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How 120 BMP’s Robin Campillo mined ‘toxic masculinity’ of his childhood on a French army base for Red Island

Exclusive: "As a young, queer child, It was threatening to me, this situation - but it was also exciting," says the director of growing up around soldiers in 70s Madagascar

By Jamie Tabberer

People on a beach watch a plan fly overhead
"Sexuality and politics are in this situation very connected" says Robin Campillo of Red Island (Image: Provided)

Robin Campillo has spoken of the “ambiguity” he experienced as a queer child growing up on a French army base in 1970s Madagascar, and how the tension inspired his new film Red Island.

Campillo, who is gay, is known for writing and directing 2017 movie BPM (Beats per Minute), a critically-acclaimed drama about AIDS activism in 90s France.

“I could feel the army behind everything” – Robin Campillo

Red Island, his follow-up, is set against the political instability of Madagascar following the country’s attainment of independence in 1960. It follows the life of eight-year-old Thomas, loosely based on Campillo.

“I remember when I was young and felt the same thing as Thomas,” Campillo said in an interview for Attitude. “I had this feeling that grown-ups were overacting a fairy-tale of the colonialism dream. Paradise. And that behind this paradise, backstage, there were always army guys with camouflage outfits. I could feel the army behind everything.

“As a young, queer child, it was threatening to me, this situation – but it was also exciting to me. It was ambiguous.”

“I was imagining myself as a female heroine”

Campillo, also known for films like Eastern Boys and The Class went on: “I was a bit like my mother. I [didn’t do] so well in these masculine environments, and my father was really macho, so that was even worse for me. I was imagining myself as a female heroine, and a child without parents, because I was escaping this masculine toxicity of the military base – I couldn’t breathe because of that.”

Charlie Vauselle as Thomas in Red Island (Image Provided)

Campillo also reflected in how the film is a combination of fact and fiction.

“It’s inspired by a lot of stories I have in mind of this period,” said the 60-year-old. “But of course, it’s a long time ago, so my memories are blurred; dreamy clouds. It’s at the same time very precise and realistic. I tried to create an architecture with these memories – things that are real, things that I imagined. I was eight years old, so I was dreaming things as I was living at the same time. It’s a mixture of these impressions, sensations, sentences I heard from the grown-ups…”

Campillo also said: “The colonialists’ policy was a very masculine way of dominating the people of Madagascar. That’s why I think sexuality and politics are in this situation very connected. That was a time where there was a strong political and sexual order. It was really a system. The women in the family were just like children. Minors in front of their husbands. And my father was a child in front of his general. The Madagascans in general were children in front of the French people. So, it’s a system which is based on domination of men.”

Red Island is in cinemas now.