Documentarian Marc Isaacs’ latest film The Filmmaker’s House (2020), is a thought-provoking blend of documentary and fiction. When Isaacs is told his next film must be more sensationalist to get funding, he responds by shooting it in his own home. He turns the people who come in and out of his life into its stars: two English builders replacing his fence, Zara, the Pakistani neighbour with whom he temporarily shares a garden, Mikel, a homeless Slovakian man, who invites himself in, and his Colombian cleaner, Nery. The interaction of this ensemble cast of characters leads us into an exploration of the nature of the filmmaking process and poses questions about how we interact with others.
An Associate Professor of Ethnographic and Documentary Film at University College London, Isaacs’ previous works include: Lift (2001), Phillip and His Seven Wives (2005), All White in Barking (2007), Men of the City (2009), and Outside the Court (2011).
Isaacs talks with PopMatters about his desire to reinvent the stories he tells, but not at the expense of the authenticity of his straight documentary work.
Why documentary as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
There wasn’t a single moment. I was off travelling a lot in my early 20s, and I didn’t go to university until I was around 24. I was studying cultural studies and I became interested in film. Towards the end of my degree I began writing a script for a fiction film, but realised nothing would happen unless I was working in the industry. I began making tea in post-production places, and some years later I got to meet inspiring people such as Paweł Pawlikowski.
By the time I came to make my first film, I was ready. I never had the sense that I only wanted to work in television, it wasn’t about that for me. I realised through this personal form of documentary filmmaking, I could tell the stories I wanted to tell and engage with life in a way that I wanted to engage with it.
I was lucky that at this time films were beginning to be made on what looked like domestic camcorders, which freed up the production process. Funders would take more of a risk because it wasn’t such an expensive endeavour.
It’s easier to make films nowadays, but the creation of mass content has increased the difficulty of distribution. The freedom to make films has created new problems.
Now more than ever it’s potentially easier to make a film. … The more money you’re going after the more difficult it is, especially in an author’s sense. While there are more films being made, there’s certainly more rubbish than ever before. There can be a lack of craft for want of a better word. Filming on a small camera or on a phone, means that people start paying less attention to craft.
It’s a concern of mine because there are a lot of pieces of work out there called “film” that I don’t think are film. They’re a video of sorts, and that’s one of the contradictions. It’s great that the means of production are in the hands of the many, but learning the craft properly is something that has seriously diminished.
In this country [the UK] specifically, where people learn their craft within the broadcast sector, mainly television or in film schools, it has changed so much. Broadcast doesn’t value craft much in the non-fiction realm. There’s definitely a diminishing sense of aesthetic quality and attention to that, which is a shame because I teach craft.
I ram home that shooting something on your phone and pointing the camera is not filmmaking. It’s about marrying concept development with your ideas and finding the appropriate form, which is more important now than ever. I talk about that in The Filmmaker’s House.
On the festival circuit, I see so many films that feel like an early draft, yet they’re picked up for distribution and praised by critics. I find myself asking whether we’ve stopped having any genuine expectation of quality.
In the past, to reach the point where you got the equipment to make a film was more difficult. It meant that you had to jump through more hoops. You talk about rough drafts–that wouldn’t have happened in the same way years ago. Someone can now be sat in their bedroom, putting together material they’ve shot out there. It changes the way people write about film and how they view the quality.
I go to lots of festivals and I can’t believe some of the rubbish I see that has been picked up and gets called a film. It’s a problem, but for people that have discipline, it’s a good time. You can do stuff outside of the power structure that’s still largely responsible for formulaic repetitious work, copying the last thing that was a hit.
In your director’s statement included in the press materials for The Filmmaker’s House, you speak about your frustrations with the documentary industry. Is the source of these feelings the repetitive nature of films and the absence of exploring the craft?
Broadcast television was the roots of documentary in this country, going back pre-1930s, and government funding through the GPO film unit. Television has largely given up on the form in terms of risk taking and innovation. They go for the obvious big commercial films that usually have a sensational headline attached to them, or at the moment it’s campaign films, that tell us what’s wrong with the world, and how we should think and feel about a particular issue. There’s room for all of this stuff, but what’s severely lacking is cultural money to make artistic works.
Broadcasters having independent commissioners, for example, who spend their own money in their department, doesn’t exist anymore. Everything goes to the top. Whereas before, these commissioners would live and die by the sword. They’d take a risk on a film that would either be wonderful or a disaster. At least they’d be doing that and they were allowed to by their bosses.
Now everything gets signed off by one or two people, which is crazy if you think about it, and there’s no cultural money. The million that the Doc Society has at the British Film Institute, they’re largely interested in campaign films. They’re not the kind of films I make, and they’re always looking for, Why should we make this now?
I see stories as being timeless. A good story is always talking about the society from which it emerges, that feels relevant. It shouldn’t be the criteria that funders use to judge whether they’re going to fund the film.
It’s not frustration anymore in the sense that I’ve been lucky to be doing this for many years, and I teach to pay the bills. I can find other ways to make work with the limitations of a smaller amount of money. Having limitations is interesting because it can creatively lead you into thinking about film in another way that’s outside of the commercial system.
