An Act of Hospitality
by Iqbal Ahmed
Marc Isaac’s new documentary, The Filmmaker’s House, ends with Jacques Derrida’s assertion that an act of hospitality can only be poetic. It is a tender scene in which the filmmaker’s Columbian housekeeper, Nery, bids a fond farewell to a Slovakian rough sleeper, Mikel, outside Marc’s home in East London. The documentary maker’s house has become a meeting place for strangers who engage in acts of hospitality.
The filmmaker decides to use his own home for the shooting of a new documentary when his funding requests are turned down. His producer, Rachel, informs him in a video call that the commissioning editors cannot pitch his project upwards to their bosses because it isn’t about crime, death or serial killers. Marc has made more than a dozen critically acclaimed films about ordinary people. His first documentary, Lift, was nominated for a Bafta, but these days, in the cut-throat world of filmmaking, your track record is no guarantee that you’ll receive funding.
There are mega-budget films being made about serial killers. The television series currently showing on the BBC, The Serpent, based on the life of Charles Sobhraj, is a lavish production. It is more like a costume drama than gritty docudrama and it must have cost more to film one minute of it than the total budget of a full-length documentary film.
Marc’s producer is disconcerted when he films her video call and she tells him that she isn’t ‘one of his people’. I have known Marc since 2011 when he asked me to contribute as a writer to his documentary, The Road. However, I gradually started talking in front of the camera and happily became ‘one of his people’ in his documentary about the Roman road. It was a real pleasure to work with him.
Turning your own home into a film studio has its drawbacks. One day, Marc’s wife walks into her home only to find a film crew in the living room and she isn’t happy about it. Marc decides to call off the shoot that day, thereby letting us catch a glimpse of his own life, truthfully proving Derek Walcott’s point that ‘The ancient war / between obsession and responsibility / will never finish . . .’
The word ‘hospitality’ gained a deeper meaning in 2020 – the year of Brexit and the pandemic. The film opens with Marc striding along the corridors of a hospital in search of Mikel. In fact, hospitality is a variation of the word ‘hospital’, the place where we tend our sick.
Marc’s Pakistani neighbour, Zara, brings food to her neighbour’s home, as is customary during Ramadan, and it is hard to remain strangers when you have broken bread together. A Lagosian acquaintance of mine is fond of saying that one who eats alone dies alone. The English builder, Keith, who is lowering the fence between Marc and Zara’s garden, feels unwell and is looked after by Zara and Nery. He has moved out of London so that he doesn’t have to put up with any neighbours, having taken a dislike to his own next-door neighbour, who happened to be Greek. He offers money to Nery to attend her mother’s funeral in Columbia and persuades Mikel to call his mother in Slovakia with whom he hasn’t spoken for a long time.
The film revolves around Mikel, whom Marc admits into his home from the street. He falls asleep on the sofa and when he wakes up Nery washes his feet. He is overwhelmed and says that other people will do anything for you except wash your feet. You can see a book of poetry by Joseph Brodsky lying on a table in Marc Isaac’s home. Derek Walcott and Brodsky were close friends and Walcott has written a poem, ‘Forest of Europe’, for Brodsky.
The Filmmaker’s House also charts the journey of its creator in making a documentary film on a shoestring. Marc has a box full of old videotapes at his home which is collecting dust. However, it is troubling for him to have featured on those tapes a man with amnesia who later on goes to murder his own wife. Nery wants to get rid of those tapes, insisting that it is ‘bad energy’ to keep them in the house because she knows that Marc is haunted by the recordings of a murderer. Rachel calls Marc again to break the news to him that a commissioning editor has shown interest in turning these tapes into a film. She is flabbergasted when Marc tells her that he has finally got rid of them.
It is an old adage that you should never tell an artist what to do. Marc is influenced by the Iranian filmmakers who produce masterpieces despite working under enormous constraints. He teaches filmmaking at UCL, thereby upholding a long tradition of making a living by teaching rather than selling your soul, just as Walcott and Brodsky earned their living by teaching at universities in America.
The Filmmaker’s House was screened at the Sheffield Doc Fest in October 2020 and will be released in cinemas in the spring.