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The Road - A Story of Life and Death (PG)
Curzon Soho
30th January 2013

★★★☆☆

If you're unfamiliar with Marc Isaacs, he's a film-maker openly fascinated with the mundane, adept at finding interesting stories in the least exciting of places. In his latest documentary, the lengthily titled The Road - A Story of Life and Death, he has chosen to focus on the human side of immigration, persuading a diverse bunch of individuals to open up on camera. Rather than a work of politics, this is a film quite simply about people.

Granted, it's a stark look at people's lives. Isaacs takes a distanced approach to his subjects and his work, being both short with them and sparse with narration. It's not an extended Adam Curtis argument and unlike, say, Louis Theroux, he doesn't provoke with his faux-naivety or, at his worst, become the star of his own documentary.

Thematically, Isaacs' chosen ones are linked by nothing other than the A5, on which they all work and live. And rather than represent a cross-section of the entire road, their lives are all clustered around Maida Vale, not far from Isaacs' own neck of the woods. He tries to force some kind of unity by switching back and forth between them all, with a restaging of young Irish girl Keelta O'Higgins' farewell from her homeland. You see, like the beginning of any rags-to-riches tale, she's off to London on a coach, chasing her dream of becoming a professional singer. This may be false footage, but as an opening it works, and Keelta is convincing enough as she recalls the anxiety she felt at making the big move. Clutching a guitar and a pillow, we are struck by her vulnerability.

Funded in part by the Irish Film Board, we also see a second Irish native, Billy Leahy. Initially he seems like another stereotype but rather than a youngster with dreams of fame and fortune, he is an old man with a drink problem. Isaacs probes deeper though, with a few off-camera queries, blunt, but delivered in a silken voice. It becomes apparent that finishing his job as a construction worker has left Billy with a crippling loneliness and it's heartbreaking to hear his frank, honest confessions. At the end of listening to Billy speak, you can't judge him. The expression "there but for the grace of God" springs to mind.

We are also introduced to Iqbal Ahmed, a hotel worker missing his wife Asia desperately. There is a real poignancy in his words as he describes how hard it is for him to wait patiently for her paperwork to come through so she can join him - if you thought coming to the UK from outside the EU was easy, Iqbal crushes that notion instantly. Hearing him speak, it becomes apparent why Isaacs felt moved to give him a co-writing credit, he has a beautiful way of speaking.

As well as engaging with Isaacs behind the camera, direct to the audience, we also witness Iqbal talking to his wife via Skype. Since the standard here is a talking-head format, this break could be jarring but it adds a different dimension to both the piece and Iqbal's character. It's incredibly honest, but like the rest of the film, very sad.

Overall, this is bleak, but some lighter moments come from the formidable 95-year-old Peggy Roth and glamorous ex-air hostess Brigitte Krafczyk. Both women have carried different sadnesses, but are able to laugh these off and remain resilient. Peggy, being a Viennese Jew, fled for survival during the Hitler years; Brigitte followed her husband away from Germany, then became estranged (although they still live together, with husband Royston Myers also featuring in the footage). Brigitte is able to talk of Royston with some fondness, Peggy is glad her own husband has kicked the bucket.

It never feels like Isaacs has compromised his artistic vision, which is to be commended, but to be blunt, it's a depressing vision. The Road is a challenging documentary - not in terms of anything technical, or conceptual, but in terms of the human spirit. Despite the humour, overall this film exposes the difficulty of truly moving to a new country and trying to make a success of it.

Individually, each story is fascinating, but collectively, they don't seem to mesh well together, making for a disjointed affair. It's a shame that the result isn't quite as smooth as its participants and their stories deserve, but it's still worthy of your time.

The Road - A Story of Life and Death was released in the UK on 22nd February 2013.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)



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