Thursday, 28 April 2016

Three Films by Marc Isaacs - Lift, Travellers, Calais: The Last Border (2001-03)

(written in 2009 as the booklet notes for Second Run‘s DVD of the same name, and appearing later in that year as a podcast for MovieMail)

Teeth of a digger bucket scrape the concrete, clearing the debris at the remains of the Sangatte refugee camp; wind blows through the lift shaft of a tower block as the cable mechanism whirrs into action; a crisscrossing of rails sways us into a station. All three of these films – Calais: The Last Border, Lift, Travellers – are based in transitional areas, pinch points, places through which people travel to go somewhere, or hope to. It is in these places that Isaacs sows questions that take people off-guard, reconnecting them with the deeper motivations and themes of their lives.


We are all wounded inside in some way. We all carry unhappiness within us for some reason or other. Which is why we need a little gentleness and healing from one another. Ben Okri, from Beyond Words.

The idea behind Travellers – getting people to talk about their relationships and ideas of love in railway carriages and stations throughout the land – resembles that of a classic British Transport Film promoting the unexpected benefits of train travel, a feeling enhanced by the shots of whooshing trains and platforms at sunset; but this is 2002, not 1952, and the storylines aren’t so easily tidied up. Relationships are broken, and as well as tales of new connections made and old loves maintained, we hear of hurt, pain, abuse and bullying in people’s lives. Throughout, people talk of love, its surge, and fear of its loss.

For all its unavoidably worn nature though, there is an underlying idealism here for the possibilities of making connections, of reaching across to give succour, and of the redemptive possibilities of love. One man’s incantation on the word runs throughout. As he shivers on a platform, his phrases punctuate the film: without love we can’t live together; without love we can’t say hello to each other; without love we can’t live peacefully: we need to sow love. It seems like he has been there for ever, a crazy prophet, freezing at a nondescript station somewhere in England, sheltering from the wind in a plastic shelter on a mean yellow flip seat, and with words for us all to hear: we’re travellers you know, and all what we need in this world is love.

As the trains traverse the country, past back yards and past the sea, through wooded cuttings and dark winter fields, the amount of travellers, the volume of their stories, and the possibilities for their connection, multiply into journeys of endless possibility.


Hello. So you’re in the lift – again. What motivates you to want to stand in lifts for 10 hours a day … tell me, why do you do this?

The sudden hush that the closing of lift doors brings, enclosing familiar strangers in uncomfortable proximity, brings out the tics and twitches before speech, the eyes on the edge of fear, need or loneliness, the people ready with a defensive wall of humour. This film is not clinically prying though, and comes instead from a place of genuine curiosity, and the project of seeding people’s lives with words that may take root in their walls of daily inconsequence. We don’t hear Isaacs’ answer to the resident’s question. Instead, we hear his own questions to those who share the confined space: Are you in love? What’s the best thing you remember about your childhood? What motivates you to get up in the morning?

Passing though are the the contented and the lonely, the hospitable, the jolly, the drunks and the chatterers, the concerned and the religious, the shy and the barely-glimpsed. Sometimes their answers are disarming in their simplicity: Can you tell me what you were thinking about today? Oh, I’m just happy for it was a beautiful day. I was thinking about how great it is to be alive. Are you serious? The woman looks straight at the camera, and there is no doubt. Very.

Snatches of stories are left hanging with the lift’s arrival at the ground floor or at a person’s home. As the residents grow accustomed to his presence, Isaacs continues these fractured existential conversations, or people pick up where they left off by amplifying their earlier statements. Others start saying why they are leaving the lift. After a drink one evening, one man lingers as the door closes, wanting to talk more, seeing the opportunity to continue the evening.

Calais: The Last Border

Calais pictures booze-tripping Brits, trolleys stacked with Black Tower and Blossom Hill, and would-be immigrants, hoping for asylum, safety and a better life in Britain. The attitudes of the English, voiced at the ketchup, chips and tea hut, match the wall of primary colours from the warehouse opposite, its bright yellow turning sulphurous with dusk. They’re just taking over the whole country, they’re living in bloody luxury hotels; they’re demanding this and demanding that, at the expense of our own people. Nobody likes to think there’s going to be another holocaust, or anything like that, but there has to be a cut-off point, says one woman, as her husband tries out a phrase or two in his best It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum accent and a flock of gulls attacks a discarded carton of chips.

Their world is in marked contrast to the shades of blue-grey that characterise that of the asylum seekers and those refused entry to Britain. For them, the wind that blows through the fences and wires at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel is a cheerless, goading companion.

Morning prayers take place on a fenced wasteland to the wail of police siren. ‘Please come in’ says Ijaz to Isaacs later, inviting him through a metal gate into a puddly concrete and breeze block goods yard of oil drums and rusting metal – improvised night shelters for the determined. Ijaz’s family were killed in a rocket attack on Kabul. How do you feel? asks Isaacs. Ijaz laughs, as he often does. It’s a difficult question sir … Sometime before I lost my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, and now this time, there’s nobody with me, so, I’m extremely sad. It’s a very difficult time for me.

