Picture a suburban neighborhood that mostly immigrant families and pensioners call home, hidden under a wide avenue and wedged on the edge of a forest and a river. Or as Swiss director Tizian Büchi puts it: “A hole where no one ever goes, unless they live there.” This is the setting of his first feature film, “Like an Island,” selected in the international competition at Visions du Réel, in Nyon, Switzerland.

Now picture two guards, Daniel and his younger colleague Ammar, patrolling the area night and day to make sure no one goes anywhere near the river. Why? Ammar would love to know. Daniel, who fulfills his mysterious mission with zeal, seems to have answers. As the watchmen make their pointless rounds and develop a friendship, the residents share their own views on what may have happened on the banks of the river.

Through their words, they paint a touching and very lively portrait of this little-known district of Lausanne. Quickly, you feel so welcome there, you wish you’d be one of them.

“The people who live in Faverges have a strong sense of identity that makes you want to discover the neighborhood,” says the director, who filmed there in summer 2019 and summer 2020. “When the movie hits the screens, we hope to organize guided visits to make the experience complete.” He himself has recently moved into the area, he confides.

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Courtesy of Tizian Buechi

After two shorts (including “The Sound of Silence,” awarded a special mention of the Youth Jury at Visions du Réel in 2017), Büchi worked for four years on this film, his first feature. “Slowness is what characterizes me,” he laughs. “But at the same time, I am a bulimic of work, of life experiences, and the days always seem too short. It always takes me a long time for my projects to mature and come to life. I have accepted it now, but wasn’t always so serene about it. When you start later in age as I did, you tend to compare what you do to everything others have already achieved.”

Büchi discovered cinema rather late. Watching Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” proved a turning point, “It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it,” he says. Born and raised in Neuchâtel, Büchi moved to Lausanne to study the history and aesthetics of cinema at the university there, while working as a distributor for independent movies, and for several festivals, including Neuchâtel Intl. Fantastic Film Festival. He then headed to Brussels to attend the Institut des Arts de Diffusion (IAD). Currently, Büchi is part of the Solothurn and the Winterthur festival teams, after two years collaborating with the Locarno Film Festival.

When he returned to Lausanne, after his studies in Brussels, his path crossed that of the Faverges neighborhood. “I was looking for a film setting. Someone told me about this place. Nature in the middle of the city! A bucolic place where you get to see badgers and salamanders, where you get this feeling of mystery,” he says. “I felt we could tell a lot of stories there. I always thought nature holds a strong potential for imagination. When I work, I want to understand the setting, approach it from different angles: meet the people, hear their stories, but also understand the nature, geology, architecture, history, and energy of the place. I didn’t really have a script at first. I just had a curiosity for this area, the stories to be told around the river and the actor.”

Believe it or not, Büchi “cast” Daniel more than 10 years before shooting “Like an Island.” “He was a bus ticket inspector back then, charismatic, quite authoritarian but welcoming,” says Büchi. “I wasn’t even making films back then, but when I first saw him, I said to myself if one day I do, I’d like him to play in it!” So when he had the idea for “Like an Island,” he remembered Daniel immediately. Finding him after all the years wasn’t easy but worth it: Daniel’s a real eye-catcher.

Questioning the surveillance society through his 106 minutes film, Büchi brilliantly blurs the lines between fiction – the guards’ mission – and real life – the neighborhood and life trajectories of Daniel and Ammar, who was Büchi’s roommate at the time of filming. “I love to distill little touches of fiction into a film, to create a dialogue between what is real and what is not. I like it when things are mixed up and we don’t know exactly what is what.”