We caught up with Marc Isaacs ahead of our Open City Docs Special Screening of The Road: A Story of Life and Death at AV Hill Theatre, UCL this Wednesday 6 February 2013.
The Road: A Story of Life and Death, produced by the BBC's Storyville documentary strand, sees director Marc Isaacs focus on the humanistic stories of immigration through character portraits of those living along the A5, an old Roman road which runs from Holyhead to Marble Arch in London.
A judge on last year's Open City Docs Fest Grand Jury, Marc Isaacs has made more than 10 creative documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 since 2001. His films have won Grierson, Royal Television Society and BAFTA awards, as well as numerous international film festival prizes. Marc also teaches documentary filmmaking at the NFTS, LFS and Royal Holloway.
With a filmmaking style that is distinguished by its empathetic approach, sense of humour and moments of profound intimacy, The Road: A Story of Life and Death is a revealing insight into the hopes and dreams of those who come to London in search of a better life.
What got you interested in documentary in the first place?
I kind of fell into it. I never had a plan to go and become a documentary filmmaker. It comes down to curiosity about the world and observing. I guess I’d always felt like a little bit of an outsider and just observed and wanted to look at things closely. But having curiosity and wanting to listen would be the main thing.
You were on the Grand Jury for Open City Docs Fest 2012 - what was your highlight of the festival?
Yes. Two films stood out: 5 Broken Cameras and the Italian Summer of Giacomo, which were both up for the Grand Jury prize, which I really liked. Everyone else rooted for 5 Broken Cameras but I liked the latter with long takes about a deaf boy in the summer, which was very, very different but I suppose the political agenda will be fitting to what traditionally people have looked to in documentary. But it’s not always the case for more subtle films.
What impact do you think The Road will have on the public's perception of those who come to London in search of a better life?
I would hope that despite individual circumstances, to show that fundamentally we are looking to live a life that is better, which it is a fairly universal thing, to look for a sense of home and the lengths we go to get there.
I suppose London is the Babylon of identities and demonstration of lives you might choose to lead?
Yes, exactly. And it’s this variety and diversity of existence which make things interesting.
How did you choose your characters and what kind of a planning did you do for the filming of The Road?
We did a lot of research about that stretch of the road. At one point we had three researchers who wanted to be a part of it and helped and we spent a lot of time, hours walking up and down that road, talking to people, listening and just seeing who and what there was. I had read a book on immigration and got in touch with the author who then turned out to have an even more fascinating story of his own and we asked him to be in the film.
What’s it like being a parent as well as a pretty prolific filmmaker?
I think this question should be asked of the mothers who are documentary filmmakers! It’s always good to have a balance and I’m lucky that I have a lot of understanding. I have a daughter who is 4 and a son who is 22 so there is a big gap. He’s come along and helped me on a few shoots and he’s studying film now, without an idea of what he wants to do.
Any advice for emerging filmmakers out there?
Yes, to not let the absence of funding deter you from getting your story. Doing things non-traditionally may get you looked over by distributors who will find it difficult to sell if it doesn’t fit into that industrialized template, so if you have to get an extra job to do it then that’s what you do. I would say borrow, steal or get a camera and make your film. Ten years ago the equipment wouldn’t have been cheap enough to just go and buy but of course that’s possible now and the absence of needing much of a crew should help you get your story. There is a lot of interesting work being made outside of the restrictive funders format.
What have been the biggest changes in documentary filmmaking?
The big thing that has changed documentary is television. The absence of a three-part narrative means that the more interesting or different ways of looking at life get lost because they are funded in that industrialized way. Unless it’s a format, which makes crude judgments of poor people, it’s difficult to make something with a slightly different agenda. There are people who still support interesting work, BBC is one and someone at Channel 4 who might take an interest, but anything which is not much like Hollywood gets looked over. I’m lucky to have a producer to have picked up and ran with the idea even before I had a real idea of what it was going to be. You’re sitting down and trying to convince someone to help you when you yourself can’t even be sure of what the final film will actually be.
What are you working on next?
There are a few things I’m working on but I can’t really talk about them yet.
Interview by Gloria Lin.
OPEN CITY DOCS SPECIAL SCREENING
The Road: A Story of Life and Death
Marc Isaacs / 2012 / UK / 75’
WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2013, 7pm
Location: AV Hill Theatre, UCL, Malet Place WC1E 7JG - Click here for map and directions.
Tickets: £7 / £5 (concession) Book here >>
The Road: A Story of Life and Death will be in cinemas from 22 February 2013