“We like to use directors who are part of the culture they depict,” explains BBC commissioning editor Nick Fraser in the bonus feature that accompanies these two documentaries, and in so doing he accurately explains filmmaker Marc Isaacs’ success in his field.
A lover and critic of London and its people, Isaacs has channelled his interest in the fate of the metropolis into these thought-provoking films and comes out (mostly) a winner on both occasions.
All White In Barking (4 stars) is the better of the two, exploring the attitudes of locals in Barking, Essex to the wave of immigration into their town in recent years.
Isaacs’ approach is never predictable: he arranges for an elderly white couple to meet some of their African neighbours, then follows them as their initial fears and prejudices evolve.
He also focuses on the private life of a Jewish shopkeeper – who survived five years in Auschwitz – and his Nigerian companion.
Simultaneously, the documentary follows a surprisingly erudite BNP supporter, whose memories illustrate the changing face of Barking, with the twist being that said BNP-ite has two daughters of his own with mixed-race partners.
The tone isn’t judgmental or politically correct: instead, Isaacs’ implied conclusion is that human nature is bigger than any petty worries about ethnicity, underlining this with moments of true pathos.
When a local butcher is forced to shut down through lack of customers, and a couple are revealed to have lost a son to cancer, the emotions are razor-sharp. Men Of The City (3 stars) is less compelling, largely because Isaacs avoids the delicate, non-judgemental touch he applies in Barking.
Instead, he loads his tale of economic woe with soupy, heartstringtwanging music that fills up the subtle gaps in narrative rather than leaving them open and poignant.
The idea is to portray the effects of the current recession on various Londoners of all classes, but as a result the brushstrokes Isaacs uses are unsatisfyingly broad.
There’s a street cleaner, a hedge fund manager and a debt collector (among others), all of whose ordinary lives and problems are merely thrown into contrast by the recession rather than defined by it.
Still, this collection is earnest, but not to the point of nausea, and emotional, but not artificially so. Marc Isaacs is clearly one of our generation’s most skilled cultural commentators: it will be fascinating to see where he points his camera next.
Isaacs’ unflinching, occasionally overambitious portrayal of life at the sharp end never fails to grip.