Ikeshima is a small speck of an island off the coast of Kyushu. For about fifty years, a coal mine on the island operated around the clock, meaning a population of 8000 residents called Ikeshima home. But the mine became unviable and was closed in 2001. With virtually no jobs left, Ikeshima was all but abandoned. Now only 100 or so souls remain and the island's infrastructure, both physical and social, is crumbling.
In Dreaming An Island, documentary filmmaker Andrea Pellerani shows us around Ikeshima, gently teasing out a story of loss and decline. We first see rows of abandoned apartment blocks, their density absurd-looking absent any people. We also see many empty streets, abandoned buildings and the shuttered coal mine.
The story is then taken up by long-term residents. There's the old lady who runs the only restaurant. She rarely has customers, so spends much of her time sitting outside her establishment playing with her cats. Another resident acts as tour guide, relating where the workers lived, where they ate and socialised, and what they abandoned when they left (often an entire apartment's worth of belongings). We also hear from representatives of the coal mine who operate tours of the abandoned facility for visitors.
But the island's decline is perhaps best represented by Ikeshima's schooling system. There are only two children of school age left. They are taught in a school designed for hundreds and are (it's never really explained why) taught by a staff of eight teachers (both students and their teachers act like this is normal). Watching the students and teachers walking through the eerily empty school, or seeing one of the boys running on the oval are striking image of Ikeshima's downfall.
Vague notions remain that tourism or something else will reinvigorate the island. One of the residents operates a small souvenir stand, plying wares to visitors, but even he admits there aren't many. The reality for Ikeshima is that abandoned houses, their owners unknown, are collapsing. And at night, streets becomes dangerous due to packs of wild boars.
Pellerani's film tells us the story gradually, the pace reflecting the slowness of time on the island. The incongruous lines of apartment buildings, the traffic light that still functions or the deserted corridors of the school are amazing images, starkly showing the abrupt turn from boom town to ghost town. Dreaming an Island is beautifully shot and constructed thoughtfully, the pictures of desolate streets often accompanied only by a soundtrack of stillness, of the gradual creeping of nature as it reclaims its island.
Dreaming An Island is screening online as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2022. The film will be available to stream throughout July. Find more information on the festival's official website.