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Dreaming on, Despite Brexit: A Conversation with Sean McAllister

director

By N. Buket Cengiz.

Documentarist, an independent documentary film festival held in Istanbul since 2007, had the acclaimed British documentary filmmaker Sean McAllister as its honorary guest this year. The festival audience found the opportunity to watch five feature films of the director: A Northern Soul (2018), shot in Hull in UK; A Syrian Love Story (2015), The Reluctant Revolutionary (2012), and The Liberace of Baghdad (2004), shot in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, respectively; and Japan: A Story of Love and Hate (2008), shot in Japan.

Sean McAllister studied at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in Buckinghamshire, England after some years as a factory worker. He describes his approach to documentary filmmaking as based on interaction rather than simple observation. He has received various awards and nominations for his films, which have been screened in numerous international festivals all around the world. His first two films, Working for the Enemy (1997) and The Minders (1998), received nominations for Royal Television Society Awards. In 2005, The Liberace of Baghdad (2014) won the Special Jury Prize (World Documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival, and Award for Best British Documentary, at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) among many other awards.

McAllister was the director of the opening ceremony of the Hull City of Culture in 2017.

In your films we see people who despite all odds achieve to find a way to live with dignity. You don’t depict them as heroes, but you do emphasize their tenacity to survive. Does this make it possible to find a subtle heroism in your films? I mean this as a positive trait as opposed to the cynicism prevalent in the current cultural climate.

I think you are very astute in your observations and questions of my work. Dignity is very important for me in my films. I like to film people who are often ‘borderline’ sympathetic often they are caught up in a political struggle or caught ‘hostage in their own environment’ an outsider within. I spend a long time looking for people with a voice, and something that needs to be heard or a mission. I guess it is this that makes them all small heroes to me at least but I also hope they and their opinions run contrary to common stereotypes in the media also. I guess media usually only ever shows people living on margins in a one dimensional way so my films attempt to challenge this.

What is your involvement in your films? Could you elaborate a little bit on how and to what extent you provoke your subjects?

I participate in the process rather than stand back and observe. I do that too but I don’t want to be limited to only that. The camera is small and I am alone so I can enter much more closely into people lives and be a part of them. I like to have a role often cooking and cleaning also. And it is this involvement that makes the films more warm and real to me. I like to be myself as much as possible and ‘lose myself’ in the filming process. For me it’s all about the right ‘casting.’ Finding the right people to film and story to tell. I need to fall in love in a way so finding the right person is key. And all other characters are so important too especially good women as my films are usually about men who are probably often like me.

I feel the “fly in the soup” approach frees me up to say to the audience I’m here and I’m affecting what is going on. I can take Samir to the sight of a suicide bomb attack to get his emotional response or enter Tina’s house when she has said to come round because she is fighting with Khaled or get Viagra to Yoshie’s father at the end of that film to break the ice. It also brings in my humour and connection to the film which I think often bridges the gap for the audience plus I think audiences like authorship.

In Hull’s Angel (2002) you introduce the Middle Eastern refugees in UK to your audience. Then in the Liberace of Baghdad (2004) you take us to Iraq, in The Reluctant Revolutionary (2012) to Yemen, in A Syrian Love Story (2015) to the realities of the Syrian tragedy. These films together seem to create a thematic unity with Hull’s Angel functioning as the prologue. Do you plan to make a film that would be the epilogue for this theme as the refugee crisis in Europe reaches drastic dimensions within the seventeen years since you had made Hull’s Angel?

a syrianVery good question. Below I send you a pitch for a project with BBC right now. It shows the story of the street where the Kurdish community settled in Hull, now a thriving colourful multi-cultural street. But I think a film looking at some Kurds who lived in Hull and then moved back to Kurdistan and maybe still have links to the city is a good film. I once met one of the Kurdish friends who arrived seventeen years ago as one of the first: he said he had moved back to Kurdistan with his Hull wife. She was treated like a queen over there he said. She never wants to come back to Hull! Made me think I should make a film about Hull women living in Kurdistan call it The Hull Queens of Kurdistan. Here is my film pitch:

Can we live together?

A community inspired project to paint Hull’s only multi-cultural street, a rainbow of different colours, where the Kurdish shop owners will paint fronts of shops and houses different colours, to transform the drab rundown street and offer hope in a time of crisis.

The project is being embraced by all the community but tensions remain high, attacks on immigrants are on the increase in a town that voted 70% for Brexit.

Hull’s only mosque sits in the community as does Collingwood primary school where over fifty languages are spoken.

In between your films focusing on the Middle East you made Japan: A Story of Love and Hate (2008), a film about an unlikely Japanese couple living in poverty. What made you decide making a film in Japan?

I had visited Japan, was intrigued and had good friends there and after too much time in war wanted somewhere safe. But Japan was more dangerous for me. I hated it and to find my way for my film it took years to find Naoki. But it was the story of so many struggling homeless and the hardships I wanted to tell in the end. I grew to love Japan; in a way it’s much easier now for vegetarians like me also, and it’s also great to be making a follow up story with Naoki. He is living under Mount Fuji, no longer with Yoshie, after having three cancers! It’s a film about pensioner poor in Japan now and a journey of atonement he wants to make. I’m also trying to make a follow up film with KAIS in Yemen which is more difficult to find funding for but an important story. I keep in touch with everyone. I’m on messenger now with Ragda [the woman in A Syrian Love Story] as I write to you.

UK has always been one of the most if not the most fertile ground for culture and arts by and/or about the working-class in the West. From Kitchen Sink Realism’s outstanding output in the 1950s and ’60s to the works of filmmakers such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Richard Billingham, Shane Meadows and yourself there seems to be a thread. Within the current political and cultural climate what sort of a future do you envision for this lineage of cultural and artistic output?

I have been invited to Ken’s new film tonight in a special preview screening. I also saw Shane’s new excellent Ch4 series here called The Virtues. I loved Billingham’s recent feature! I think one of the best things I saw last year. Apart from Campernaum -wonderful!

I think it’s a tradition we (and the French) love here: it depicts the voices of the underclass. I’m working on fiction ideas now, following a gang of workers, made up of skilled guys trying to find work in vacuous Amazon warehouses ending up camping etc. to survive!

And an idea in a car wash looking at lives of immigrant workers here cleaning cars for us, but a comedy clash of cultures when because of Brexit the boss can’t get Eastern Europeans and the job centre sends local Hull boys, we follow the comical clash of cultures.

I see all of this as a lonely voice though. Mass audiences enjoy Love Island in the millions here. But I think comedy and great characters can carry this, so I hope and dream on….

Buket Cengiz is a freelance writer who writes on culture and arts, focusing on music and cinema. She holds a PhD in Turkish Studies from Leiden University and works at Kadir Has University in Istanbul as a lecturer.

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