Like an Island

In the heat of the summer, two watchmen secure the river that runs through a neighbourhood in Lausanne. Ammar is new to the job, and Daniel shares his experience with him. During their rounds and encounters with the inhabitants, a territory takes shape and a friendship is born. But what could have happened by the river?

Between documentary and fiction, Tizian Büchi subtly questions the surveillance society with this contemporary fable marked by mystery, nostalgia and humour.

The film L’îlot (« Like an Island ») won the Grand Prize of the International Competition at Visions du Réel 2022, and since had a remarkable career at international festivals. From Karlovy Vary to DMZ Docs in South Korea, from the Mostra in São Paulo to the Locarno Festival. L’îlot is nominated for the Swiss Film Award in the documentary category.

Technical data

L’ÎLOT, 104min, 2022
Original version French/Spanish/Portughese/Arabic

Camera: Diana Vidrascu & Camille Sultan
Sound: Bruno Schweissgut
Editing: Thomas Marchand
Sound Editing and Mixing: Adrien Kessler
Colourgrading: Raphael Dubach
Cast: Ammar Abdulkareem Khalaf, Daniel Nkubu, Elie Autin, Juliette Uzor

Production: Alva Film & Territoires sensibles
World sales: Filmotor

Director’s note

This film is born from three encounters that coincided with my return to Lausanne after six years in Brussels. Three encounters like three faces: two men, Ammar and Daniel, and a residential area, Les Faverges. And the desire to film these three faces in an approach where documentary research and fictional intuitions intertwine.

The Faverges and Chandieu neighbourhoods constitute the territory of the film. On the outskirts of the city’s main roads, the area is geographically located in a “hole”. Contrary to the wealthy residences of the surrounding hills and their open view on the lake and the mountains, in Les Faverges there is no view, but a dense habitat, composed of buildings built in the 1950s and initially intended for railroad workers and their families. Even today, the neighbourhood is mainly inhabited by a low-income population, often with immigration background, and by retired people. With the exception of those who live there, few people in Lausanne know the place. And yet, by following the murmur of the river, one comes across an oasis of nature in the middle of the city, at once bucolic and disturbing – in any case mysterious.

With the discovery of this territory, the idea of the film grows: something has happened near the river, an indefinite and mysterious event, which escapes comprehension – and which escapes me too! – and that we will try to identify throughout the film. As a starting point, the stories of the inhabitants, as well as the sensations and impressions that emanate from the territory and the various strata of life that cohabit there: from the roots and deep geological layers to the spirits and energies, ideas and beliefs; the plants, animals, elements, humans and their stories and legends, past and present. Over time and encounters, realistic, imaginary and sensory wefts are woven together to compose, if not an answer to the mysterious event, at least a portrait of the neighbourhood, tinged with magical realism.

Mixed with the portrait of the neighbourhood, it is also a portrait of Ammar and Daniel. The two watchmen have the mission to secure the river and prevent access to it. At the beginning of the project, there was to be only one guard. A man with an impressive posture, who would wander around the neighbourhood, fix his safety ribbon and sit in the shade to escape the heat. Intrigued by his presence or challenged by him, the inhabitants would go to meet him. This character, in between security guard and guardian angel, was inspired by Daniel. Former controller of Lausanne’s public transports, I met him for the first time more than ten years ago on a bus. I didn’t have a valid ticket…. His powerful and laughing voice, his jovial gaze, his charisma and his natural authority made a strong impression on me! After several years, I finally found Daniel, who immediately agreed to participate in the film. As we were almost ready to shoot, Ammar joined the adventure. At that time we had been roommates for two years, and he expressed his desire to be in the film. The idea of the security duo came up.

Based on their stories, experiences and life trajectories, we created fictional characters: an older security guard, who has a long experience in the profession and who adopted the customs and values of the country of adoption. This security guard would guide in his first steps in the profession a younger and dreamy colleague, whose future has yet to be built. Beyond their differences, their relationship could evolve into friendship. From their first meeting, I was seduced by the strength of the duo. In addition to their endearing comical potential, Ammar and Daniel spontaneously managed to find their way in the fictional framework I imposed on them. With their distinct characters and personalities – Daniel is very social while Ammar is more reserved and inclined to the imaginary – they were the best allies to make the territory express itself; to unveil it and make it exist both on the reality level, through encounters and discussions, as by playing the game of fiction and getting caught up in the mystery that emanates from the river.

There is actually something totally absurd in this security mission based on nothing concrete. But as absurd as it may be, isn’t it a tendency that – especially in Switzerland – we seek to monitor and control e verything that escapes? Everything we don’t have the control over? In the film, the topic of vigilance is declined in several directions. It is a question of surveillance and control, but also a mater of care for the other; of attention. With its benefits, good and (even involuntary) bad intentions, vigilance goes hand in hand with the complex idea of « making community ». Watching and being watched operates not only between the guards and the inhabitants, but also in-between the inhabitants themselves. Ammar and Daniel’s mission is even more absurd as their paths and destinies merge with those of the residents: everyone is looking for the place and territory where they can fulfil themselves with the greatest possible freedom and the least external pressure, whether it be familial, moral or political.

In the meantime, « nothing is happening » in the neighbourhood, as Ammar tells his father on the phone. The waiting is long, and the two guards try to give meaning to their presence. Daniel becomes more of a guardian angel or father figure than a security guard, while Ammar follows his instinct and responds to the call of the forest. Both of them end up going down to the river, this space that they were supposed to forbid to the inhabitants… and that is a source of happiness for the neighbourhood.

In the end, the attention paid to the invisible is perhaps not as absurd as that. Indeed, wouldn’t the « resolution » of the mysterious event be the island itself? A territory of appeasement outside the injunctions of the world, an airlock open to the imaginary, an island of possibilities sheltered from view, where secrets, desires and dreams, hopes and sorrows and forbidden loves can hide from the external world? A free zone in the neighbourhood, where life has free rein, without control or constraint, where surveillance has no place. What was a possible threat becomes the place of a possible appeasement.

Imagination is a freedom on which there is no control.