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

In a scene early in Marc Isaacs’s new film, The Filmmaker’s House, he records a Skype conversation with his producer, Rachel Wexler. She’s informing him that people aren’t really responding to his latest film idea as it lacks a “hook”, and that in order to get commissioned nowadays you need to incorporate crime, death, a serial killer or sex. Isaacs responds that “the everyday problems of human beings can be interesting too”, and he opts to go ahead and make his film anyway. This is ostensibly the framing device for the film that follows – an exploration of the notion of hospitality and its limits – but it also continues as a cinematic dialogue about creation, authorship, production, and product.

Since his very first short film, Lift (2001), Isaacs’s work has often been defined by its location and its sense of place. In this instance, the locale of his own home provides the perfect scenario to engage with ideas of hospitality when he opens his doors to an assortment of subjects: builders working on his garden fence, the maid, a neighbour, and a homeless man. Their interactions with one another and with Isaacs create a host of thought-provoking moments and dynamics that accumulate into a rich, humane, and absorbing picture.

“I’d have kept it a lot bloody higher than this – seeing them next door,” says Keith, one of the builders, in reference to the low fence they are installing in place of a much higher one that previously separated Isaacs’ garden from that of his Muslim neighbours. The fence takes on a symbolic significance, an act of communal openness, that is amplified into something more societal by the undertones of Keith’s remark. The neighbour, Zara, later comes over to the house with a veritable feast, offered from her food preparations for Ramadan. By this time, Nery (the maid) and Mikel (the homeless man) have also arrived in the house. “Don’t worry about when strange people come into your life,” Nery says to Isaacs at one point: “You have to feed them, wash them…” In her admirable compassion, she does just that.

The Filmmaker’s House (2020)

When the various individuals do come together there are moments of tension – such as when Mikel challenges Keith, an ardent Arsenal supporter, about the conduct of Arsenal fans when they visited Bratislava – and others of reconciliation. Nery, Keith, and Mikel all have poignant relationships with their mothers which emerge during their conversations. Motherhood, perhaps the most intimate act of hospitality there is, provides a bond for the three characters and one of the film’s most touching moments of catharsis.

The precise nature of the ‘reality’ of what appears on screen is up for interrogation throughout, especially in the most heightened moments, and it is in the film’s key dramatic scene that Isaacs’s wife arrives and demands they stop filming. Suddenly, an impromptu documentary observation is revealed to be scripted dialogue, while props turn out to be just that.

Isaacs has always been open about the interventionist nature of his nonfiction filmmaking, and his vocal presence behind the camera regularly draws attention to the construction of what’s on screen. However, the authenticity of everything we’ve seen has been compromised. In this moment of transformation, the title seems to suddenly refer to the broader sense of a house as a domain; this is the filmmaker’s set to direct. We can understand the screen and the house as analogous, as spaces into which the filmmaker invites his actors – even if they are playing themselves. Late in the film, Isaacs makes a concession to his own artistic determination, asking Mikel how he’d like his story to conclude. He opts for a happy ending.

The Filmmaker’s House (2020)

The reveal of a crafted narrative feeds into the vein running through the film in which Isaacs pushes against the external demands implied in the opening exchange with his producer. He has fun with this conceit throughout, peppering in nods towards more salacious material – the discussion of some old videotapes of a man who committed murder, a wad of cash secreted in a drawer – but ultimately eschews or subverts them in favour of everyday problems of human beings. Indeed, when Isaacs did make a short film about a murder (Touched by Murder, 2016) he wove the dramatic inspiration into a thoughtful and subtle rumination.

That is similar to the magic act he pulls off in The Filmmaker’s House. He has combined philosophical reflections on hospitality (the film closes with a quote from Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality) and some fairly direct provocation of the expectations and assumptions of nonfiction purveyors and viewers into something that remains deeply empathetic and kind-hearted. He has pulled the rug from under the reality of his film, without compromising its sense of truth. A final scene that combines the limits of hospitality, the end of Isaacs’s authorial control, and a small act of generosity provides a fitting grace note.

Sight and Sound November 2021

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