We typically like to have things defined for us, and here you put us in a “no man’s land” by blurring the line between narrative and documentary. The question we should be asking ourselves is, Why can’t films be two things at the same time? Where does this need to clearly define films come from?
It’s wanting to feel safe with what we’re watching. I’m consciously playing around with our notions of what documentary is and what it should be, or what is fiction, what is performance. The grey area is an interesting space to be in at the moment because it’s not just for the sake of talking about it, but it’s a very inventive space. I don’t want to lose the “authenticity” of my straight documentary work, but I also want to reinvent how I tell stories.
As long as you have that intimate and emotional connection with the story, the characters, and the themes, the form is up for grabs.
What I’ve noticed with the film’s reception is that it’s a wake-up call to myself to not get complacent, but it’s also woken up an audience to question what they’re watching and to not feel that films have to be one thing or the other. This is an exciting space to be in.
The Lumière Brothers terrified audiences with the innovation of the moving image. Cinema emerged not out of a comfortable feeling, but out of audiences not necessarily feeling safe. We should continue to seek and use that fear and trepidation to evolve the form for audiences. Does this ‘necessary fear’ also apply to filmmakers?
The fear comes with people playing it safe because they’re worried about how they’re going to survive. I find a lot of young filmmakers are inventing their films with what the funder wants in mind, or what they think the funder wants, rather than freely conceiving their ideas. It’s a dangerous game, and it leads to what we’ve just been talking about, where there’s a lack of risk-taking in mainstream film.
Another side to that is, does it lead to people thinking, ‘Screw that, I’m going to challenge and work outside of it.’ It’s not important to just make films. It’s about feeling that it’s essential, a way of life in the sense that it’s how I exist in the world. It’s making a film about how I’m feeling and my experiences through creating stories.
I can understand for a lot of people it’s about how do you survive? It’s an industrial process, a production line of ‘this is what a product has to be at the end.’
The language around the production has changed so much and it’s complicated and made more formulaic by the discussion of who should be making what kind of film. Do you come from the right ethnic background, for example? I’m all in favour of everyone having an equal means to make films, but that can create a formula, and lead to ideas getting made that aren’t necessarily good films but are made by the right person, with organisations ticking boxes that need to be ticked so that they look good. There are good and bad things about it, but it’s a factor of the context in which people are making work.
A couple of years ago it was, ‘we want women filmmakers’; now it’s ‘we want people of colour.’ It’s always based on a different trend, and it’s nonsense. Everyone should be part of it because people can feed into what makes film, film.
The transactional relationships complicate the process. As a filmmaker, you will have your vision, but so too does the audience have their expectations for the film. Films are made to be seen by a paying audience, and the producers and distributors will also have their expectations. It’s difficult to please everyone and find the balance of compromise.
It’s very much like that, but my fear is that, in being so politically correct about everything, in which everything has to be equal, it leads to a banality. You work with people and you treat people fairly. People are clear about what you’re doing, you’re not exploiting anyone in a nasty way.
The word exploitation has a nasty meaning. Filmmakers are always exploiting someone for stories, but it’s about being open and honest with the people you’re working with, and treating them fairly. It would be boring if we could only make films about what the people in the films wanted to say about themselves.
What’s great about art is the subjective point-of-view and the authorship. You immerse yourself in one person’s view of the world and that’s what’s pleasurable about it. We should never flatten that out and try to make it something different because without that subjective point-of-view of the world we’re living in, we’d end up just living in a very banal landscape. We should preserve that at all costs. It doesn’t mean that you have to abuse people.
In The Filmmaker’s House, you play around with preconceptions. The builder Keith, for example, challenges how we initially perceive him when he offers thoughtful and humane words to Mikel, the homeless man.
I like playing around with these because we all have our prejudices about people we come up against. However much we remind ourselves to not make judgements when we meet a stranger, if we’re honest, it’s what we do.
The complexity comes out in the narrative in that time and space, and it’s interesting to see the contradictions in people. A character like Keith can express both violence with a small ‘v’ and humanity, and that’s how some people are [laughs].
We shouldn’t try to clean up the messiness of life. Let’s embrace the contradictions and complexities, live with them and not try to make them easily digestible.
So you’re not interested in telling viewers how to feel or to think. Rather, you’re placing that responsibility on them.
There was one reviewer that wrote something about this film being ‘packed liberalism’ at its worst, but that’s total nonsense because I’m not being liberal. I don’t let Mikel stay in the house.
I see myself as someone who provokes questions and thoughts. My job is to do that and not resolve anything too easily. I want the film to leave you in a position where you have to evaluate what you’ve just seen–what you think about it from the actual form, from the notions of performance, documentary, and truth, to who these people are and how you feel about them.
It’s important for me to have that inconclusiveness, which is usually the opposite of mainstream film where things are wrapped up for you. An aim of mine is for the film to continue in the audience’s mind when the film ends, leaving you with these questions.
The Filmmaker’s House is available on Premium VOD in the UK.