‘The imagination flies — we are its shadow on the earth’.
Vladimir Nabokov alleged that he thought like a genius and spoke like a child; I’m sure I’m not the first to state that the former is true of everyone. Not genius in the sense of some Will Hunting-like prodigious knowledge, or rare problem-solving ability. I mean the genius of our thoughts: our soaring imaginations and wealth of earth-bound memories. The life of a person’s mind is equal in creativity and depth to any work of art, and you get yours just by being human and having lived.
Great social documentaries reveals their subjects’ human genius; they collapse stereotypes built up in the viewer’s imagination and compel them to empathise with a realer image of the world. By my estimates, then, Marc Isaacs’s 2001 documentary Lift is a bloody rad social documentary. In an elevator sited on an East London estate, Isaac set up a camera for two months, filming ten hours a day. The footage gives the impression he remained mostly silent at first; in the face of his quietness the estate’s residents are cautious but curious. Then he begins to ask questions, posed casually: ‘What was your best memory from childhood?’ and ‘What did you dream about last night?’ and ‘Do you have religion in your life?’
Dreams, childhood, and the afterlife: something about these zones stirs the people filmed. One responds: ‘you ask me what was on my mind…and it got me thinking, no one asked me really ever before…and then I started thinking about all sorts’. Content from each resident’s character emerges: one brings Isaac increasingly intimate gifts; another wishes she had more friends to dance with. A gentle spoken man recalls performing in a recorder competition at his primary school. He says that ‘apparently’ he was the only boy on stage. When he later reveals he’s recovering from a mental illness brought on by the death of his parents, I inferred the evident pride he takes from this memory was most likely an emotion passed down from them. The moment is more affecting and human for this information gap; Isaacs’s method captures the silhouettes of other worlds without pursuing overexposure.
There is only one resident who acts hostile to the filmmaker. An old man, swearing and staggering and violently drunk, ejects Isaacs from the lift. But the director persists, and on their next meeting the man is friendly, and tells him he is trying hard to get sober. Against the lift’s blank steel walls the old man’s face is superimposed. It is face that signifies hardship: hair greyed and frayed at the edges, with a bulbous alcoholic’s nose and sunken eyes. A question is asked, these eyes go distant for a moment, then out of his past and into ours come golden eagles, still soaring within the infinite space of his mind’s sky.