Racism’s a very gray area in Marc Isaacs’s documentary All White In Barking. Dave, a middle-aged man born in East London’s Bow, is a BNP campaigner who talks a lot about “indigenous white people” and “the natives of this borough,” but loves his mixed-race grandson. One woman has an instinctive aversion to Africans because of their cooking smells and loud music. The result of Isaacs’ encounters with these people is a fascinating and often very funny exploration of disparate attitudes in a melting pot town. It’s just been released on DVD with another of Isaac’s films, Men Of The City, which is great too. I spoke to him.
Vice: Are you a native Eastender?
Marc Isaacs: Well I grew up in Redbridge, which is ten minutes away, the last London postcode before you get out into Essex. I went to the University of East London in Barking too, so the area was familiar to me.
When did you have the idea for the film?
In 2006, the BNP had just won 12 seats on the local council, and I thought it could be an interesting starting point.
How did you feel about what was happening with the BNP?
I was never worried that support would suddenly grow, so I didn’t want to make it sound like more of a problem than it was. As soon as I started talking to people, I realized it would probably be a passing fad [it was - the BNP lost all 12 seats this year], but what was interesting was how much the town had changed in just a few years. In other parts of London it had happened very slowly, and in inner London it’s just part of the fabric, but out in Barking it was a little bit different. A new wave of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, Africa and Eastern Europe entered the area quite quickly, and for those people it felt very intense, given that they were people who, on the whole, wouldn’t spend their time in Africa. In the beginning I thought it would be interesting to make almost a comedy of multiculturalism, because on a day-to-day basis some of these contacts can be quite humorous.
Yeah, one of the funniest bits in the film is when you tell Dave, the BNP campaigner, that the kid he’s just been canvassing is mixed-race, and he had no idea.
With Dave it was more about someone’s inability to deal with change, and what happens when you close yourself off. That’s a much more universal theme that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with racism. A lot of people tend to close up when they get older, and that’s what interested me. And that other element of Dave having a mixed-race grandson was fascinating, that’s why I decided to go with him as a character.
Dave on the beach
What did you tell people about what you were setting out to do?
One method we used to find white English people who’d been in the town for years was just to knock on doors, like a canvassing politician. We said we were making a film for the BBC, and people would open up very quickly about what was happening in their town. Dave voiced all his uneven feelings. He was quite tricky to deal with, he didn’t want to be filmed at first, he said he’d never even been photographed. He was very anti-BBC, he came out with the usual line about Liberal credentials, a bit of bravado and machismo, but he was also sincere, and it just took a bit of time for me to gain his trust. Once he understood that I wasn’t out to stitch him up, he felt comfortable with it.
Were you surprised about how open he was with his views?
I think he’s totally beyond caring, which was a feeling I got from a lot of people in the town. They’ve stopped worrying about what other people think of them. It was quite refreshing to hear people talking so honestly, even if they were expressing views that were kind of hard to listen to. Nobody was politically correct. It’s just how they feel, and people should be able to talk freely.
Do you think they’re aware of how provocative some of the things they say are?
There’s probably some element of truth that they’re a little bit cut off–they’re not living in Islington and reading The Guardian, there’s the feeling that they’re slightly from another time. I was quite drawn to the more elderly people because they were more revealing, a more accurate barometer of the changes that had happened. I think their language and the way they speak was all tied in with that–my mum and dad are Jewish, my dad’s a black cab driver, and if, for example, he picks up a black guy who runs off without paying, he comes out with views that… if you really read between the lines it’s not racism, it’s a kind of uneducated ignorance at worst.
I’m from a Jewish family as well, and Jews are traditionally tribal. My grandmother was certainly a lot more comfortable with other Jewish people than anyone else.
I think the tribal thing is crucial. We were going to call the film Tribes Of Barking at one point, because what became very interesting to me was this sense of people’s need to gravitate towards their tribe, it’s so deep-rooted. And when you get older you want to feel rooted, and part of that is trying to find imagined connections that make you feel secure, and I think that’s why there are these obsessions with people tracing their family trees.
When you hear those tribal sentiments that are expressed in the film from minorities it seems completely understandable. But when you hear someone like Dave talking about indigenous white people…
Yeah, they get crucified. It is really complicated, and I did meet people out there who were clearly ideologically racist. Dave did some work for the BNP, but was never a signed-up member, although a lot of the characters he was hanging around with were. I think Dave was a more instinctive character on the whole. I think our generation adapts a lot easier to a fluid identity, but people of Dave’s generation have lived completely different lives to us.
There’s that absurd bit where Dave warns his daughter that her mixed-race son will, later in life, encounter bigots, although he doesn’t seem to be talking about himself.
Exactly. He knows these people because he is one, in a way, and yet he doesn’t express it in that sense. It’s always fascinating, the subtext of what people are saying. Reading between the lines.