Mark Isaacs: Five Films, One Filmmaker
Second Run dropped a bombshell of a box set dedicated to the films of Marc Isaacs, a British documentary filmmaker known for creating closed-off, intimate films with a cast of many memorable and sometimes eccentric personalities. It doesn’t matter if his contributors are small time BNP supporters, nobody street sweepers, or innocent children searching for their first love; Isaacs treats his subjects with respect, affection, and passion. It’s rare to find a filmmaking voice in the documentary field who treats everyone fairly. But there are no two ways about it – what we are dealing with is “home media release of the year” material. Second Run have put in an incredible and insane level of effort in their newest Blu Ray release; documentary buffs will crave over owning a limited edition copy of the set. Every, single, one of Isaacs’s films is here including his most recent feature film to date, The Road. And the cherry on the very top? A gorgeous paperback book featuring essays and writings about Marc’s impressive oeuvre.
However, I understand that this is a daunting task to undertake for any newcomer – Marc Isaacs isn’t a significant name in the documentary world when compared to the likes of your Nick Broomfield’s, Werner Herzog’s, and Errol Morris’s. There are seventeen films featured in this box set, many are shorts, but a few last between 45 minutes to 1 hour and 20; going through and reviewing them all is painstaking because of the sheer volume of material. Therefore, I’m not going to be writing a traditional review here. Instead, I’m going to single out five films in the set that I think are good starting points to get into Marc Isaacs’s world. Some are shorts, some aren’t. Some aren’t favourites of mine, though some are. I want to give a fair and justified list of recommendations that best demonstrates Isaacs’s talent as a filmmaker and conversationalist. So without further ado, let’s get the ball rolling.
#1. Lift (2001)
Lift is likely the first film that comes to mind when an audience hears the name, Marc Isaacs. Isaacs first cut his teeth working as an assistant for the modern Polish directing marvel, Paweł Pawlikowski. Whilst shooting with Pawlikowski in London, Isaacs stumbled across a block of flats and concocted the idea to talk to the residents on their past, present, future, dreams, and fears. Sounds boring on paper, doesn’t it? But what helps Lift elevate itself is that Isaacs puts himself and a camera inside the lift of the tower block, interviewing the returning characters for two months straight. What happens in the narrow hallways is up to the human imagination, Isaacs locks himself in the lift at all times.
Isaacs taps into grand themes of community and unity and the filming challenges are already present. What if Marc doesn’t get to develop these characters in time and the film comes across as a series of one chance encounters? Filming in a lift is a limiting perspective, isn’t it? There’s only so much you can do in there. However, the steely cold environment of Lift behaves like a confessional box in a church – the returning tenants slowly open to Marc’s personal questioning the more they get to know him. One lonely single man is reluctant to openly talk to Marc about finding the love of his life. But soon enough, the man tells Isaacs in his next encounter that he is “on the pull” after work. In the next scene, the drunken white-collar worker whimpers that he failed to get a girl back to his flat.
You would think that this man is a predator, but he doesn’t behave like that during his short screen time. The tenant doesn’t make a song and dance about not getting laid, he steps into the lift with the goofiest grin on his face, turns to Isaacs and says “I didn’t get anyone”, and then looks away in embarrassment. That is Lift’s genius – no-one is being dishonest here, they admit their flaws through facial expressions, mannerisms, and own words. Lift admits that nobody is perfect. And furthermore, Lift also kicked off Isaacs’s career as a unique documentary filmmaker.
#2. Someday My Prince Will Come (2005)
Between Lift and Someday My Prince Will Come, Isaacs made two more films: Travellers which focused on train travel and the inherent loneliness of the passengers, and Calais: The Last Border, a film that featured English day-trippers hunting for cheap booze and refugees recently arriving in Calais. From the outside looking in, Lift, Travellers, and Calais: The Last Border act like a trilogy on transient lives. But Someday My Prince Will Come is a complete detour from everything Isaacs was building up to at that point in his career. If I had one word to describe Someday My Prince Will Come, it would be lovely. For 48 minutes, Isaacs follows a nine-year-old girl, Laura-Anne, as she discovers her first love, Stephen, in the rugged seaside town of Siddick, Cumbria.
Accompanying Laura-Anne’s journey is a voice-over of rhyming couplets beautifully brought to life by the young girl. The lyrical narration adds a fairy-tale flavour to the montages of pregnant women standing around pubs, and the men lounging on their chairs with a pint in their hands. Laura-Anne reminisces: “Boys soon turn into men. Girls all mothers to be. It won’t be long at all, for what’s expected of me”. It’s a dastardly clever technique that refuses to tell you what’s happening on-screen. Someday My Prince Will Come places you in the in-between period of childhood and adolescence. I think a film which makes me smile over my childhood is a rare breed, the last one that did the same thing was Claude Barras’s incredible stop-motion, My Life as a Courgette. Yeah, Someday My Prince Will Come is in that league.
