The Road: A Story of Life and Death
Whether it was intentional or not, there are a few changes in style and technique that differentiate Marc Isaacs' first feature-length film from the impressive body of TV documentary work that he had done so far, principally for the BBC's Storyville series. Since it deals however with familiar themes that appear in many of his films - emigration, lives in transition, the loneliness and isolation of the human condition - I would suspect however that there's nothing calculated or worked-out in advance about the director's approach to making The Road: A Story of Life and Death. In many ways he does here what he does best in his other films - he simply points the camera at people with interesting lives and allows them to tell their own stories. Somehow, with a few direct questions, Isaacs manages to get a wide variety of characters to open up and express profound and common sentiments that tell us a lot about the society and the times we live in.
I suspect that there was probably no polemic intent either in the choice of subject for The Road - a look at the lives of immigrants who have left their old lives behind in the hope of starting anew in London - but rather, it seems to have evolved naturally over a number of years out of the director's familiar method of just letting people talk about the things that mean the most for them. In the process, Isaacs almost stumbles upon a subject of immense topicality at the moment, but it's not by specific design or by chance. If you are genuinely interested in people, and particularly the make-up of people who live and work in London, then the question of where they originally came from and how their lives have been shaped by this absence of home, is bound to come up in a place that the latest census statistics show that the white British population of the city is now in the minority.
Isaacs however has never been interested in statistics and figures, but people. What The Road does primarily - among many other things - is put a face, a personality, a history and a human experience on those bald statistics. The film considers the experience of emigration from a number of angles, including a young Irish girl, Keelta, leaving a place that holds nothing for her, following in the steps of view of generations of Irish workers like Billy, who have traditionally made the same crossing over the decades, many of them ending up in the pubs of north London. Reflecting the huge diversity of the immigration experience Isaacs also meets and interviews people from a much wider range of backgrounds and social circumstances; from Peggy, a 95 year-old Jewish émigré who escaped Vienna just before the Nazis came; Iqbal, the Muslim concierge at a Marble Arch hotel who has left his wife and family in Kasmir; a trainee Buddhist monk living in a suburban residence; and Brigiite, a former air hostess from Germany - surely the most extreme case of life in permanent transition.
As different as they are and as varied as their backgrounds and social standing are, all of them however they all have a common experience that shapes them profoundly. Whether they have made a successful life for themselves in London, the city remains a lonely place where they never feel they belong. No matter how much they strive to retain some sense of their cultural identity, upbringing and background, there remains a sense of detachment, a loneliness, a void that simply can't be filled or put fully into words. Iqbal (who receives a writing credit in the film), makes the most eloquent and poetic expression of the emigration paradox when he describes how "you leave your country and come to a new place and you lose your home twice". You can never fit in to your new place, and you can never go back and experience home again the same way.
The immigrant experience may be the primary consideration then in the choice of people that Isaacs meets and interviews for this film - and it's one that will inevitably crop up when you look at the population of London nowadays - but as the film's full title The Road: A Story of Life and Death suggests, the film also manages to touch on deeper sentiments and experiences that go to the heart of a number of interconnected human issues, and thereby illuminates the situation in a way that mere statistics can't, highlighting the cracks that exist in the failure of joined-up social policy. These are cracks that swallow up real people with real feelings and real lives. They are not just some number on a piece of paper.
Whether - as in his previous films - Isaacs is interviewing people in the lift of a tower block (Lift), strangers going on their own personal journeys on the train (Travellers), looking to start a new life overseas (Calais), whether it's the experience of City bankers (Men of the City) or the fearful position of the diminishing white British population in other parts of the UK (All White in Barking), or the random situations of people in trouble with the law (Outside the Court), Isaacs finds a way to reach people - and perhaps a society - at their lowest ebb and find a way of making their personal circumstances speak to us and for us. Finding themselves perhaps through no fault of their own at the bottom, in trouble, ill, alone, out of work, facing changes and challenges that the modern world throws at them, they are people who in one way or another have nonetheless found the strength to carry on, picking themselves up again to have another go, if only life would just give them a break.
Many of those earlier subjects, ideas and themes all come together in this latest documentary film from Marc Isaacs, and in many ways, The Road: A Story of Life and Death can be seen as a summation or perhaps just an extension of the director's work so far. In terms of technical filmmaking approach, Isaacs has drawn away from the sometimes expressionistic style of Men of the City for a return to basics, probing people through direct, disarming questions in a way that yields surprisingly open and honest responses from vulnerable people who reveal depths of personal pain and feelings that they wouldn't even admit to their closest friends. Although Isaacs has never gone for the fly-on-the-wall approach, trusting in his ability to forge a meaningful personal connection with his subjects that proves to be much more richly revealing, there are however some reflections and observations made for the first time in a voice-over commentary.
The film is not however without its moments of poetry and insightful keenness of touch. Music, for example, so well employed in the director's previous films, is even more important here - songs and music being a vital connection to home, to an idea or an ideal of "home". A Viennese waltz by Shostakovich, or a traditional ballad belted out in an Irish pub then can overlap with the reflective disposition of a Kashmiri Muslim in an unforced way, an expression of deep sentiments connected to the past and memory which is universal to many and which mere words alone can't express. And even if there doesn't seem to have been any allowances towards making a larger scale documentary for theatrical showing, the seeming grandness of the film's full title - The Road: A Story of Life and Death - in itself has an expressive poetry to its imagery that extends far beyond that of a 300 mile stretch of the A5 that leads from Holyhead to London.