Acclaimed film maker Marc Isaacs discusses the importance of aesthetics in documentary and the problem with Britain’s journalistic attitude towards the medium.
Over the last five years I’ve noticed whenever aspiring documentary filmmakers are asked about contemporary filmmakers that influence them, more often than not Marc Isaacs name is mentioned.
Isaacs made his name in 2001 with the short documentary Lift (2001), to which he installed himself in the lift of a typical English tower block and conversed with the people passing by.
The film exuded poetic value and painted a simple yet profound portrait of the human condition. Since then Marc has produced numerous lyrical documentaries for both the BBC and Channel 4. His work has won Grierson, RTS, and BAFTA awards, as well as an abundance of international film festival prizes.
As a result of his aesthetically rich approach to observing the everyday lives of people, Isaacs’s films stand out considerably when screened at British documentary festivals.
Marc was kind enough to answer a few of our questions (even the painfully convoluted ones).
Matt – Most of your films tend to have particular aesthetic qualities to them; “Outside The Court” for instance used a seasonal format, where each period of the year had a different look to it. Are characteristics like these predetermined?
Marc Isaacs – They are predetermined to a large extent because they are conceived along with the idea and integrated during the shooting, but aesthetic decisions are also fully realised during the editing. Every film needs to have a strong aesthetic element. It is the film’s visual world which carries just as much meaning as the stories told verbally.
Do you think aesthetics in documentary are important (or less important than in fictional films)?
There is no difference for me between the two in relation to aesthetics. Documentaries have to be aesthetic too – I am only interested in documentaries if they can be poetic in some way. We have to stop seeing documentaries as a form of journalism or reportage. This is one genre if you like but the form has so much more potential than that, yet few people see it that way.
Music is an incredibly influential tool in cinema, especially in documentary where real people and situations are epitomised. Music is used frequently in your work, what are your main reasons for using it?
Music is another tool I have at my disposal to help create the feelings and emotions I want to express. Of course it can be over used and overly sentimental – you have to learn to be careful with music but I am always thinking of music when making my films. You need to earn the right in a film to evoke emotional responses and then the audience goes along with it. You cannot force that on the viewer.
When conversing with your subjects you are never shy in allowing the audience to hear your voice (sometimes even see you). Documentary filmmakers are usually quite absolute when it comes to revealing or not revealing themselves in their work, is there a reason why you make your presence known?
My questions reveal my interests and make transparent the relationship. I don’t want to pretend I am not there. My films are subjective as all good films should be and I need the audience to trust in me. To show myself in some way is crucial but it is not a preconceived plan it happens naturally. In Lift, I needed to establish my presence in the lift and the mirrors were perfect for this. In “Outside The Court” I wanted to reveal the premise from the start and even had someone filming me. I am not vain about this – the films are always concerned with the people I meet but they are subjective of course.
Outside The Court, Isaacs (2011)
With the risk of overgeneralising, it appears the majority of documentaries that are emerging from the UK tend to focus on the journalistic side of the medium, rather than its cinematic value. Why do you think this is and is it a good thing?
It is a terrible thing and most of those films are not cinematic in any way and they exist just to communicate a message. They are made usually by people who have the foolish belief that films can change the world and the money comes from wealthy guilty people who are probably destroying the world with their business practices and then they want to “give back”. I am generalising a little, but most are like this and I am against these films because they are colonising the genre and squeezing out alternatives. Why people think cinema is a good medium for these films is beyond me – they never allow you to think for yourself or explore the mystery of life. They just want to play god and tell you something – they should be articles not films.
What do you personally feel the difference is between a journalist film and a documentary (or is there even a difference)?
A documentary is a film, a piece of cinema. It should be about the human condition not fishing quotas – about people not ideas. Films contain mystery and poetry – journalism is concerned with facts, opinions and information. Journalism claims objectivity- films should be subjective.
What film of your own do you think worked best within your own standards and philosophies?
They are all different yet ultimately the same. Lift is pure and simple – the others are more complicated in the form and structure – less simple, less pure.
Are there any other documentaries (or possibly films in general) that have influenced your work?
Many Many films of course, but I have to find my own way. Of course I borrow from others like we all do but I can only do what I can do. I love David Perlov, Johan Van De Keuken, Marcel Lozinski, Agnes Varda, Satyajit Ray- the list goes on…
Someday My Prince Will Come, Isaacs (2005)
Marc Isaacs new film “The Road: A Story Of Life and Death” will be screened (along with a Q&A) at Open City Doc Fest on Wed 6 Feb 2013, 19:00.
Marc Isaacs official site