He walks between breakwaters on the blue-brown North Sea shoreline, a man in a dufflecoat under a ragged, lowering sky. As the film goes on, his optimism is gradually broken down to the point of tears.

Earlier, spoken by a woman off the booze coach: Very lucky people, we say it every morning when we get up - aren’t we the luckiest people in the world?

Three Meals

A resident of the tower block walks into the lift with a blue plastic bag, determined to address this fellow with the camera who has taken up daily residence there. How are you, you alright, yeah? You want to eat something? Banana? Ok, take it, alright. Isaacs later pictures himself with his camera and the half-eaten banana. Offers of chips and betel nut follow.

A man is eating at the burger stand in Calais. I don’t like the asylum seekers because they sponge off the English government, he says, emphasising his point with a thin, floppy chip. I’m very sorry mate but if that’s the way it is, it’s the way it is. As he walks out of camera, he delivers his parting shot: I’ll tell you what, I’d shoot the fucking lot of them. An older man in the queue looks at the camera silently, the corner of his mouth moves very slightly, and it is impossible to tell with whom he is in unspoken sympathy.

Jamaican Paul, having arrived on a useless ticket two days after visa rules changed, sits at a scuffed grass snack area at a garage near the channel tunnel entrance, his bags on the bench behind him, as he talks of his wish to show off Jamaican food and the meals he wanted to cook as a big-time chef in England: chicken soup, beef soup, red pea soup, oxtail, curry goat, fricassee chicken, french fried chicken, rice and peas, wild rice, dumpling and yam and banana. The film cuts to frying onions at the chip stall, their sound that of pouring rain.

Three Things

After a while, a resident recognises the existence of the man in their lift by donating a chair with a red plastic seat. I see they’ve given you a chair, says a woman in a fleece hat, to which Isaacs responds, what did you dream about last night?

In Calais, Ijaz is given a blue bic razor at a handout by Secours Catholique. In the adjoining Portakabin he asks Isaacs, behind the camera, I would like to make you a shave – would you like? He then adds, we are preparing for London, before walking out fresh-faced into the morning.

Anne is in hospital. Eight months on from her stroke, her husband buys her flowers from a station kiosk, his hand resting on their cellophane as they sit on the seat next to him on his way to a visit. After a curt in here to Isaacs, he wakes her and gives her a kiss, the pressure between their hands an unspoken version of the marriage vow that we hear later at Beverley and Tony’s wedding: all that I have I share with you, all that I am I give to you. Earlier, Isaacs had asked him what it would be like without this love in his life. I think I’d be done, he says.

Three Photographs

The first is of a man, whom Isaacs has never met, in his bath. He’ll kill me for this, says Beverley, showing him the photograph as she stands in their shared home. It’s a testament to Isaacs’ ability to tease out stories, but also to the readiness of people to honestly share their lives, however difficult, given the chance of conversation. The love that I’ve got now, it’s a love love. There’s a difference. says Beverley.

A creased, edge-blackened photograph shows a smiling young girl with a buttoned-up coat and a bow in her hair. Tulia tells her story, and we learn she is herself an immigrant and that the photograph dates from around the time that she went searching for her mother, from whom she had been separated at their wartime internment camp in Spain; a photograph from before the time she decided that no child of hers would be born to live through such an experience.

What did your mother look like?, asks Isaacs. Ijaz smiles. She looked like me. You can see in my face that she looked like me. He is then asked if he has a photograph of her. I came to France in very difficult ways, very dangerous ways. I had one picture of my mother but at the moment I don’t have her picture I’m sorry to say. Visions arrive of a hastily-vacated room, or confined space, a jettisoned holdall with items so precious they cannot be lost, but which are lost along the way. The last time we see Ijaz he is waiting for a meal at a soup kitchen. He says to Isaacs, you must only pray for me, because I don’t have anyone, I am alone.


Underlying all of these films is the theme of accommodation, the give and take of adjusting to and living with another’s presence and needs, the acceptance of what can be given, what can be lost, and what can be shared, whether this is on the scale of a tower block or a country.

The films do not require neat endings; they leave us looking down roads and along railway lines, imagining the countless stories, of residents, of immigrants, of booze-trippers, of train passengers; travellers all.

At the outset I quoted Ben Okri from his essay Beyond Words. I’ll end with his words too, this time from his collection of aphorisms The Human Race is Not Yet Free, in which he asks what hope there is for individual realities in a world such as ours, dominated by forces of violence, othodoxy and manipulation of public opinion. He concludes ‘the only hope is in daring to redream one’s place in the world – a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self-becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things.’ These films are a small step in that direction.

In Travellers, a train, aglow with golden light, crosses a bridge.

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