Documentary-maker Marc Isaacs: ‘I like to provoke, but not to be seen’

w ^hile making his first documentary 20 几年前, Marc Isaacs spent two months in the lift of a London tower block, filming the residents coming and going, and asking whimsical questions (“What did you dream about last night?”). That short film, Lift, also featured a fly, which he bought from a pet shop; the insect expired in the final shot. Isaacs hadn’t intended that to symbolise the death of the fly-on-the-wall genre – “It only occurred to me afterwards” – but it fits his philosophy, which spurns any notions of unmediated reality. For two decades, he has prodded, coaxed and intervened, all from behind the camera. “I like to provoke,“ 他说, “but not to be seen.”

Louis Theroux recently chose Isaacs’s 2005 电影 Philip and His Seven Wives as one of his favourite documentaries. It’s about a second-hand-furniture dealer who declares himself a Hebrew king and establishes a polyamorous household in Hove. “Marc is someone I admire a lot,” Theroux tells me. “I don’t know exactly what his method is, but he comes across as very adept at building trust with his subjects. They open up to him. But there is also a sense of aloofness, which in the wrong hands could potentially seem superior or unkind, but which most of the time with Marc is a kind of forensic clinical interest, and which helps create an uneasy comedy.”

Isaacs and I have met to discuss his latest work, The Filmmaker’s House, in the film-maker’s house – or rather, his back garden. On a spring morning in east London, he sets out coffee and biscuits on a table in the sun. He is 54, with black curls, a rust-coloured corduroy shirt and an amiable, unguarded manner.

In the new film, it is a pigeon rather than a fly that bites the dust. Was this another pet shop purchase? “No, my cat killed it,“ 他说. “I realised it might come in handy, so I stuck it straight in the freezer. Then the night before we shot the scene, I defrosted it.” The next day, he filmed the spontaneous reaction of his Colombian cleaner, Nery, when she walked in to find the cat with the bird in its mouth.

As this might suggest, The Filmmaker’s House is a drama-documentary hybrid, with non-actors playing versions of themselves in fictitious scenarios. Its premise is that Isaacs, rebuffed by commissioning editors who are only interested in morbid documentaries, turns his camera instead on the people under his roof, including Mikel, a homeless Slovakian man who stops by for money then stays for lunch, and Keith, a labourer who removes the fence separating Isaacs from his Muslim neighbour, Zara.

Though it was made two years ago, subsequent events have only amplified the film’s themes. “The security of home has been turned upside down by Brexit and the pandemic,” says Isaacs. “There’s this sense of impermanence. What is your home if all around you is chaos and inequality? You’re not separate from that, and it’s unhealthy to think you are.” The film’s working title was March 29th. “That was the date in 2019 when Britain was supposed to leave the EU. Those thoughts were really on my mind, even though Brexit doesn’t feature directly at all.” Bringing different nationalities together in one house, one frame, results in some droll commentary on Britain today, but then that has long been his speciality. In the 2007 film All White in Barking, 例如, he brokered a dinner date between a Nigerian couple and their wary, Essex-born neighbours. (It went swimmingly; the white couple reciprocated with a barbecue.)

If Isaacs has such a thing as an ideal subject, it is “someone who can show their vulnerability”. This applies equally to the high-powered traders in Men of the City, whose wealth has come at a clear emotional price, and the long-distance lorry drivers filmed in their makeshift beds in When Night Falls (AKA The Men Who Sleep in Trucks). Attention-seekers need not apply. “Often, they’re the least interesting people,“ 他说. In the mid-00s, as Big Brother and reality TV were in the ascendant, he noticed a behavioural shift. “People began to have expectations about how they should perform in films dealing with the real.” It still happens occasionally. “Keith sometimes slipped too easily into being the angry builder. I’d be like: ‘Keith, calm down!’”

Isaacs’s patient, quizzical tone is indicative of a personality more inclined to delve than to damn. “I quite like meeting people who seem like stereotypes. That gives you somewhere to go narratively, because there’s always a whole world of other emotions underneath.” Take Keith. “He’s one of the most loyal, generous people I know. He also has some abhorrent views. One of the assistants on the film got really offended, and I said: ‘Look, if you want to overcome the divisions that Brexit has caused, you’ve got to sit down with these people and have conversations.’” The film is mischievous rather than preachy about prejudice, not least when Isaacs reminds Zara of her mother-in-law’s remark to him after he moved to the neighbourhood: “You Jew?”

