All White in Barking/Men of the City: Two Films by Marc Isaacs Review
Marc Isaacs' work teaches us to never be afraid of exploring what could be perceived as the obvious because, so often, it's much more complex than most would have imagined. In his All White in Barking, the obvious would seem to be that the natives are getting restless as their city is being overrun by ethnic outsiders. But what of the older white couple who end up hosting a barbecue for their neighboring families, one being Albanian and the other Nigerian? And what, too, of the man who actively campaigns for people to join the far-right British National Party (BNP), has the word "hate" tattooed across the fingers of his right hand, yet loves his half-Nigerian grandson immensely? Isaacs' 2009 documentary film Men of the City ostensibly compares the lives of a varied lot of workers trying to make their living in London, but it also embraces circumstance, as Isaacs so often has done, by capturing the chaos of the recent financial collapse via those who suffer both direct and indirect fallout from the crisis.
Both documentaries are clearly from the same filmmaker who previously did "Lift," Travellers, and Calais: The Last Border (all of which can be found on Second Run's initial DVD of Isaacs' work, an essential from the label's catalog). They all share a lack of passiveness which Isaacs is able to use very much to his benefit. His distinctive style is generally one where incidental contact appears to lead to the next tangent before somehow fitting perfectly inside the whole of the film. The opening of one door reveals another and so on. Not only does he actively ask questions to his subjects that often prove remarkably telling to the creation of their "character," Isaacs also positions everything just so, never hiding the fact that he's establishing a loose narrative of sorts. It's this honesty, if you will, that really pays off for the viewer who might be skeptical of the documentary genre as a whole. It doesn't take much to see that Isaacs is doing two things - and doing them quite well - at once.
Firstly, he's making a well-rounded portrait of people. He's a humanist not blinded by perception or politics yet acknowledging both. There's nothing clearly so wrong with anyone that he or she falls short of deserving our patience and attempts at understanding. That isn't to say an opinion is right simply because it's an opinion. Isaacs seems to have no qualms about nudging his subjects in the direction of further enlightenment, as he does with the older couple in All White in Barking who proceed to have many of their preconceptions shattered. Still, the point always seems to be to give a voice to those from whom we'd never otherwise hear. He allows prejudices to show without judgment. Indeed, part of the brilliance of All White in Barking is its toying with the viewer's kneejerk reactions and how calm and rational the film proceeds to be in the wake of such ideological fervor.
The second thing Isaacs repeatedly seems to accomplish with his films is a chronicling of British society and its cultural mores. In particular, the issue of immigration comes up time and again, and it's possible to glean a great deal based on the reactions that follow. In at least four of his five works, Isaacs presents native Britons alongside outsiders to the country. The filmmaker shows little bias, if anything skewing a touch in favor of the non-natives but hardly demonizing either group. I can only assume that this influx of foreigners remains a hot topic in England, as it constantly seems to in the United States, and that Isaacs sees some fascination in exploring the issue. This usually proves to be the more difficult aspect of Isaacs' films to get a handle on. We're so used to being shown a point of view rather than the more grey reality of the thing that a film reluctant to tell us exactly what to think can seem confusing, if entirely refreshing. The somewhat subtle instructional value of what Isaacs has done by putting 21st century England on film for everyone to see can hardly be overstated.
Regarding the particular films found in this collection, a definite separation in the approach taken emerges, with Men of the City finding a more stylized groove to ably expand upon Isaacs' usual commitment to bang-bang naturalism. But the reaction, for me anyway, was more or less the same. They're both compelling almost beyond words, and they leave you wondering what has become of the "characters" since Isaacs left them. All White in Barking has to its advantage the built-in drama of a clash between the city of Barking's white residents and the nonwhite immigrants some perceive as destroying the Britishness of the community. In the course of his feature, Isaacs finds an African immigrant and his family, an older white couple, an older white man whose daughter has a child by a Nigerian man, a white couple whose butcher shop is eventually sold because newcomers to the area prefer different cuts of meat, and a Polish Holocaust survivor who is being cared for by an African woman. They all clearly have their opinions and reasons and such, and Isaacs generally respects that right while nonetheless setting up potentially awkward situations. He gets the older white couple, who've complained of the potential dissatisfaction involved in eating unfamiliar ethnic food and hearing the loud music that blacks supposedly enjoy, to visit their Nigerian neighbors for a dinner date. Isaacs also makes a point to tell a steadfast BNP supporter that the young man he's just spoken with is of mixed descent and one-quarter African.
