarkably innocent – merely rife with the foibles and follies people have always indulged, rued and grown past.
For me the invaluable reward was the realization of who I was. With all the talk, the drink, taking part in this multi-national and cultural circus, I was enabled to incorporate the differ-ences between the cultures in which my friends and I grew up; how they shaped us and gave us, each and everyone, our unique perspectives. This sense, which is the reward for enduring the wrenching pain of adolescence, the terror of cutting loose from dependency, was the gel-ling of identity and all the values that go with it. It is the source of ones voice; without it one cannot speak, with it one may.
* This piece, adapted for inclusion here, first appeared in the DGC quarterly, Montage.
But identity was not the subject of Running Away Backwards. It is comedy about expatriates written by good friend Bob Goldston and touches on the life described above. Except for Mili Newbury it was filmed with amateur actors and a crew of five. It was commissioned as a documentary but marks my manifest confusion of genres. It is no more nor less a drama or documentary, I suppose, than A Matter of Pride or Rickshaw. But that is a subject for discussion elsewhere. It won Honourable Men-tion at the Festivals of Mannheim and San Francisco in 1965.