The Filmmaker’s House is a remarkable documentary that might not be a documentary at all. It looks like one – there’s a handheld camera and it’s full of “ordinary people doing ordinary things” in the words of Marc Isaacs, the filmmaker who has up till now specialised in very intimate documentaries about subjects most directors wouldn’t go near.
His film film, 2001’s Lift, was shot entirely in a lift/elevator, and his technique was very similar to what we see here – turn camera on a person, ask them if they mind being filmed, start asking questions. The results are often almost unbearable, though almost always gripping. In his last full-length documentary, 2012’s The Road: A Story of Life and Death, we got glimpses of the lives of people who lived on an arterial road out of London. They were all lonely, hopeless, sick or old. Isaacs’s technique is 50 per cent empathy and 50 per cent passive-aggressive bullying – he gets what he wants.
Sort of. His career, we learn at the beginning of The Filmmaker’s House, is hitting a wall of indifference. The money men are only interested in documentaries on serial killers and celebrities, his producer says via videocall, subjects Isaacs isn’t interested in at all. And so, as an act of defiance perhaps, Isaacs turns on the camera in his own house and starts filming what’s going on there in, we imagine, an ordinary day.
In come a pair of builders – big, sweaty Keith and a sidekick who clearly doesn’t want to be filmed. They’re replacing some fence panels in the garden. Isaacs asks Keith if he’ll drop his price. Keith, flatly, says no. In comes Nery, the cleaner. Her mother has just died and, though reluctant at first to talk about it, within minutes she is showing Marc pictures of her mother on her deathbed. In comes Mikel, a homeless Slovakian guy who lives in a cardboard box around the corner. A flurry of excitement – the cat has somehow got hold of a pigeon and is pouncing all over it while it flaps its last in the living room. And in comes Zara, a Muslim woman from next door, head to toe in black clothes and only her eyes visible. Again, within minutes Marc seems to have her in a very personal interchange – she should leave her husband, he says, and what does she think of the fact that she’s a Muslim and he’s a Jew and yet they’re friends?
This is our cast of characters, with Marc off camera asking the odd question but largely leaving the dynamic open. It looks like a documentary attempting a “London in microcosm” thing, with all the risks that might involve. Some of it clearly is documentary – Mikel probably is asleep on the sofa, and that does look like real ingrained dirt all over his skin when he has a bath. And when they all have lunch together, this motley gang, the look on Keith’s face when presented with food cooked by Zara (“curry”, he sniffs) looks genuine enough.
All through, of course, as with all documentaries, from wildlife to war zone, the question needs to asked: how much of this is rigged for the camera? Later, in a weird, revealing moment when Isaacs pulls his camera back to give a bit more context, the answer would appear to be “quite a lot of it”. It’s a discombobulating moment because, if this is all a setup, then Isaacs has clearly yanked the most natural performances out of these people, who aren’t actors, and yet also managed to retain a level of documentary “truth”. Mikel is a homeless man, Nery is Marc’s cleaner, Zara is his Muslim neighbour and Keith and sidekick are Arsenal-supporting builders. If there is a message it’s a very humanist one: that the cultural differences we take to be huge are not, in fact, that big at all. “You should ring your mother,” Keith advises Mikel at one point. He hasn’t spoken to her in years. And Mikel does. “We all have mothers”.
At one, highly amusing, moment, Marc’s wife returns home on her bicycle. She’s clearly very used to Marc’s ways and is unimpressed by the scene that greets her. “Can you just put the camera down,” she hisses, trying to hustle Marc into the garden where she can bollock him off the record. “The kids are coming back in 15 minutes… they have piano lessons… enough is enough.” There, as neatly realised as you’ll ever see it, is a visual manifestation of the critic Cyril Connolly’s dread pronouncement, “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
I’m not sure what The Filmmaker’s House is, but it’s fantastic to watch.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021