That Transient Space – Interview with Marc Isaacs, Director of The Road: A Story of Life and Death

Cathal Prendergast
Posted February 27, 2013 in Film, Film Features

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In an age where a short video like Just Saying can provoke ceaseless debate from the commentariat, emigration is an ever-present point of discussion. The latest film from acclaimed documentarian Marc Isaacs (All White in Barking, Lift), The Road offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of people who have come to London from afar and struggled to call the city home. Honing in on the small north-west area of Cricklewood, his subjects include Keelta, a young Irish woman and budding trad-singer, Billy, a lonely construction worker losing his battle to booze, hotel worker Iqbal from Kashmir, and Peggy, an elderly Jewish woman who fled Vienna on Hitler’s arrival. With a remarkable prowess for getting people to open up to him, Isaacs paints a moving picture of expats young and old in a permanent state of transition, whilst avoiding being polemical or didactic.

You’ve stayed within documentaries in your filmmaking. What attracts you most to documentary?

I’ve always been interested in concepts and ideas where there is a possibility to tap into universal human themes, dramas and emotions, so I think it’s kind of endless in a way with documentary. That’s not to say that sometimes I don’t think having complete control over a film, fiction or otherwise, or that working with actors could be interesting, but there’s a certain realness to documentary that I’ve always found really intriguing, observing people’s lives and finding those things that are relevant to all of us.

The Road focuses on a group of people who have made their way to London in search of a better life. Did you find that focusing on the small area of Cricklewood helped you establish a connective thread between them?

In the beginning when I discovered that the road goes all the way to North Wales, there was always a question of how far to go and which areas to look at. We started in London and it was hard to go beyond, with so many interesting things happening on our doorstep. A strong sense of place was as important as the characters and the way it gives shape and creates an atmosphere. In a sense it became an echo of the stories as these characters grew out of their landscape.

By now do you have a certain method of making people comfortable in order to open up, or do you still find you have to let the process occur naturally over time?

It’s a process of trust really. You meet somebody, explain that you’re making a film, they talk to you and then and some point you introduce the idea of the camera and perhaps you film a really interesting first scene. It happens over a long period of time, so it’s really about building that level of trust and also finding peoples motivations for wanting to be in the film. The people that I ended up focusing on were people that were willing to open up and enjoy it in some way, eventually finding a need to talk.

Did you get the feeling, particularly in relation to the Irish characters, that as one generation of emigrants fades away, a new one moves in to replace them, creating a cyclic pattern?

Well, the young people moving to London are going to have a very different experience to someone like Billy, who had a very specific function coming over. It was all about work and the young people now will probably have a very different life and won’t cut themselves off from home in the same way. Maybe because of the nature of the work they might end up a lot better off in some ways, and because travels so much easier they’ll be able to keep contact through Ryanair. Imagine Billy coming over in the early sixties as an eighteen year old, not being able to Skype or send text messages. There are still echoes of the past resonating but not necessarily with the Irish, I mean in the film you see Eastern Europeans on the street waiting for work in the exact same spot the Irish would’ve stood in the past.

There’s a definite theme of “Losing your home twice” that runs throughout, in that the emigrants don’t quite fit into their new surroundings, while things will have changed if they ever return to their homeland. For some of the older characters, returning home is completely out of the question. With some of the young people you filmed, did you notice an attitude of putting on a brave face, or sticking it out to convince themselves that leaving was the right choice to make?

There’s a young Burmese man who finds solace in an order of monks and he uses Skype and has a contact in London, but he has really cut himself off in a sense. The idea of losing your home twice and being in this transient space is really interesting to me. It’s a very reflective space where people can reflect on life in quite a deep way because they don’t really feel part of their surroundings. They live with this sense of insecurity in that they aren’t at home and are perhaps struggling to find some real contact here as well. It’s a strange space to be in, caught between those two worlds. But I think it’s different for different people. Somebody like the young Irish girl Keelta will be fine because she’s got energy and is ambitious. She’s told me since that she was actually really encouraged to leave by her mother and really pushed to go off and make it on her own. I can see her having a good life, although there’s always going to be this feeling of having left something behind. It’s much easier when you’re younger and I think the problems start when you get older and maybe don’t have close family around you or people that have known you for a long time when you need them.

still from marc isaacs documentary

Two of the people you focused on actually died during the making of the film in quite tragic circumstances, in some ways left behind by their new home. At the same time, one of the characters, Iqbal, was able to begin a new life with his wife when she moved over to him. Did you feel it was important to show the two conflicting outcomes of emigration?

I was glad that his wife came over because the film would have been quite heavy otherwise so it was good being able to film that. The thing is that death is always a sad thing in many ways but Peggy was also ninety five and she’d had a good life and was a really upbeat person whereas Billy’s death was obviously really tragic, but it was important for me to show Iqbal’s wife arriving. Literally we were not far off finishing the editing and I knew that it was a possibility, with Iqbal deciding to go to India and using his intelligence to force the authorities to make a decision and ending up returning to London with here. It was a shock really. He’d always said he would but I didn’t quite believe him.

Finally, do you now have a clearer definition of what home means to you after making this film?

The film definitely made me realise that “Home” is always a transient and temporal idea. In a sense we’re all migrants because we don’t know exactly where we come from or where we’re going. Life is a transient experience, finding a physical home with bricks, mortar and relationships is one thing but there’s always an uncertainty about what happens after. It’s a mystery really and in that sense we’re no different from the people in the film. There is always this inverted feeling of being at one with the world, because of the fact that we don’t know what we’re doing here or where we’re going after. But I found that each character definitely had a unique interpretation of “Home”. I know that Peggy felt really at home in London and felt that she managed to build a life for herself, but clearly for Billy, he never found a place to rest, not just in the sense of a physical home but also in his relationships. Some people describe relationships as finding home, like Bridget who didn’t find that but had invested so much in this house of hers and tried to run it like an aeroplane where she did feel at home. But I definitely found that the idea of “Home” with a lot of the characters revolved around family and those they had left behind.

You can watch Marc’s excellent debut short here.



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