I’ve seen Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” twice now, the first time at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and most recently at the Bermuda International Film Festival (where I’m on the international advisory board and served on this year’s jury). Set on the paradise island of Floreana in the Galapagos in the 1930s, it’s a tale of small town feuding and Tinseltown aspirations turned deadly. It features famous names like Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger, and a colorful cast of characters, from a Nietzsche-reading hermit doctor to a limelight-loving, faux baroness. Most surprisingly, it’s not a Hollywood flick. On the contrary, it’s a documentary – proving once again that truth can be stranger than fiction. And that a nonfiction flick can be entertaining enough to sit through twice. I spoke with the talented co-directors prior to the film’s NYC theatrical premiere on April 4th.
Lauren Wissot: So how did you find this intriguing tale in the first place?
Daniel Geller: We were brought to the Galapagos in 1998 by a friend who needed to shoot video and record sound as part of an interactive educational project he was making about evolution and natural selection for middle school kids. Until we arrived neither Dayna nor I had any idea that people lived on the islands. That alone was a huge surprise. By chance on our boat was a shelf with just a few books, one of which contained a chapter titled “Murder in Paradise.” It was like catnip to Dayna, who reads true crime novels.
Dayna Goldfine: The book Dan’s referring to was a slim little volume called “The Enchanted Islands,” and it purported to be about the “human history” of the Galapagos. Just the concept of there being a “human history” in an archipelago without any indigenous peoples struck me as odd. Again from our uneducated perspective back in 1998, the only inhabitants of the islands were tortoises, iguanas and Darwin’s finches. So my curiosity was piqued immediately by the notion of people leaving society behind to come to this rather inhospitable place. Then, as Dan said, the murder mystery became an instant obsession. As soon as we got back to San Francisco we tracked down copies of both Dore Strauch’s and Margret Wittmer’s books as well as the series of articles by Friedrich Ritter, which were published in the “Atlantic Monthly” in 1931. The more we read and thought about the incidents on Floreana the more intrigued we were. But we also were stumped for many years about how we could tell the story in documentary form given that almost all of the protagonists had been gone for more than 70 years. It wasn’t until several years later when our friend, who’d initially hired us for the 1998 shoot, called to say he’d heard about the stash of footage in the USC archive that we began to get an inkling of how we could make the film.
Wissot: Your use of narrative techniques – soaring score, voiceover narration by famous actors, the mystery thriller setup, and especially the reenacted footage – kept me off balance throughout the entire film. The constant back and forth of wondering what is “real” and what elements are staged actually adds to the suspense. It reminded me a bit of Sarah Polley’s ingenious “Stories We Tell.” Personally, I hope that what I call “hybrid docs” are the wave of the future. But do you find that folks are ever uncomfortable with this melding, feel that facts must be firmly separated from fiction?
Goldfine: First of all, that you might have been reminded of Sarah Polley’s masterpiece is thrilling to me. “Stories We Tell” was one of the most exciting films I saw last year – in any genre. I love the way the documentary form is evolving. It’s much more exciting to be working now than it was when we first started out in the late 80s. Even though there are still people who are uncomfortable with “hybrid docs” and other ways of pushing at the edges of the genre, there is much more acceptance of filmmakers crossing lines today than there was 25 years ago. I remember in 1989 trying to raise money for “Frosh,” our college freshman dorm film, and being told by several funders that they wouldn’t fund it because “cinéma vérité was dead!” At the time personal diary films were in vogue and people thought we were insane for trying to do anything else. I don’t see that happening today and I feel like if anything documentarians are going to keep crossing more and more lines, and that’s thrilling.
One thing I do want to note, though, is that the footage of the Floreana protagonists was not something that Dan and I recreated or reenacted. It’s actual archival footage shot primarily by Allan Hancock and his crew during each of the trips to the Galapagos between 1931 and 1935. I guess that some of it was “reenacted” for Hancock’s cameras because it’s pretty obvious that he or his men asked Dore, Friedrich and the others to demonstrate things like clearing the land, moving a boulder, making a sugarcane press, etc. But none of the footage was created by us. Although we dusted it off and cleaned it up as best we could, the footage was really shot 80 years ago. One thing Dan and I have wondered, though, is whether Hancock may have been influenced by “Nanook of the North.” Maybe he got the idea to have the Floreana islanders reenact their daily existence from Robert Flaherty. We talked about this possibility with Gary Coates, who did all the color work for us and he quickly dubbed our film, “Nanook of the North by Northwest.”
