An interview with Jordi Esteva, director of Socotra, The Island of Djinns

by Edoardo Lomi

Socotra: The Island of Djinns (2016) opens a window onto a changing world, whose isolation the film both reveals and dispels.

Travelling to Socotra, says Esteva, “almost feels like travelling back in time.” Shepherds and gatherers have inhabited the caves of this island, located in a remote part of the Arabian Sea, for hundreds of years now. There, sitting by the light of hand-started fires, myths and stories of djinn (spirits) possessions are still being retold in the Socotrian language.

The film surveys the island and its myths, with an attentive eye and a rhythm that strives less for narrative consistency than, as Esteva notes, to let “the people speak for themselves.” Doing so might prove especially valuable: Socotrian has an exclusively oral tradition, and as Esteva explains, “the young people don’t speak it purely anymore…it’s mixed with lots of words in Arabic.” As Esteva recalls a Russian anthropologists pointing out once, this may be “the first and last film to be filmed in Socotrian.”

Socotra, the Island of Djinns may then represent a unique linguistic and cultural testimony. Esteva comments, “I’m kind of specialized in vanishing worlds—worlds that are disappearing very quickly to globalisation.” Having also published a book on Socotra in 2011, Esteva travelled to the island several times over the past decade, establishing deep relations with the local inhabitants and evolving a fascination for their stories and their home: “Socotra is so beautifully strange, with an amazing vegetation, it almost feels like a dream, with no boats in the sea, no lights, no planes in the sky.”

Esteva’s choice of filming in black and white is poetic without romanticising. As the author notes, “the island is beautiful, but I didn’t want to depict this. I wanted to go straight to the soul of the people, to the myths, the legends by the fire—for me colour would have been a distraction.”

If Socotra, the Island of Djinns speaks on the one hand of an archaic human experience, the film also evokes in its maker memories and dreams of a turbulent childhood. Growing up in Spain under the Francoist regime, Esteva used to spend hours dreaming the far-away lands he read of in his father’s books: Samarkand, Timbuktu…. One day, his finger stopped a spinning globe on a tiny spot in the Indian Ocean—Socotra. The scant literature on the island rose Esteva’s curiosity and wonder.

Decades later, in doing research for his book Los árabes del mar (The Arabs of the sea), Esteva talked with many Arab sailors and merchants who told him about the mysterious island. “For them Socotra was a very dangerous place,” says Esteva, “were magicians lived, and they were afraid to approach the island…there is also a geographical reason for that; the Arabs used to sail with the monsoon—what brought them to Zanzibar and faraway places. But Socotra has no natural harbors, and to approach it in Monsoon times meant death.”

Esteva would eventually meet the opportunity to travel to Socotra with the help of none another than the son of the late Sultan of the island. The sporadic commercial flights from Yemen allowed Esteva to reach Socotra; his serendipitous friendship in turn allowed him to cross the tribal boundaries of the island and, eventually, follow his childhood fantasy to its anthropological end.

Socotra, the Island of Djinns emerges from this long and personal journey. Whilst it intimately participates in the listening and documenting of local stories, the film weaves these with the poetry of biographic memory and a passion for making the strangely beautiful, familiar.

Socotra, the Island of Djinns is screening at the RAI FILM FESTIVAL on Thursday 30 March, 9:00 AM
Information and tickets here