Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Treasure Island, Variations On A Waterpark


Next in our series of new writing on non-fiction, Andrew Northrop on Guillaume Brac’s Treasure Island, looking at how it engages with the particularities of place and public space.

Guillaume Brac’s Treasure Island is a film that turns the bizarre fabric of commercialised free-time on its head. Simmering under the non-place setting of a French waterpark, dysfunctional currents challenge the park’s innocuous commercial façade. Under-age visitors attempt to sneak into the grounds when refused entry, a group of teenage workers invite friends and crushes to visit the park after-hours whilst ducking from security patrols, and board members discuss the temperature and its correspondence to visitor counts – they’re all the hidden processes that we don’t see as visitors.

On the surface an observational documentary about a waterpark might seem banal, especially with the current resurgence of politically urgent filmmaking bringing us face to face with the world’s various emergencies, injustices and losses. Instead of thinking of Treasure Island as being detached from that however, we should think of it more as a complementary piece – one that highlights the absurdities of consumption whilst the world outside is in turmoil. Though the waterpark presents itself as somewhat of an oasis, bringing in architectural styles that allure to other publicly used parts of the world, it is undeniably a commercial space that deals in the private, with security guards, CCTV and safety requirements dictating and shaping the visitor’s experience.

In the Michael Sorkin edited volume ‘Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Place’ (1992), a handful of academics posited that the act of building a small replication of the outside world is key to the success of Western spaces ranging from the hegemony of malls to locations such as Disneyland and South Street Seaport – which seemingly offer everything under the sun for the purposes of visitor retention. This presentation of a world within an attraction has repeatedly replaced and monetised our free time, but also champions panoptic surveillance and an enforced façade: employees need to act a certain way, or else they face dismissal.

For many who work in the service industry in menial tasks, that awareness of the inner workings of these spaces is well known. Treasure Island quite often taps into that current. That embracing of the dysfunctional, and the breaking down of the capitalistic veil, has often blossomed in films such as Clerks and Slacker, where characters became compelling through their subversion of the intended means of their commercial settings and places of employment. That’s why the activities of Jeremy – an attractive young man with wavy blond locks, a perfectly chiselled body– feels so engaging. His act of bringing his friends and customers he’s flirted with along to the park late at night (and subsequently drawing the watchful attention of the waterpark’s officials) challenges the park’s constructed mythos. It is also where he crafts his own image as a calm and approachable young man seemingly unaffected by outside pressures and reaping the rewards of the post-closure park.

When the park is closed and people sneak back in, when underage visitors are caught trying to climb fences, when visitors have to be evacuated from the pools due to an incoming stormfront, and when a giant waterslide is lit up by nothing but the twilight and a security guard’s roaming torchlight – that’s when Treasure Island locks onto those feelings of dysfunctional and offers us a different vantage point. Brac’s observations break down the false image of the ‘public space’ whilst the board members seek to enforce the park’s private interests behind walls that the public never see.

The dysfunctional re-imagining of the waterpark is where new and unorthodox relationships with its commercial trappings are forged, and as the young Jeremy muses: “I know I can carry on elsewhere, but I’m really attached to this place. It’s my big garden here.” Referring to the park as a garden when its merely a commercial place that has commodified its green surroundings is a false dichotomy however, indicating that Jeremy is ultimately just as caught up in the park’s façade as anyone else.

Andrew Northrop is a writer based in London, and a marketing assistant at Open City Documentary Festival.

Guillaume Brac’s Treasure Island screens on Sunday 8th September at Curzon Soho