Geller: From the start Dayna and I set out to make a slightly weird movie, something we’d not yet done tonally in our previous work. So much of the story itself, the characters especially, pushes the boundary of plausibility, but it happened. How it happened, though, is another matter subject to discrepancies. As Jose Machuca says in the movie, “The history of the Galapagos has been written in different ways, depending on who has written it.” All of the protagonists wrote their versions of events as they saw fit for their own purposes, so none are truly reliable narrators. That puts the viewer in the position of figuring out what is real and who to believe. If there are any fictions in the movie, they come from our foregrounding the writings of the characters – someone at any moment likely is dissembling or at least shading the truth.
Wissot: The film notes that you met Margret Wittmer, the last eyewitness to “The Galapagos Affair” before she died. Obviously, she didn’t want to talk about the incident, but how did you gain the trust of the islanders who do appear on camera? These folks have been wary of intruders their whole lives, yet they seem to open up to you.
Geller: We had to earn their trust, and that began with our spending time in the islands with no camera in hand. Just hanging out, talking and getting to know one another. For the descendants of the Floreana story, they came to understand that Dayna and I didn’t want to pin the disappearances on any person or persons specifically – that all the players would have their turn to explain themselves. As for the Santa Cruz islanders, we made it clear that we had no agenda other than plumbing their motivations for leaving civilization, choosing such a remote and challenging place to live, and struggling to thrive as best they knew how. Of course, we asked them to reflect on those choices – how they felt about it all now that so many are old or, in the case of the kids born to those families, now that they are adults having grown up in so isolated a place.
Goldfine: I think it helped too that we could show them our past work. In the spring of 2007 we made a research trip about 5 months before we planned to film anything, and at that time we gave out a lot of copies of “Ballets Russes” and some of our earlier documentaries. They could tell from these that we were serious filmmakers who loved and were fair to their subjects. Plus, we genuinely developed friendships with the islanders who appear in the film. We spent hours hanging out over meals, a lot of laughter was shared between us, and that led to the trust that resulted in those honest on-camera interviews.
Wissot: I’m pretty shocked that Hollywood hasn’t already made this incredible story of murder and intrigue on a paradise island into a fiction film. Do you foresee that happening now that your doc is out?
Geller: We know that there have been people trying since the early 1990s to adapt the story and get it made as a fiction feature. And there are several parties attempting to do so now. It’s a tough one to turn into a Hollywood movie – so many characters, action verging on melodrama, the choice of whether or not to use German actors, which would keep it more authentic, but possibly limit the audience. I think that as a documentary the movie keeps itself rooted in the amazing archival “home movie” footage and, in so doing, tips the balance back from unbelievable to credible, if bizarre. It’ll take a very talented team to make that adaptation work.
Goldfine: I certainly don’t think it’s impossible to make a fictionalized “Hollywood” movie out of this material, but I do think it would be hard to make it as a low budget indie given the island location and the sheer number of characters. From my perspective, the hard part would be taking this “truth is stranger than fiction” story with its large, archetypal characters and making it seem plausible within the confines of a standard two-hour film. Mostly I’m just extremely grateful that we had the opportunity to make it as a documentary.
Wissot: I assume there was a lot of fascinating stuff left on the cutting room floor. Anything you wish you could have delved into more?
Geller: Yes! Both in the details of life on Floreana, the “mystery” island, and in the deep search for meaning with the Santa Cruz islanders. Some of those scenes we will put onto the DVD/Blu-Ray and figure out a way to offer up streaming. It’s interesting that as the disc fades as a distribution medium over time we’ve yet to devise a way to offer via a handy stream the extra scenes that fall outside the main movie, yet are wonderful to see after watching the show. By integrated I mean on the same feed – Netflix, Fandor, iTunes, Amazon and the rest – rather than pushing someone to an external website, though we’ll likely use such an external movie page until the streaming services expand their packages to account for these fun extras.
Goldfine: Well, the old filmmaking adage says that you haven’t reached the end of the editing until you’ve cut out your dearest scenes. So, yes, lots and lots of stuff remains on the cutting room floor. Luckily Dan and I have many trusted friends who are willing to sit through work-in-progress screenings and give us their honest feedback on what’s working and what’s not, what’s necessary and what’s extraneous. We had several of those screenings over a period of six or seven months and a lot went by the wayside as a result. There are several more incidents with the Baroness that I wish we could have included. She’s such a fabulous character, which made it hard to winnow down her escapades. There are also lots and lots of material about the daily lives of the Santa Cruz islanders that we just couldn’t find a place for. As Dan said, the DVD extras are going to be really fun to make!