Niall Anderson looks at a new documentary about migrant experience in London
The Road runs 260 miles, from Holyhead in Wales to Marble Arch in London. We call it the A5, but the Saxons called it Watling Street and the Romans called it Iter II. It’s still the main westward approach to London, which gave filmmaker Mark Isaacs an idea: “Just to go along the road and meet people who’ve set up homes in this stretch that’s more associated with constant travel.”
Originally conceived as a series for the BBC, The Road was going to traverse the entire length of the A5, but that was, says Isaacs, “a difficult pitch”. It was the advent of the 2012 Olympics that eventually gave the film its final 76-minute shape: “The idea of all these different nationalities converging for a few weeks on London, set against London as a migrant city from day to day: the persistence of migration in London’s history.”
The Road: A Story Of Life And Death focuses on a six migrant stories in an attempt to sum up “our common experience of London – not just migrant life”. The youngest subject is 22-year-old Keelta Higgins, fresh off the boat from Ballymena in Northern Ireland. The oldest is 95-year-old Peggy Roth, who arrived in London from Austria before war broke out in the 30s. Between these extremes of age and experience, Isaacs unearths stories of success and failure in London – with success looking very different to what you might imagine, and failure looking a lot like outright tragedy.
By far the most difficult strand to watch is the one featuring Billy Leahy, an unemployed Irish labourer who appears to have destroyed every significant relationship in his life through a strategy of neglect. This neglect stems at least in part from his alcoholism, which, one suspects, he would prefer to be left to. Emboldened by Isaacs’ non-judgemental approach, Billy opens up about his life with great gravity, and a pint glass of vodka that he’s convinced will stop him shaking.
Discussing these scenes, Isaacs puts down a lot of their intimate success to working with digital cameras and sound. “You can do this on film, but it often comes out stiff and formal. There’d be a big light here, a microphone there, a couple of people in the room moving around. With digital you have the freedom not to film – to wait for the right moment. I had no idea that Billy was going to be like he was. I’d just called round.” A few weeks later, Isaacs called round again to discover Billy’s body. He’d been dead for several days.
In its concern for small personal stories against the backdrop of larger social upheavals, The Road is an evident continuation of Isaacs’ other films about life in modern England, All White In Barking and Men Of The City. But a road is, as Isaacs himself says, “a liminal area”: not a definite geographical place. The stories in The Road also reach back across decades, where Men Of The City had the narrow temporal focus of the 2008 financial crisis and its immediate aftermath. The Road is a much more diffuse film, much less easy to unpick or analyse. You have the sense that Isaacs included only those stories he couldn’t resist including. As well he might: some of them are irresistible.
MostlyFilm saw The Road as part of the Open City Docs festival, which restarts on 20 June 2013. The Road: A Story Of Life And Death is on limited general release from Friday 22 March 2013 through Verve Pictures. It is also part of BBC4’s Storyville season, broadcast date to be confirmed.