Come dine with me: in the filmmaker’s house with Marc Isaacs

Five years after the 2016 Brexit referendum, Marc Isaacs’s latest documentary, The Filmmaker’s House, turns his home into a microcosm of the country.

24 June 2021

By Isabel Stevens

Marc Isaacs
Sight and Sound

 ► The Filmmaker’s House is in cinemas and streaming on demand from 25 June.

When future historians try to understand Brexit Britain, Marc Isaacs’s documentaries will provide much of the context.

Many of his 14 films to date have explored the divisions within the so-called ‘United’ Kingdom. He has probed multicultural life in London, traditionalist seaside backwaters, asylum-seekers and ex-pats in Calais, while venturing to Barking to gather white residents’ attitudes towards their immigrant neighbours.

His creative and lyrical approach to nonfiction singles him out, as does his questioning voice from behind the camera always reminding us of his presence: “Provoking people is my natural state,” he says.

His latest film tackles Brexit and the future of a multicultural Britain head-on. The Filmmaker’s House is set over a day in Isaacs’s comfortable family terraced home in Walthamstow, northeast London.

It gathers strangers from various backgrounds who all live in its orbit: English builder Keith, who is building a fence in Isaacs’s garden; Zara, Isaacs’s Pakistani neighbour, who lives on the other side of the fence; Nery, from Colombia, who has worked with Isaacs for many years as a childminder and cleaner; and Mikel, a homeless man from Slovakia who lives on Walthamstow’s streets.

The Filmmaker’s House (2020)

Normally, all of these individuals would only have contact with Marc directly, but in this fictionalised experiment they all interact. “I like the sense that all these people come into the house, [the film] is provoked by me and then it takes on its own life. In reality this wouldn’t happen. But what if it did?” Isaacs tells me over the phone when I first enquire about the project in the summer of 2019, while he is still looking for funding.

“Whenever you step out of your door in London, you’re confronted with difference. We can choose to build a higher fence to block it all out or engage in some way.” At a time when Britain’s borders are closing, Isaacs’s house becomes a metaphor for the country, his guests its multicultural subjects. (The film was originally due to be titled – and take place on – 29 March after the date the UK was supposed to leave the EU in 2019).

While a culture clash taking place over 24 hours may sound like a scenario dreamed up in a reality TV writers’ room, Isaacs’s series of forced encounters has a more profound inspiration: a Jacques Derrida book from 2000 on the subject of hospitality and its limits.

When I visit the shoot in October 2019, Isaacs is filming what he envisages as one of the pivotal scenes where all the characters meet for the first time as they sit down for an impromptu lunch after Zara brings round some food to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

It’s a small set, with just a handful of crew and Isaacs’s co-writer Adam Ganz present. Isaacs directs the scene – feeding the characters lines and telling them how to react – while slinking around the table with his camera. At the head of the table, Keith is holding court, refusing to eat Zara’s curry, preferring his own giant cheese and ham sandwich. Later he argues with Mikel, defending Arsenal fans’ bad behaviour in Slovakia.

The Filmmaker’s House (2020)

Zara – so Isaacs tells me afterwards – has been very blunt with Mikel in a scene they recently filmed, telling him why Muslim women won’t give him money when he asks: they think he’s lazy. “I love people who say things they shouldn’t. Ninety-nine per cent of the people I film say how they feel. I’m more interested in them than the ones who are watching what they are saying because it’s not correct.”

Is he worried about his audience seeing stereotypes rather than people, I ask? “That might be good,” he replies, “because then you have something to unpick. I want to challenge your conceptions about who people are and ultimately assumptions about yourself.” He will be showing the emphatic side to Keith’s character too, he stresses. But equally he’s wary of being sentimental: “I want the relationships in the film to be awkward and unfinished.”

Issacs’s films are often funny – yet, hearing about the difficult lives of many of his cast, I wonder what role humour will play here: “You have to find humour in the darkest moments. Hopefully I’ve never made a film that’s too serious. Even in the Calais film I made, there’s a guy from Afghanistan, it’s freezing cold, he’s crying about being stuck in this awful situation. I ask ‘Why don’t you just stay here?’ and he says: ‘I don’t like French people.’ I love that moment. No one is ever just an innocent victim in the broader sense.”

In one scene Isaacs even films Mikel taking a bath. “He’s telling me what’s OK and what’s not,” Isaacs says. “You can feel when you plant something and it doesn’t work.” “Marc is good at surprises,” is Mikel’s view when I talk to him: “I don’t have a bath a lot because I am proper homeless.” How did he feel about being part of the film and having to do things like that? “He offered me some cash, so I thought it was better to do this than nothing. And I like Marc. He has got spirit.”

The Filmmaker’s House (2020)

Mikel, Isaacs says, is a key figure in the film. “[Homeless people] don’t have the ability to be hospitable in the same way that other people do – they don’t have a house. But I don’t have any particular fascination with filming them. When students I teach want to make a film about homeless people, my heart sinks. But Mikel is interesting and charming.”

He is currently toying with how much backstory of each character to include, not wanting to reduce the characters too much, himself included. He tells me how when filming Mikel in the bath, he was delighted when Mikel said to him spontaneously “You will never know me.”

Does he know how the film will end? “It will be a balance of being led by them and imposing something,” Isaacs says. He also likes the idea of the audience not being sure if this is fiction or not.

He does, however, know how it will start: with a conversation he has with a producer who brings bad news about funding for the film. She can’t sell the concept, because her bosses want scripted films about serial killers.

The true-crime mega-doc is not a genre that interests Isaacs – although in 2016 he did make a portrait about the aftermath of a murder, a short, ruminative investigation into how people living nearby were affected by the discovery of the body. He hopes that, as with that film, The Filmmaker’s House will prove that the strangers all around us are far more fascinating.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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