L’Îlot: a certain regard | Visions du Réel 2022
One of the main recurrent topics in contemporary documentary filmmaking is that of small communities, be they suburban or rural – and the way in which this topic has been approached in the past few years has gone through a subtle morphological shift: if, in the 70s and 80s, the formal encasing of such documentaries was largely dependent on voice-overs (as, for example, in the case of Peter Nestler’s monumental films), after the ascension of digital filmmaking, the observational form became so wildly popular that it virtually became the dominant form of arthouse non-fiction. Of course, this shift was, first and foremost, indebted to the fact that documentary film production, now liberated from the material conditions of analog cinema, could now allow itself to record a much longer amount of raw footage, of “raw reality”, in increasingly longer shots, thus eliminating much of the need to offer contextual information outside the film’s actual diegesis. But this newer shift seems to step away from the absolute rigors of observational filmmaking, which in some circles have become tantamount to an ethical code – as a hybrid, docu-fictional form becomes more and more prevalent, abandoning the pretense of a discourse that is (manifestly) informative, as well as that of absolute objectivity or a complete lack of directorial intervention within the course of reality. Some recent examples that come to mind are, for example, Excess Will Save Us (2022), by Morgane Dziurla-Petit, Nous (2021) by Alice Diop or Oroslan (2020) de Matjaz Ivanisin, films that don’t split their contents into clearly discernible parts (as many other contemporary hybrid films do), but rather meld them together organically, thus illuminating the various local and personal mythologies that are an integral part of such spaces (and that are implicitly outside the sightlines of the camera, in a classical understanding of observational filmmaking), and a way of thinking about cinema that extends beyond the understanding of fiction and non-fiction as mere binomial categories, that are distinctive and dichotomic.
L’Îlot, the debut feature by Titzian Büchi, winner of the 2022 Grand Prix of the 2022 edition of Visions du Réel, is one such film. It’s the first Swiss film since 2013 to win the festival’s top award – and whose approach goes beyond its formality and, at times, sketches a wider discourse about the act of seeing (one of cinema’s touchstones). Put in simple terms, the film pursues the daily routines of Daniel and Ammar, two watchmen who are migrant workers (from Angola, respectively Iraq), the latter of whom is a rookie. The two protagonists are tasked with surveilling the neighborhood of Faverges in Lausanne, lying in the vicinity of the Vuachère river, whose shores they cut off with red-and-white bands. It’s not necessarily clear why they’re tasked with keeping guard of the area – a discussion with a group of kids, set towards the beginning of the film, allows us to understand that Faverges might be a bad part of the town, but all that we see in the film is a luminous, sleepy little neighborhood where nothing much happens: “I have no idea why they sent me here. It’s quiet,” says Ammar to his father, calling him on a slow night. (“Still, be careful”, he replies.) Beyond the immediate events of day-to-day life (the expedition of a geologist, the song of a girl playing the guitar, an honest discussion in a café, and so on) there lurks an urban myth, á la Romeo and Juliet: that of a couple shunned by their family/community who met up at the riverside and then disappeared; it’s up to anyone’s guess whether they eloped or if something bad happened to them.
Faverges is the kind of neighborhood that has become typical in contemporary Europe – mostly inhabited by elderly people who have been living there for entire decades and by migrants, an urban melting pot in which one can discover people from all across the world and from all walks of life. The reasons for migration are not as simple as they might seem – neither purely economic nor political; they are equally the result of one’s refusal of certain social norms. Daniel, who takes on somewhat of a paternal role towards Ammar, is surprised to discover that the young man didn’t just escape the war, but also a suffocating, freedomless environment: he feared an arranged marriage after his father had vetoed his relationship with a girl that he was in love with. (“When you go back home, you must change this mentality”, the Angolan man tells him, only for him to receive an “I cannot” in exchange: “Then you’ll have to live here for the rest of your life”.) The twin cameras wielded by Diana Vidrașcu and Camille Sultan patiently record the forest surrounding the Vuachère – and once they return to the streets of the neighborhood, their impeccable coordinated work becomes visible in the invisible editing of Thomas Marchand: a scene featuring an afternoon meeting between several friends of Latin-American origin discreetly extends into the night, the only visible temporal coordinate being the rays of light that fall on the women’s faces.
As I said earlier, to describe L’Îlot solely in terms of sociopolitical observation would be severely reductive. Arguably, the gaze is its central topic – both as a discreet statement on the (ontological) nature of cinema, but also as an act that fundamentally modulates human experience and knowledge, especially in social terms. (There is also a small moment that is dedicated to the act of hearing, as unseeing – there’s a sound that Ammar cannot describe to Daniel; an accidental echo of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2021 masterpiece, Memoria.) Quite naturally in the case of a film about two watchmen, the gaze as an act of surveillance is central to the film – from the very first piece of advice that Daniel offers to Ammar: „sois sage, les yeux partout!” (“Be wise, keep your eyes everywhere!”). Beyond the protagonist’s routine, based on the observation of their surroundings, we have a few scenes where the cameras leave the street behind and nestle within the apartments overlooking their route, inhabited by endearing pensioners that watch the watchers (“Won’t anyone offer them an apero?”, “Our balcony is just like a cinema!”). The gaze is also an act of memory (“I’m looking at the sky and remembering how we used to sleep on the roof”, Ammar says to his father) and also a shared act – as we see a proud Daniel showing his younger colleague photos of his exploits at home, in Angola, on the screen of his phone. Last, but not least, the gaze – of others – is seen as a potentially nefarious act: when they discuss the reasons why they left their hometowns, the group of women emphasizes how they were seen – by their families and by society, in general – as an imperative of their exile. In the previous scene, the two watchmen discuss the fragility of women’s rights in Iraq, arriving at the grim conclusion that not even men who treasure their autonomy are safe there. (“Women are humans that have the right to live, the right to breathe, damn it!”, Daniel explodes.) But, fundamentally, the main equation is that of the protagonists’ gaze and the camera’s gaze: seeing is not just surveilling, it is equally observation and contemplation, an act of understanding; thus, this ubiquitous, silent job is profoundly humanized.
L’Îlot is neither the first nor the last documentary to chart the territory of a neighborhood—what makes it special is the way it avoids the facile pitfalls of social diagnosis (refusing to search for it outright, and leaving it to manifest itself naturally in front of the camera) and those of a conventional, easy-to-identify cinematic form. A remarkable debut about the lives of people that we all too often forget to notice in our day-to-day lives.
For mysterious reasons, two watchmen are made to guard access to the river in an area of Lausanne where retirees and immigrant families live. Through the different people they encounter, a territory takes shape and a friendship is born.