#3. Philip and His Seven Wives (2005)
Arguably seen as Isaacs’s crowning jewel on his CV, Philip and His Seven Wives turns to a farm in Hove where a messianic ex-rabbi, Philip, lives with his seven wives: Judith, Chava, Margo, Hannah, Vreni, Karyn, and Tracey. The former rabbi turned farmer believes he is a prophet and claims that he has had many visitations from God, Isaacs soon steps in to document the family’s livelihood. Philip and His Seven Wives eerily sounds like a premise for a Louis Theroux documentary, right down to the fact that Isaacs is a character in the film too, though not directly seen. However, Isaacs diverts Philip and His Seven Wives away from the archetypal Theroux-esque investigation.
I don’t think Isaacs is meaning to push Philip’s buttons or convince any of the wives to ditch him. Isaacs lingers in the background during the documentary’s harsher sequences, refusing to interrupt anyone until the filming has wrapped for the day. One scene involves Philip talking into a microphone and demanding his wives to repent their sins, for he is a prophet and they need to be perfect for him. He coldly calls out Tracey, “Do you want God?”, as the youngest wife in the room bursts into tears. “I do want God, I do!”, Tracey cries. Philip sits at the head of the table with a frosty look in his eye, when he does finally speak up, he goes into a tasteless monologue about a lamb getting slaughtered. The indirect connotations between the lamb allegory and Tracey’s recent pregnancy speak for itself.
Philip and His Seven Wives is Isaacs’s strangest and most controversial documentary out of the bunch. Philip is a bully, so many viewers will find it difficult to relate to such an abhorrent lead. But weirdly, Philip and His Seven Wives behaves like a distant cousin to Someday My Prince Will Come. Instead of a bittersweet longing to become a child once again, there is an unbearable tension whenever Philip walks into a room – we, as an audience, don’t know what he is going to say or do. No-one wants to be Philip. Full stop. The tension makes Philip and His Seven Wives an engaging and fascinating film to watch, it reels in your attention like the best of Theroux’s work, and out of the set, is my personal favourite of Isaacs’s film.
#4. Outside the Court (2011)
Critics and journalists have not written much on Outside the Court, but I felt that it deserved a spot on the list because despite being so obscure, Outside the Court reminds me of every reason why I think Marc Isaacs is a gifted filmmaker: he is empathetic to all of his cast no matter what film he is working on, he provides you with a perspective that the steeliest of humans also come from the bleakest of backgrounds, and Marc contains all these individual stories in an environment that feels purposeful to the overall theme of the film. In the case of Outside the Court, the film’s theme is the harshness of the justice system – Isaacs interviews men and women stranded outside Highbury Magistrates’ Court, London, as they wait anxiously for their hearings.
The cast of contributors all have committed a variety of actions society would deem as crimes – some are thieves, others are drug addicts, and some the justice system has unfairly reeled in because they had to protect themselves against violence. Self-defence, in other words. It feels like Isaacs is giving you the small environment of ‘outside the court’ to emphasise the fear of judgment and humiliation. But, at the same time, Isaacs never judges the behaviour or actions of anyone in the film. The court itself already does that, so why would Marc follow up? The most sympathetic and gripping character story is that of a French knife-wielder called Marcel. He looks like a criminal, for sure, but towards the end of Outside the Court, Marcel reveals how he was abused by his parents, got separated from his sister, and was homeless for all his childhood. The moral of Outside the Court is to never judge a book by its cover, and Marcel’s tragic past encapsulates that very moral.
#5. When Night Falls (2016)
We started with a short film, and we are going to end it on one too. When Night Falls (a.k.a. Men Who Sleep in Trucks for BBC Three fans) sees Isaacs talk to four separate truckers initially going about their daily routines. You would think Isaacs would interview the men while they are up and down Britain’s intimidating motorways, but nope, he talks to them when they are about to go to bed. When Night Falls is the perfect palette cleanser from Outside the Court’s meaty characterisation, and Philip and His Seven Wives’ naked and stripped back look on controlling family members; it’s a haunting and beguiling watch. Each of the truckers discusses lost love, cheating wives, addiction, and being absent from their children as they grow up, and the nocturnal atmosphere adds to the eeriness of their personal problems, anyone can easily empathise with them. For 17 minutes, I can’t say a lot about When Night Falls. But the sadness that the film exhibits makes When Night Falls a curious piece in Isaacs’s chequered filmography.
It’s easy to say – Second Run have outdone themselves. With the release of the Marc Isaacs set, I’m hopeful that more documentary filmmakers in Second Run’s DVD library get the same treatment – the works of Kim Longinotto and Nicolas Philibert are screaming for attention. But don’t just stick to the five Marc Isaacs films I’ve listed today. There are many other films worth your time that I could write a new section on; All White in Barking, The Road, and Touched by Murder all spring to mind as quintessential Isaacs, filled with his trademarks as a filmmaker. There are many stops and places to visit in Isaacs’s world, and with that varied range of options for documentary fans, the box set is a dream come true.