The Road: A Story of Life & Death

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

25 April

Red Hat Day

Today is Red Hat Day. It is celebrated by members of the Red Hat Society, membership of which is open to any woman aged 50 or over.

It was started in 1997 when Sue Ellen Cooper of Orange County, California, USA, gave a friend of hers a distinctive red bowler hat as a 55th birthday present, along with a copy of the poem Warning, by Jenny Joseph. Its opening lines are “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.”

The hat, colour scheme and sentiment struck a chord and after Cooper had repeated the gesture several times, the first official Red Hat tea party was held on 25 April, and was attended by women dressed in red and purple. The society operates a bit like the Women’s Institute in the UK, as a social, cultural and benevolent society, and organises trips to the theatre, craft days, fund-raising events and the like.

It has been referenced in The Simpsons, has had a musical written about it and Cooper has written a couple of books about the society. There are now chapters in places as far afield as Ireland, Trinidad and Tobago and Ecuador.

The Road: A Story of Life & Death (2012, dir: Marc Isaacs)

The film that first brought British documentarian Marc Isaacs to critical attention was his first. Made in 2001, it was called Lift and it was simplicity itself – Isaacs stood in a lift in a tower block and pointed a camera at whoever came in. He’d ask the occasional question, just enough to prompt the interviewee, the sort of question that might seem invasive if it had been put a slightly different way, or by a different person, but for some reason Isaacs got away with it.

It was only a short but it made a mark. Since then he’s done people on buses (Travellers), people at a port (Calais: The Last Border). And now another film that seems to be about transition – The Road. Probably his most poignant film yet, it focuses on the Kilburn High Road in London, an area associated with immigrants (mostly Irish), where Isaacs follows the stories of several individuals, the sort of people who usually don’t feature in documentaries.

So we meet an elderly Jewish lady, a refugee of Hitler now living on her own since her husband’s death. And a Muslim man scratching a living working in a hotel. A former air stewardess organising a reunion of her old flying colleagues. An old Irish drinker. A small community of Buddhist monks. A new arrival in London, fresh off the boat from Ireland.

I don’t know how many people Isaacs initially followed, whether he had a bigger cohort which he winnowed down to the tasty ones, but the stories up on the screen are all intense, often terribly sad tales – mostly of being alone, often lonely. “I lost my way in the fog,” Billy the old Irish guy tells Isaac, explaining why his life is in such a mess, why he can’t cook, look after himself, or fit in anywhere.

Isaacs’ knack, as with Lift, is to gently probe, asking questions which are amazingly direct yet without malice. Are you lonely (the drinker)? What did you think when your husband ran off with your best friend (the stewardess)? Are you happier now that your husband is dead (the old Jewish lady)?

Isaacs has two further aces in his hand – he’s there to witness some astonishing, dramatic turns. Watching Billy the drinker so sick with alcohol that he has to drink vodka to stop the convulsions. Or the moment Peggy, the frail Jewish woman, falls over in the street, the sort of fall that can spell death for someone at that age. And there is the shock when two of his interviewees actually die, halfway through the making of the film.

It’s not all grim. The hotel guy is shown talking to his wife on Skype and is overjoyed at the prospect of finally meeting her for the first time. And in the shape of Keelta, the young Irish girl who opens the film, we see the immigrant who starts to come good – she’s working in a bar, making some money, and her voice is beginning to get her gigs singing Irish songs. She’s on the road.

Why Watch?

  • A beautiful, poignant documentary
  • Because Isaacs is one of the greats
  • Heartbreaking stories, brilliantly told
  • The non-usual suspects

The Road: A Story of Life and Death – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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