Last week I focused on the rehabilitation of the island Spinalonga, and the themes of time, space, and memory. Writing on these subjects reminded me of an essay film by Jean-Daniel Pollet that explores related ideas of mortality, spatial organisation, and illness as difference on Spinalonga. L’ordre (1973) is a poetic and philosophical exploration of the island, shot almost entirely as a travelling POV (sometimes fast-moving, sometimes still and contemplative). It depicts the spaces of Spinalonga proper, as well as the outhouses and corridors of a compound for leprosy sufferers on the outskirts of the Greek capital, Athens. Images of deteriorating spaces, ruinous landscapes, and dilapidated architectures are interwoven with black and white archive footage. A voice-over narrates the experiences of the inhabitants. The archival footage includes several excerpts from an interview with a man named Raimondakis, a leper and long-time inhabitant of Spinalonga. Raimondakis’ story alternates with old footage of Spinalonga’s unwell inhabitants. In his interview Raimondakis makes several interesting statements that contextualise the documentary itself as well as allowing us to think differently about the idea of sickness in society and the organisation of space in cities and other smaller communities.
‘When’, asks the voice-over, ‘does one become a leper? When one contracts the disease? No. Surely one becomes a leper when it becomes visible.’ Our social architecture, our definitions of the sick and the healthy, are predicated on visual difference. Our notion of ‘sickness’ is superficial, frequently based on limited understanding and prejudice. Raimondakis speaks of the ‘betrayal’ of filmmakers and photographers who visited Spinalonga and its captives, who took photographs or shot cases and cases of film. Quite apart from ethical questions associated with the documentary and anthropological gaze, it is the act of looking, in the context of Raimondakis’ words, that determined his own ‘sickness’, that categorised him as unfit, that designated him as different. The act of looking was the moment of betrayal, the moment of difference; the moment at which he was seen (in his own words) as a ‘different species’ of person. Looking, therefore, is treated with suspicion, as a kind of original sin in L’ordre. Pollet’s camera does observe – but it seeks to evade human faces, and instead watches space or darkness. The film theorises the documentary gaze as clinical and cruel – a gaze that labels and separates. In an attempt to restore dignity to the people of Spinalonga, Pollet becomes an architectural anthropologist. The film’s extreme close-ups of building textures bring to mind anthropological sketches, or the cell samples and bacterial cultures common in anatomy. They also create an unavoidable visual analogy between leprosy and decay, an analogy between the human body and the buildings it inhabits.
Raimondakis’ speech is full of the language of spatial segregation. He defines his world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ill and the healthy, the lepers and social order. Pollet’s camera reflects this linguistic idiosyncrasy by focussing on gates, closed doors, barricades, shutters, window bars, and walls – all of these constructions are also constructs, dividing lines, representing in architecture the need to keep people in and keep illness out. These borders, and with them law and order, are imposed on the sick by the healthy. Until 1957, leprosy was a badly misunderstood malady, and social space was organised in accordance with this fundamental misunderstanding. How contagion occurs is now better understood. As notions of the disease have changed, so too have the spaces in which it is treated.
The film thus demands that we interrogate the notion of health, of sickness, and of how far we are willing to go to protect the well. While Raimondakis affirms that Spinalonga was a positive solution that gave lepers autonomy, allowing them to take back control of their own spaces, he also sagely warns us about the dangers that lurk behind society’s need (especially prevalent in modern cities) to protect the healthy and imprison the sick. Our mentally ill citizens, the elderly, and the infirm, frequently live out their lives in institutions, behind closed doors. While this is often unavoidable, and, in many cases the best available solution for those with serious health problems, Spinalonga asks us to rethink how our social spaces are structured and to interrogate the deep-seated beliefs this structuring of space implies. Raimondakis speaks of looking at the ill as ‘phenomena’, examples, a different breed of human being. By compartmentalising our city spaces, this thinking, the idea of the patient as Other, becomes physically entrenched. We place barriers and blockades around spaces designated only for the healthy. And yet, as the voice-over cautions, ‘what we define as health is becoming more and more specific and harder and harder to protect.’ In Pollet’s film, Spinalonga is what lies behind the velvet curtain of the utopia of wellness – health is a lonely island, ultimately a non-place. By the end of the film, the islet is no longer synonymous with contagion, isolation, and death. The cracks in the skin of the buildings on Spinalonga are not the scars of leprosy – rather they are fissures in our thinking, the cracks in our notion of health itself.
– Sandra Bekvalac