Lift (2001) is Mark Issacs’ debut in Documentary film. It appears remarkably simple in its form, as it remains almost exclusively within the confines of a lift in an East London tower block. Issacs filmed the block’s residents in the lift over the course of two months for sometimes 8 hours a day. The resultant film forms a captivating glimpse into the social fabric of Britain in the early 2000s, and through Issacs’ puncturing of a lift’s societal imperative of silence reveals a wealth of human stories.
The film opens with an invitation to laugh, a moment that foregrounds the centrality of comedy in Lift. Lily an eccentric old Jewish woman incorrectly introduces Issac as a ‘reporter’ whilst she rudely bars a fellow resident from joining her in the lift. The film’s humour is partly aided by the social space of a lift’s pre-existing potential for comedy. Issacs’ film captures the all too familiar awkwardness of sharing this intimate space with a stranger through the residents’ awkward glances to camera and in the moments where the silence feels uncomfortably palpable. The ability of lifts to comically enclose discordant characters Lift also memorably exposes when a young headscarf-wearing girl awkwardly joins an incoherently drunk man. Issacs’ timing and directness of speech make his interventions in the lift equally comedic.
It is not only Lift’s portrayal of a characteristically British observance of social etiquette that allows this film to comment on British society. The residents seem to exemplify Britain’s, but more specifically London’s, multicultural identity. The film beautifully captures the coexistence of various cultures, nationalities, races and religions in one building. In a particularly touching moment Issacs shares a traditional Bengali delicacy with one of the residents. Lift avoids sentimentality on this subject however, as it also records a certain angst amongst the older white community as we overhear Jean (an older Jewish resident) say ‘I counted the white people last night when I couldn’t sleep.’ The lift space also attains a microcosmic status in more subtle terms. Lift hints at a certain absence of community in modern urban life, exposing how even those who literally live side by side and on top of one another remain isolated.
Whether Issacs chooses for his subjects the residents of a block in East London, lorry drivers bedding down for the night, or men of The City, what remains constant is how his projects compelling engage with universal human experience. Issacs seems to possess the rare ability to sensitively but without sentimentality provoke real emotional honesty and insight from his contributors. Issacs is not interested in documentaries that retell a pre-existing story. His filmmaking is instead a mode that focuses on what is universally human, searching for ‘a sense of discovery’ and reaching for “truth.” As in Etre et Avoir questioning facilitates the film’s introspective aspect. Issacs asks the residents questions like; ‘have you ever been in love?’, ‘what have you been thinking about today?’ and ‘what did you dream about last night?’ The answers are unexpected, funny and often moving, like when Issacs asks ‘what is your best memory from your childhood’ to a drunken resident who replies ‘seeing a golden eagle.’ It is through these questions that notions of love, loneliness, death and faith enter the lift, a turn inward that is signalled by shots that take us inside the lift shaft. The interiority that the lift seems to foster comes in part from its character as a transient space. Issacs favours these types of spaces in his films, the kind that exist just outside of the everyday and which people occupy only fleetingly. This consciousness of space permits the lift to become confessional, an element that enhances the thoughtful quality of this film.
Although Lift is the shortest of the films I have collected so far, its impact by no means reflects this. As a film that documents the effects of ‘a stranger appearing one day in a lift’ its simplicity is deceptive. Issacs powerfully finds human complexity within the familiar in this captivating film that is full of humour.
More like this?
I would really encourage watching more from Marc Issacs, especially When Night Falls or Calais.
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJNAvyLCTik