Three Films by Marc Isaacs Review

There are any number of factors that contribute to a successful documentary feature, many of them depending on a director with a keenness of eye and a clear view of the purpose of his subject matter who can also remain reactive to what is going on around him. More often however the most important element of documentary filmmaking is pure chance – being in the right place at the right time, getting the right people at the right moment to say the right thing. Those factors apply as much to Marc Isaacs as anyone else, but what makes Isaacs’ documentary work exceptional is his ability to harness or better control those elements of chance to work in his favour.

The reason is partly down to the fact that chance favours his subject matter, which in the case of the three films included in Second Run’s Three Films By Marc Isaacs, is very much about people – ordinary people doing everyday activities in commonplace situations. For a documentary filmmaker interested in people then, recognising that people are at their most relaxed and natural in comfortable familiar surroundings, this is probably the most important element to allow for essential truths to be revealed. What is brilliant about Isaacs work here then is the choice of those locations – a lift, trains, a train station and a port, places where people are on their way to someplace or someone – the filmmaker finding in these places the kind of environment where people are naturally reflective and where as a consequence those elements of chance are more likely to work in his favour. A lot must also rely on Isaacs’ approach, because the results and revelations that the filmmaker manages to draw from ordinary people in ordinary locations is actually extraordinary, getting people to open up to him in front of a camera and reveal their deepest thoughts, emotions, feelings and sentiments.

These are people that one might see everyday at the busstop, on a train or on the underground, people one might ordinarily feel intimidated about acknowledging, approaching or even making eye-contact with. Isaacs fearlessly confronts these people with his camera and miraculously finds them more than willing to speak to someone, a stranger even, and tell him about their background, their stories, their trials and problems, their hopes, ambitions and outlook on life. The three films included here reveal that behind the reticent, reserved nature associated with being British, there are real people with real emotions, desperately seeking someone to speak to, to listen to them, to be interested in their stories, which ultimately boil down to finding love and a reason for living. Simple though this may sound, it’s no small revelation, but an eye-opening look at the people around us, each with their own lives and concerns, each capable of revealing surprising depths of emotion and humanity that we might otherwise have never considered.

Lift, 2001 (24:38)

The brilliance and uniqueness of Isaac’s technique is demonstrated in his first short film, where he simply stands waiting in the lift of a tower block, pointing his camera at the diverse inhabitants who use it, occasionally striking up a conversation with a pertinent question or observation on their thoughts, on their love life, on their dreams as he gets to know the various people he meets.

One might expect some hostility on the part of his subjects towards having a camera thrust in their face by a stranger, particularly within such a confined space, but somehow, whether through persistence or just the nature of the Londoners to take everything in their stride (it's actually filmed in Margate, but most seem to work and socialise in London), the people – barring one or two people clearly in a drunken state – are generally open to sharing fairly intimate details of their lives. Even those who are initially wary and mildly aggressive eventually come around and perhaps inadvertently reveal more about themselves than they would normally wish to.

This is a more surprising revelation than it seems, considering how in general people tend to keep to themselves in lifts, all the more so considering the clear racial and age differences of the people involved in this particular tower block. Yet, even within the span of the few seconds it takes to get to and from the ground-floor, Isaacs manages to get his subjects to open up to the camera with disarming ease. The message is simple, but brilliantly achieved, that there are depths to the people around us that we might never be aware of, which we could discover if we’d only take the time to ask.

Travellers, 2002 (47:45)

Isaac’s second documentary feature takes this theme a little bit further, and is even thematically a little more sophisticated than Lift without losing the relative simplicity of the elements that made the first film so successful. Waiting and filming at a number of train stations and on several train journeys, Isaacs stops a number of people travelling by train along the South Yorkshire line and again by asking direct but open questions, gives them the freedom to speak about what is most significant in their lives.

Evidently, using a train as a metaphor for the journey of life is not original by any means, but it’s an apposite one in this case since the locations and setting also adhere to the principles by which Isaacs makes his films, finding real people in the process of going about their daily lives and simply stopping them and asking them to tell him something about themselves. What is uppermost in their minds – perhaps selectively in the cases chosen for the film – turns out to be a search for love, but again what is most surprising is just how open and willing the people he meets are about revealing personal parts of their lives.

The footage shot from the trains moreover emphasises this aspect of Isaac’s subject (and in some ways is reminiscent of Pawel Pawlikowski’s approach in The Last Resort, on which Isaacs worked as an assistant), the view taking in the backs of houses along the track, within each are people going about their daily lives, living their own small, personal dramas that will never be documented or recorded. Except for the few that Isaacs meets. And from those few the viewer can extrapolate upon the wider population and the impact of the awareness that all these lives being lived-out, of love being sought after, grasped and lost is powerful.

Calais: The Last Border, 2003 (58:44)

The influence of Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Last Resort is even more evident in the subject matter of Isaacs’s 2003 documentary feature, the filmmaker examining issues and attitudes around immigration and their impact on both the migrants and the English community but viewing it from the other side of the channel in Calais. Faced with real human concerns, Isaacs, even more so than in his other features, is unable to hold an impartial stance, but shows himself to be personally concerned about the people he meets and their plight in simply trying to make a life for themselves.

The up and down repetition that symbolised life for the people in the tower block in Lift and the search to move on that is represented by the train journeys in Travellers is contrasted by the notion of life at a complete standstill in Calais, where with the closing of the Sangatte refugee camp, hundreds of potential migrants find themselves at a dead end, unable to cross the channel to England except by illegal means. But taking in more than one aspect of life running into a brick wall, Calais: The Last Border also looks at the difficulties faced by English people trying to make a living there, and at the idea of Calais being a point of no further progress for the British day-trip travellers crossing the border simply to stock up on cheap booze.

If there’s a difference in the type of location and the method of approach this time, the widening of scope adds greater weight and dimension to Marc Isaac’s principal interest, and that is in the lives and stories of human beings simply trying to live their lives and being sustained to keep on going by love. Here it’s shown that the notion expressed by people in the previous films that love-is-all-you-need is not really enough to get you through. There are other problems and diversity that must be faced, whether you are alone or with another person.

One of those main challenges is lack of compassion for other human beings, and in the attitudes of the booze-cruise day trippers, Isaacs finds that troubling inability of some English people – whether through ignorance or prejudice – to sympathise or feel concern for the plight of others, contrasting it with an Iraqi man whose entire family was killed in a rocket attack on Kabul, and a Jamaican man who falls foul of changes in visa regulations. Isaacs’ humane approach once again shows that you can’t judge by appearances, that everyone has a story, everyone has their own troubles and most people just want to live their lives. In a way it’s this ignorance and lack of concern for other people’s lives that is the Last Border of the film’s title, the most difficult barrier that people have to get past, and in their own way all Marc Isaacs’ films try to open a small crack in that doorway.


Three Films By Marc Isaacs is released in the UK by Second Run. The three film are presented on one dual-layer disc. The disc is in PAL format and is not region coded.

Each of the films would appear to have been shot digitally at a ratio of 4:3 and the transfer to DVD is just about perfect. Even considering the nature of the filming on a small handheld camera with natural lighting, in a lift or on a train, there is good detail and fine colouration. There are one or two mild instances of banding and aliasing, but these are almost certainly down to the resolution of the source materials and not an issue with the transfer, which is stable and shows no issues of compression or edge enhancement. These are terrific transfers of the films.

The audio track for each of the films, not unexpectedly for documentary features, is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. These also are fine in the main, with the only issues being those inherent in documentary filmmaking – the odd phrase not entirely clear on account of accents, mumbled speaking or the less than perfect conditions of the locations where the interviews take part. There’s not really an option to shoot a scene again in such circumstances. Again then, this is just about as good as you would expect it to be.

There are no subtitles on any of the films, and no hard of hearing options.

Interview with Marc Isaacs (18:34)
There are not a great deal of extra features included here, but really the films speak for themselves. An Interview with Marc Isaacs however provides some commentary on his inspirations and his approach to each of the films, developing the "narrative" while filming, identifiing the areas of transit - in-between places - as being key to finding that inspiration.

The DVD also comes with a 12-page booklet with thoughts on each of the films by Graeme Hobbs and some comments by Nick Fraser, the Producer and series editor of the BBC’s Storyville.

The apparent point-and-shoot nature and the randomness of the people chosen by Marc Isaacs is deceptive in its simplicity, the three films collected here Lift, Travellers and Calais: The Last Border all revealing a carefully considered, delicately crafted and sympathetically scored approach to their subject. That subject is a very humane one, one that has at its heart genuine interest and concern for the lives of other people and admiration for their capacity to overcome diversity. The director’s personal involvement is therefore key to his approach in this regard, demonstrating the qualities that the films espouse – taking the time to speak to ordinary people, understand them and even take strength from the remarkable hidden qualities, the infinite resources and depths of feeling for others that we might otherwise never suspect that they possess. These wonderful, surprising and moving documentaries are given a superb transfer to DVD by Second Run, making this one of the best releases of the year.

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