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Leprosy, exile and love passion in the most popular Greek series The Island

06 December 2010 / 10:12:57  GRReporter
6311 reads

Anastasia Balezdrova

More than 12 months of shooting time, 120 actors, 1000 mutes and 26episodes. This is The Island in numbers – the Greek series that got a passionate audience from the first episode aired in early October. The series is a film version after the eponymous bestseller of Victoria Hislop that has been translated into 33 languages and its sales reached 2 million copies. The novel was selected by the British edition The Times between the 100 most influential books of the decade.

What's the story? Alexis is burning with desire to reveal her mother’s past that she has carefully hidden for many years. She knows only that her mother Sofia grew up in a small village on the island of Crete and then had left for London forever. When Alexis decides to go to Crete Sofia gives her a letter to an old friend of hers, asking her to tell the whole story to her daughter. Alexis thus learns that the life of her family is directly related to the small deserted islet of Spinalonga that once housed a colony of lepers. She learns from her mother’s friend Fotini the story of her family that became the victim of tragedy, war and passion.

Spinalonga is a small islet located in the Mirabelo Gulf in southern Crete. Its ancient name was Calydon, but the Venetians, who conquered it, built a fortress on it and because of its shape renamed it Spinalonga, which means a long thorn. The islet was conquered by the Turks in 1715 and it housed Muslims. Since 1903 the Greek government began to use it as a colony of lepers and sent there 251 infected Cretans who anyway had lived away from their settlements. The conditions were very difficult because there wasn’t a medicine for the highly contagious and incurable disease at that time.

Other infected people from all over Greece were sent to the island after 1913 and the population reached 1000 people. At first their life was very bad. The island was a large den, a cemetery for living dead, no organization, no medicines for the patients, no hope. However, the people themselves organized and formed a society with its own rules and values. They married each other despite the ban and had babies, some of which were perfectly healthy. They sent them for adoption by childless Cretan families. The infected were paid a small benefit and they were able to buy supplies from the small market at the port where farmers from Crete were selling products for particularly disinfected bank-notes.

The hospital in Spinalonga was closed in 1957 and the patients were moved to the infectious hospital in the Athens district of Saint Varvara. Anyway, their number has fallen significantly following the discovery of a drug against leprosy in the USA 10 years earlier.

Using this historical reality, Victoria Hislop creates a fantastic story. The reader is confronted in the novel with strong feelings of hopelessness and frustration, but with the power of human spirit too. Eleni, the great-grandmother of Alexis, a teacher in Elounda got leprosy and had to go to the islet of Spinalonga leaving behind two daughters and her husband, who was the boatman shipping the patients to their new and last home. He had the chance to see Eleni often but they had no common life any longer despite the proximity of their village Plaka and the island of lepers. The sequel is very interesting and full of emotions. The author presents a society of people who know that the end is coming but they still dream, hope and are eager for life.

Spinalonga is an archaeological site and therefore the series were filmed in the village of Ano Elounda, located just across. For the first time in the history of Greek television there was a casting for all the members of the team, even for the famous actors, the make-up artists and the costume designers. An interesting fact is that the writer has refused a proposal by a Hollywood producer and preferred to shoot the film in Greece. Here's how she explains her decision: "I said during our first meeting that I want to attend the filming. The Greek producer unlike the American one did not mind. Although my story is completely fictional there were people on Crete though who suffered from leprosy. I wanted to be sure that their memory will be respected."

The script of the series bears the signature of Mirela Papaikonomou, one of the most famous screenwriters in Greece, who talked about the series particularly for GRReporter.

When did you read the book The Island for the first time? 

I read it when I got the proposal by Mega TV.

Was there something to bother you while you were writing the script?

We bother whenever we do something for the first time just because we have not done it before. Isn’t it so? In the present case it was not just the fact that I was responsible for each of my new proposals for the story before the author but I had to respond in the best possible way to a work that reaped huge success worldwide.

Did you know the history of the island of Spinalonga and its inhabitants before that? Did you talk to people from Crete who were suffering from leprosy or had contacts with the island?

I did not know the history, but I tried to learn it or rather study it after having accepted the proposal to write the script. I read almost everything written on the topic and spoke with people who have personal experiences from their own stay or from the stay of their relatives on Spinalonga. They told me stories that helped me a lot to reproduce the characters and the era in the script in a more realistic way.

Tags: The IslandSeriesMirela PapaikonomouVictoria HislopLeprosySpinalongaCinema
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