In Search of Belonging

The latest documentary from Marc Isaacs explores universal themes of loss, belonging and the search for home through careful observation of one neighbourhood in North London.

The vast network of concrete that engulfs the city of London is designed at its very heart to encourage the steady flow of life. Whether its infrastructure’s intentions are to serve oxygen into the capitalist lungs of industry, or to link the many strands of life that have arrived from the far corners of the world, many people invariably slip through the cracks. As a great metropolis built and furthered by immigration, naturally those separated from their loved ones and own culture begin to feel alienated in its depths. Travelling from afar to a place immortalised in celluloid and, of course, paved in rich opportunity, they find that the city may not be all they imagined.

These Diaspora communities, washed up by the unrelenting current of globalisation, have long been the interest of director and well-versed documentarian Marc Isaacs. From the microcosmic investigation of All White In Barking (2007) to Men of The City (2009), Isaacs has continued to cast his eye over the maligned and tell their bleak stories. In the same vein as his previous work, The Road forces audiences to embrace the idea that life and tragedy passes by all of us fluidly, and that among those we turn a blind eye to, there are all-too-real stories of loss and loneliness.

Focusing primarily on the lives of five lead characters, The Road darts between tales that are as frighteningly disparate as they are similar. From the Kashmiri hotel porter, Iqbal, to the mostly blind 95-year-old Holocaust survivor Peggy, Isaacs pulls no punches in demonstrating how morose a life forced into transition can be. Interspersed with intimate interviews, the director focuses on the solitude faced by this assortment of individuals who have left their countries, mostly seeking a better quality of life. Isaacs explains: “Loneliness and solitude are prominent themes, and in this film I continue to ask the same questions I have asked previously: What do the characters (and therefore we) live for? What is the meaning of their existence?”

Isaacs uses immigration as a way to reflect upon some of these loaded questions. He says: “Each of us lives with a degree of loneliness and solitude because of the impossibility of attaining a oneness with the world – this is the perpetual source of our pain. In this sense, we are all searching for a sense of home and belonging but, of course, it will never come. The fact that many immigrants are caught in a transient state was a starting point for me to explore these themes further.”

Using a North London section of the A5 as an intricate tool to show the similarities between the stories of change, the title of the film, The Road, provided Isaacs with a clear focus: “It’s very important in a film to have a setting for the story you want to tell.” The locale was integral in developing the overarching story. The metaphor of the constantly evolving road keeps the narrative cohesive and links the characters.

Focusing on Cricklewood, the former Roman trade route of the A5, Isaacs uncovered a myriad of fascinating stories. With its grey otherworldliness, the area is a suburban gateway neither achieving the fully fledged status of big city life, nor getting close to the peaceful nature of a quaint English town. Isaacs says: “It’s a place most of us would just pass through if ever encounter at all, yet there was vibrancy and vitality. It is cut off from London slightly, and full of people from everywhere. Shops are open all night, foreign workers wait on street corners for work, travellers hang around the betting shops and the old Irish frequent the pubs and cafés. It has a life of its own.” It’s unsullied by chain stores, and corporate interests have not yet seeped into every angle of the streets. To put it simply, Isaacs loved its “authenticity.” Despite its evolution, it has remained transitory and obscured from the radar of mainstream investment. From the darkened corners of hoarded goods in an old lady’s house to the vast cavern of a clinical bingo hall, the profound sense of a lonely London is strikingly real.

Unearthing these hidden residents of The Road proved to be difficult; the process of finding these eclectic subjects turned out to be “completely random.” Working with a team of researchers, Isaacs trawled the streets for months, waiting for a story or interesting character to inspire their direction: “You can sit at your desk and send out emails and write to organisations, but usually this leads to inactivity and frustration. I firmly believe in the process of discovery and chance.” It is this arduous yet rewarding process that is the only way to venture deep into the surroundings and uncover the truly everyday people. Billy, one of the lead roles nurtured in the film, was found in a café. Others were sourced by the locals speaking directly to the crew in the street.

It was important to Isaacs to show that, even from the small dissection of The Road’s characters, they all made an impact – however small – to the ever-changing nature of London due to their arrival. He comments: “I chose to cast these people because they moved me in some way and there are many more like them out there who make London what it is. The movement of people is crucial for keeping life interesting and vibrant. I couldn’t stand the thought of being in a stagnant place where, year after year, nothing changed.”

And change it does. The long road of the A5 drags in new batches of hopeful smiles searching for a life in a place, but this is ironic as there are so many people who live at odds with their own sense of belonging. Isaacs follows the story of Keelta, a young Irish girl who begins her journey in London after dreaming of becoming a singer. Pitted next to the story of Billy, an older Irish immigrant who is alienated and lonely, it shows a harrowing vision of a future that may lie ahead for the next generation. Isaacs says: “I wasn’t thinking of depicting a cautionary tale, but I did think it was interesting to see patterns being repeated. I don’t think that Keelta will not have the same troubles as Billy. She’s part of a new generation living in a different time, but of course this will surely bring with it a new set of problems. However, I wanted to focus on Billy and people of his generation because I was utterly moved by the fact that this generation now seems forgotten. You see them wandering up and down the road, worn out, isolated and estranged. They gave their lives to building the city and they have received little in return.” This is especially true in Billy’s case, who left Ireland and spent years building the Channel Tunnel, and who died alone, with no family around him, hundreds of miles from his birthplace. He was found in his flat after three days. Undoubtedly, Billy’s body would have been left undisturbed for much longer had he not been one of the subjects participating in Isaacs’ film.

The magnitude of sensitive issues and inconsolable pain was difficult to portray, but shooting his subjects with a degree of compassion, alongside in-depth questioning, is the difference between uncovering the true nature of these outsiders’ stories and playing it safe. “It always takes time to build a relationship with the people I film. I spend a great deal of time with them and this allows me to ask difficult questions, but from a position of empathy. It’s never easy filming people in tricky situations, but it is crucial to show what you think is important. It’s never objective; the film is shot through my eyes, and it’s my subjective expression, but I take my responsibility seriously,” says Isaacs.

With each tale housing underlying strands of disquiet or sardonic failure, The Road isn’t the most invigoratingly effervescent of films to say the least. But this is entirely necessary to portray correctly the gritty realism and harshness of people caught in a wave they weren’t prepared for, but threw themselves into nonetheless. “The film is quite heavy in parts, but I always feel the spirit of the people shines through and there is always hope. You know, Peggy was never a failure or desperate; in fact, she made a great life for herself against the odds. Iqbal will surely build a life for himself here. Keelta is young and full of dreams. Brigitte is a strong individual who will care for her former husband because she is a good person, but she knows how to live for herself too. Billy’s story had a tragic end, however even up until his last days he was cracking jokes and had a certain spirit about him. In the end, I think it was the isolation and boredom that killed him. It depends how you look at these lives. I see them as mirroring our own in many ways. They are all trying to discover the meaning of their existence and searching for some peace and a sense of belonging.”

The Road opens at select cinemas nationwide on 22 February.

Corin Douieb