Men of the City spins somewhat differently, both because it utilizes cinematic elements like the juxtaposition between stock market traders and prey being hunted, and the deep, ominous sounds of Michel Duvoison's score and even from a narrative perspective where it's told rather freely minus any traditional arc. There seems to be a rupture in the time line where all of Isaacs' subjects are picked up at a later date and revisited. Their lives have all changed, and the financial meltdown seems to be a not quite overt cause of the effect. As Isaacs resumes the film, the men are not shown as collectively being on the right track. One is now out of work while another is taking a major risk in his professional life which also bleeds over into his situation at home. The proud street sweeper appears to be having doubts about his current position and the man living most comfortably is shown in conflicting moments of happiness with his children and expletive-worthy despair at what's going on outside his home office.
Particularly concerning Men of the City, it's easy to predict the potential complaint that Isaacs is withholding too much, that he's being overly selective and not showing the audience enough about these men. But I think he still manages to convey most everything necessary in the near-hour of running time. The film, like the others by Isaacs, doesn't purport to offer a definitive word. It gets in and gets out, making a point but offering this limited time spent with the subjects as material for rumination rather than prescription. The viewer subsequently knows more than when he or she entered but still not enough so that the journey feels closed in any way. Just as the doors seemingly open up over and over again for Isaacs while finding interviewees, the same could be said for his audience. Isaacs is careful to repeatedly open these doors without ever closing them behind the viewer.
This release by Second Run follows up on the label's previous disc of Marc Isaacs' documentary work (reviewed by Noel Megahey). Anyone remotely interested in either one is urged, with absolute sincerity, to get both. The region-free PAL disc containing All White in Barking and Men of the City is spine number 52 for Second Run.
Both of these films were made for and originally broadcast on television, and they're in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen monitors. The two documentaries are, respectively, from 2007 and 2009 so there's little reason to expect any difficulties with video quality. Indeed, the progressive transfers tend to be sharp, vibrant and perfectly clean. Interior scenes are noticeably more murky than the comparatively crisper footage shot outdoors. Isaacs' camera is frequently moving and captured just fine on this release. Second Run has used a dual-layered disc with a robust bitrate. If your viewing experience is anything like mine the video quality will be at least a secondary concern while watching these fascinating films.
Audio is presented in a modest English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Sounds and spoken words can vary but present no issues with being easily understood. The music on Men of the City has a strong impact and tends to awaken the soundtrack a little as needed. I do wish that Second Run had made the effort to offer subtitles. There aren't significant instances of struggling to make out what is being said, but having an easy way of confirming things would have been appreciated.
On the disc is an interview (15:07) with Nick Fraser, who is a producer and series editor on BBC Storyville. Fraser talks about his experiences working with Marc Isaacs and provides plenty of praise for the filmmaker. A few words from Isaacs himself, as we got on the earlier Second Run edition, might've been nice as well. As it is, some feeling of letting the work speak for itself does remain.
There's also an essay in the included twelve-page booklet that was written by Noel Megahey, a longtime reviewer for this very site. Megahey clearly has a deep affection for Isaacs' work and that shines through in his appreciation. The well-rounded piece offers an introduction for those less familiar with the earlier documentaries before exploring the pair of films at hand. I assert this with some acknowledged bias, but I found the essay to sit nicely alongside the better writing (often by Peter Hames) found in the typically nifty Second Run booklets.