Michael Apted and Paul Almond's decade-spanning documentary series Seven Up! — which follows the lives of 14 British children — is a touchstone for filmmaker Gwen Isaac.
Isaac was born in London, but soon moved with her artist mother to New Zealand, to join a thriving single parent artist community in the Bay of Islands. Seven Up! would inspire her to study at Auckland University of Technology, where she got a Bachelor of Communications, specialising in Documentary. She then moved back to London to pursue her career. In the city's busy and highly competitive scene, she won gigs directing television for broadcasters ITV and the BBC, and companies RDF and Endemol.
Work on fast turnaround reality shows taught her that establishing "the magic that allows people to be themselves" on-screen is a key tool in any documentary maker's skillset. "It is all about relationships". She felt less comfortable about the way reality shows were often aimed at entertaining audiences, rather than encouraging viewers to feel or learn something. On reality show Mum's on Strike, she felt under pressure "to make dads seem incapable of looking after their kids even when they weren't". Her next job— an oft-repeated BBC documentary series, following members of the clergy at York Minster — opened her eyes "to a more gentle way of presenting the human condition".
Her self-conceived documentary Old Dogs, New Tricks (2004), about retired racing greyhounds, won good reviews and was selected for Metroland, a slot on the ITV network for young directors.
Isaac married actor Graham McTavish, and the couple relocated to Los Angeles. She founded Midnight Swim Productions, producing both behind the scenes content, and documentaries aimed at a UK audience.
When McTavish was cast in The Hobbit, the couple moved back to Wellington. By 2011 Isaac was "hungry" to make her first feature. A chance sighting in a Lower Hutt gym of a woman who was having a leaving do because of her terminal diagnosis sparked an idea. "She looked like she was off to a resort in Bali. I thought, 'This woman is not going to be your everyday terminal patient'."
Isaac befriended Margaret Lee, who was in the early stages of Motor Neuron disease. "My opening gambit was that we'd make an aide memoire for their daughter Imogen, who was 10. They were right up for it, which was a dream come true for an observational filmmaker".
The result is feature documentary Where There is Life, a four year project capturing a woman’s slow retreat from life. Isaac calls it a "celebration of the art of caring…all its horrors and joys". Debuting at the 2017 NZ International Film Festival, it won Isaac Best First Time Director at the London Independent Film Awards.
In 2020 she shot and directed short documentary Siouxsie and the Virus — moving into microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles’ Auckland home to record her battle for urgent action as the Covid-19 pandemic hit Kiwi shores. Isaac is also working on a documentary about the ‘feminuzumu’ (female empowerment) in Japan.
Profile updated on 4 December 2020
Gwen Isaac website. Accessed 30 November 2020
Gwen Isaac, 'What it was like inside Siouxsie Wiles' house in the days leading up to lockdown' The Spinoff website. Loaded 7 September 2020. Accessed 30 November 2020
Jennifer Dann, 'Twelve questions with Kiwi filmmaker Gwen Isaac' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 24 October 2017
'Siouxsie & the Virus' Loading Docs website. Accessed 30 November 2020
'Where There is Life' (Radio interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 3 August 2017. Accessed 30 November 2020
Unknown writer, 'Gwen Isaac, Director/Producer' (Interview) Women in Film & Television NZ website. Loaded 5 December 2016. Accessed 30 November 2020