As a child, his own sense of otherness was highlighted on Yom Kippur, when he would cringe as he walked in his suit to the local synagogue while many of his classmates made their way to school. The “walk of shame”, he calls it. “I really disliked it. As a kid, you just want to blend in.” He exhibited mild tearaway tendencies: he and his friends would start fires next to the River Roding, then watch with fascination as the emergency services arrived.

在 13, Isaacs shaved his head and started wearing a union jack T-shirt and Dr Martens boots. “I grew up in that mishmash of London identities. The reggae-skinhead crossover, people from different worlds side by side.” How aware was he of the tension between his Jewishness and the fascist side of skinhead culture? “Totally. There’s always been this provocateur inside me. I was running with people who were a bit gnarly and scary. I enjoyed the fear factor.”

Paweł Pawlikowski, the Oscar-winning director of IdaCold War, met Isaacs in the late 90s, when he was hiring researchers for his BBC film Twockers, a tale of teenage love and delinquency. “Marc was quite a contrast to the usual media types who turned up,” he recalls. “He had a natural, as opposed to acquired, intelligence. He was unpretentious, talked straight, had street cred.” Isaacs got the job. “He spent six months visiting places around Halifax and Todmorden, looking for texture, local legends, characters. In search of something original, Marc went native and sailed pretty close to the edge.”

He was transformed by working with Pawlikowski, first on Twockers and then on the director’s 2000 feature debut Last Resort, starring Paddy Considine. “Pawel showed me that you can do whatever the fuck you want,“ 他说. “He played around with form, used poetry and metaphor. He woke up my rebellious character.” It was while they were hauling equipment up and down from the top of a Margate tower block on Last Resort that Pawlikowski suggested the idea for Isaacs’s first film. “Marc ran with it. His warm, human, curious personality made Lift the brilliant, layered film it became.”

Between Twockers and Lift, 然而, Isaacs underwent a traumatic experience, which resurfaces, with some of the details changed, in The Filmmaker’s House. 在 1999, he was making a film about Erez Tivoni, who had been diagnosed with dissociative amnesia. Social services became involved in the effort to reunite the man with his family in Israel. Isaacs filmed him for the BBC and even accompanied him to Tel Aviv. Once the legal process there became protracted, Isaacs flew home. 两个星期后, Tivoni was reunited with his four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. He killed both children by dousing them in petrol and setting fire to them.

Media coverage was scathing. One tabloid ran a front-page splash with the headline “BBC killed my babies”; the film itself was never shown. “The whole thing was so shocking,” Isaacs says. “I’d been with him for three months, and there was no way he was faking. I suffered some sort of post-traumatic stress from it all.”

He has largely avoided sensationalist subjects ever since. It’s an aversion that has left his gently profound character studies, 如 Calais: The Last Border and The Curious World of Frinton-on-Sea, looking out of step in a landscape dominated by Netflix “docbusters” like Tiger King. “I can’t have conversations now with broadcasters,“ 他说. “The documentary world I find corporate and restrictive. There’s a narrative line that you’re never allowed to depart from, whereas I like to go off at tangents.”

The Filmmaker’s House was made with bits and pieces of funding, including some from the cosmetics chain Lush, as well as Isaacs’s fee from directing promotional “spots” for Burberry. (He shudders when I refer to them as “films”.) The BBC’s response to the finished film he found particularly depressing. “They said they couldn’t see who the audience would be. That annoyed me. Put it out there and it’ll find an audience. Market it, like you do with your cookery shows!”

When we meet again a week later, at a pavement cafe where he orders a “straightforward” croissant, Isaacs is toying with the idea of shooting another film with Keith. This one could focus on the builder’s relationship with the Chinese student he has taken in as a lodger (he hasn’t) now that his wife has passed away (she’s still alive).

“Am I in this, or is it just the camera?” Isaacs wonders as breakfast arrives. “The student could be studying documentary, shooting stuff on her phone. Maybe I’m there also …” He looks excited by the film taking shape in his head. “What I want is for someone to say: ‘Here’s £40,000. Take a risk.’ Nobody does that these days. If I start talking to the BFI, they just won’t get it.” The tone is sanguine rather than bitter. He tucks into his straightforward croissant and mulls over his complex idea. “I’d rather do it myself and be free.”

The Filmmaker’s House is in cinemas and on Premium VOD from 25 六月.