Själö: Island of Souls (2020) ~ A Non-Spoiler Review

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Poster for Själö: Island of Souls. Script across a blue image of a woman reflected into “water” below.


Själö: Island of Souls (2020) is a Finnish documentary feature film available on Netflix U.K. It runs 1 hour and 18 minutes. In Swedish and some Finnish with English subtitles. Rated 12 for injury detail and illness theme.


“An island in the Baltic Sea was once a place where mentally disturbed women could find shelter and treatment.” IMDb


Writers: Seppo Parkkinen, Lotta Petronella
Director: Lotta Petronella
Producers: Ilona Tolmunen, Johanna Tarvainen, Ulla Simonen
Composer: Lau Nau
Cinematographer: Kerttu Hakkarainen
Editor: Matti Näränen
Sound: Janne Laine, Lotta Mäki, Olli Pärnänen
Editorial Consultant: Irene Bartolomé
Musician: Matti Bye


It makes a change to watch a documentary film since I mostly watch dramas. This one appealed because when I found it on Netflix the trailer seemed interesting and a bit different. In truth, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what sort of documentary it was going to be. Did I have a clearer idea after I had watched it?

The first images you see are of bugs and other small creatures flying about in a green-hued nature. These sorts of images of small, sometimes the smallest of creatures (through microscopes) appear throughout this film. Macrophotography is captivating on screen.

It transpires that the building that started life as a hospital which then became an asylum (for life) for “mentally disturbed” women had, once that was shut down, become the location for scientific study of the island and of the Baltic Sea.

The striking cinematography throughout this film makes it worthwhile watching just in itself. Using a static camera to capture visually arresting scenes of, for example, a lake landscape, is striking. There is also a repeated shot (in blue) of the corridor of the building with the doors to what were cells open.

Intercut within the scientific present-day use of the building and its surroundings are readings from the letters written by the women who were, to all intents and purposes, imprisoned in the asylum and its limited grounds.

We also see the documents relating to the building such as the floor plans, along with drawings of the inmates with leprosy. And we get to visit the church with its railed-in section for lepers at the back.

It’s clear as Själö: Island of Souls progresses, from visual cues that the seasons are passing until, once again, winter returns which is when the filmmaker has originally arrived.

Whilst this film is visually arresting and the music and sound design are both excellent I did find it hard to get a proper “handle” on this documentary as the focus kept shifting back and forth so much. I also felt that I could, and indeed should, have been more emotionally impacted by the women’s letters than I actually was. Part of the issue is, I think, the languid pacing (putting it mildly) throughout the film and that some parts were either fully unexplained or repetitive without it being clear as to why the image was being repeated (that corridor again). It felt rather like a scientific investigation itself with images laid before the viewer rather than being as emotionally engaging as it could have been. So, that question I posted at the start about what kind of documentary this is? l’ve come away still unsure.

However, as I said before, for the visual images alone — there are many beautiful frames — and the atmosphere through sound and music, this is worth watching but it certainly isn’t going to be a film that everyone will enjoy.

Awards: 1 Win & 2 Nominations

Win: CPH, DOX (2020) ~ NORDIC-DOCS Award – Honourable Mention


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