Red Island director Robin Campillo: ‘In France we did not process the colonial experience of Madagascar so well. This was a forgotten story’

The man behind 120 BPM has made a film about his experiences as the child of a ‘very right-wing’ French military father in the former colony

More than a few eyebrows were raised last year when Cannes unveiled its programme. Robin Campillo’s Red Island, his gorgeous, textured, autobiographical account of growing up on a French military base in Madagascar, was a conspicuous absence.

The writer and director had scored an international hit with his remarkable 120 BPM. That passionate chronicle of Aids activism and the efforts of the associated Act Up coalition, in which Campillo was involved, won the Grand Prix at the French film festival in 2017.

Ecstatic reviews of Red Island compounded the mystery of its omission. Might Campillo’s depiction of the last days of French colonialism have hit a sore spot, given France’s shrinking influence in “Françafrique”, specifically Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gabon, Djibouti and Chad?

It’s certainly a hot topic, according to Campillo. “In France we did not process the colonial experience of Madagascar so well,” he says. “I had a feeling this was a forgotten story. When you talk about the colonialism of France, people think of Algeria, and that’s it. And, of course, the French sphere was bigger than this. Madagascar is the missing link between pure colonialism and what we call Françafrique.


“And see what happens? The Macron government have told cultural institutes not to accept any more artists from certain countries – Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali – which is an incredible thing to say in a democracy. So we are not finished with all that, you know?”

Red Island opens against azure skies and shimmering beaches as Thomas (Charlie Vauselle), the film’s preteen Campillo surrogate, and his best Vietnamese pal, Suzanne (Cathy Pham), bob and weave, frequently unseen, around misbehaving adults.

A decade has elapsed since 1960, when Madagascar became an independent republic, and French soldiers are a continuing presence – sipping wine, throwing parties, feeling lucky that they aren’t stationed in north Africa, and putting down the farmers’ rebellion in the south. Viewers may wish for someone to smack various characters with a copy of Frantz Fanon’s book A Dying Colonialism.

Between pretending they are their favourite comic-book heroine, Fantômette, and Suzanne’s favourite hobby of “observing”, the kids piece together a dysfunctional narrative. Thomas’s macho father, Robert Lopez (Quim Gutiérrez), and his younger, achingly vulnerable mother, Colette (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), host a pair of new arrivals, Bernard (Hugues Delamarlière) and Odile (Luna Carpiaux), whose marriage soon hits the rocks because of Odile’s hatred of “abroad” and Bernard’s alcoholism and affair with a prostitute, Miangaly (Amely Rakotoarimalala).

Madder developments abound: Robert gives Thomas and his siblings three baby crocodiles to play with; Bernard is exorcised by a resident priest; Santa Claus arrives on a military carrier; and Thomas skulks around the army base in a Fantômette costume that his mother has made for him.

“When I made BPM, that was the first time I was doing a film based on my own experience,” says Campillo. “It opened a door in my brain, because I was a little bit afraid to expose myself and my real life, and my friends who died. But we made a fiction out of elements of my life.

“And after Cannes, I was with my co-scenarist, Gilles Marchand. I told him this story that one night when I was in Madagascar, I took the outfit of Fantômette, the heroine that I love very much, and I went through the bedroom window and I walked around the base, and that was an amazing experience for me.

“It’s so dreamy to remember things at that time: it’s a mixture of what I was dreaming, what I was reading and what I had. Gilles told me, ‘Maybe that’s a film.’ It’s weird. I would never think I would do a film about this minute experience, but, like when I was in Act Up, I also recorded everything in my mind.”

I heard my parents assuming so many times that the people of Madagascar were so warm and so gentle. They wanted to share their country with us, happily. When the revolutions started, all of a sudden the Malagasy were traitors

Campillo used photographs of his family and little personal details – including an expedition to buy jewels for a ring for his mother – to build an authentic portrait of his family in 1971. It was a strange experience, says the director. Even his formerly estranged father, who does not emerge as a heroic figure, was impressed by the finished film.

“My father – I didn’t see him for 20 years: we don’t have a very good relationship – wanted to see the film,” says Campillo. “He’s very right-wing. But he told everyone that he was the father in the film, which is not a great honour. But he was proud! And for my brothers it was like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers, because it’s us and it’s visually precise, but it’s an actor’s interpretation of us.”

The personal becomes the political when, in a brilliant narrative development, the film shifts focus from the French colonisers to Miangaly, an indigenous woman who works at the base on parachute packs, and is part of the rotaka protest movement that led to the collapse, in 1972, of the government of Philibert Tsiranana, Madagascar’s French-appointed president.

“I was interested in this moment because the French influence was so dominant,” says Campillo. “I heard my parents assuming so many times – and also the friends of my parents telling us – that the people of Madagascar were so warm and so gentle. They wanted to share their country with us, happily. When the revolutions started, all of a sudden the Malagasy were traitors. I was lost as a child. It was so mysterious.

“But since the film came out in France, I have not read one article on Madagascar, the Malagasy people and what happened then. Of course, some people don’t like the film. But some people talk about the film who love it, and who do not evoke the history? For me, that’s weird.”

Red Island opens on Friday, March 1st