Documentary or Fiction?

in 53rd Visions du Réel Nyon

by Cristina Trezzini

In Like an Island (L’îlot) one immediately realizes that one is dealing with something strange and mysterious, that could be real, but also perhaps only the result of pure imagination of a young director challenged by his first film.

Tizian Büchi, born in Neuchâtel in 1981, slowly introduces us to a very hot summer in a little unknown quarter of Lausanne, Les Faverges, where elderly Swiss retired and immigrant families from all over the world live together. A non-place that could be located anywhere, anonymous high-rise buildings, parked cars, a few children playing, the sound of a nearby stream. To guide us, two private security agents have been assigned to monitor the neighborhood because something strange has happened in the bordering river. We do not know the details of the event, we do not know whom the inhabitants of the multi-ethnic community should be protected of, nor who requested their surveillance.

Ammar (Ammar Abdulkareem Khalef) is new to the job and it is Daniel (Daniel Nkubu), of Congolese origin, who mentors him and explains what a good private security guard in Switzerland should do. The dialogue between the two offers many hilarious and surreal moments, as does their unlikely uniform, a simple yellow armband. But then there are the long nights when the neighborhood is asleep, the patrols, the waiting for something that doesn’t happen, and then the two men start sharing their pasts, their dreams and hopes… And here the tone changes, the story becomes deeper and poetic as emotions emerge. Ammar and Daniel also have a past of emigration and now live in a foreign country, like most of the inhabitants of the neighborhood. Tizian Büchi has left them free to improvise, despite the fact that they are both non-professional actors:  Ammar was the director’s roommate and Daniel was a bus driver.

Throughout the film, the film swings from one register to another, constantly reversing points of view; like a game of cat and mouse, the agents who are in charge of watching and protecting the inhabitants are in turn spied on from the windows and balconies of the popular buildings by those who are to be protected. Each feels compelled to watch over the other, a very Swiss attitude. “Watching from the balcony is nicer than watching TV,” says an elderly woman.

With a light, minimalist hand, a camera that films almost imperceptibly, Tizian Büchi also gives the floor to the community living in the Faverges who will awaken their imagination thanks to the mystery linked to what happened at the river. The film takes on a new dimension, becoming more documentary than fiction, transforming itself into an opportunity to talk about identity, the past, one’s own origins, beliefs and customs lived in the countries of origin, ghettoization, solidarity and emancipation.

But there is another great protagonist not to be forgotten absolutely; the Vuachère, the river that flows on the edge of the neighborhood, from which the whole story began. The watercourse, precisely because it does not reveal its secret, acts as a collector of many legends and fantasies. An important place, which offers a bucolic setting where you can hide, physically for real or simply projecting memories. A magical place where the sound of flowing water mixes with bird songs.

Mankind and its stories, nature and its sonorous universe play an important role in this indefinable, unconventional, free, and fresh film. Like an Island is an astonishing first work, rightly awarded in Nyon.

Cristina Trezzini
Edited by Savina Petkova