How a chance encounter with a portable camera took the Hull director from Bird’s Eye to Baghdad
British filmmaker Sean McAllister is probably better known around the world than he is in his homeland, scoring big international hits with thoughtful and insightful character sketches such as 2015’s “A Syrian Love Story” and the Sundance Special Jury Prize winner “The Liberace of Baghdad” (2005). But the amazing thing is not that the director has emerged unscathed from some of the Middle East’s most notorious warzones, it’s that McAllister might never have become a director at all if he hadn’t so vigorously pursued his destiny.
A rare working-class voice on the British doc scene, McAllister came to Ji.hlava Docu Film Festival to give a masterclass on his working methods. But before he took to the stage, Variety talked to him about his incredible journey.
How did you become a documentary filmmaker?
I came across filmmaking through the local community center, and I started to do it when the advent of the little portable camera came about. It lent itself to my chaotic and crazy style, and also it was more like an extension of my body than working with a film crew. It meant I could be mobile. I could be myself and I could be schedule-free from all of the constraints of having to work with crews.
Had you studied filmmaking prior to that?
Well, originally, no. I left school at 16 and got into factory work and went onto the dole for a good few years. I went through self-educating myself part-time with college, came across a community center that had a camera, and I became interested in that because of the characters I’ve worked with in factories, not because I loved film. So I started making films about characters in Hull, where I was from. I was just on the dole really, in the community center, and then I applied to film school.
When did you get into film school?
In 1989. I got into the National Film and Television School with a film I made in a pea factory where I was working in Hull. [Laughs] A Bird’s Eye pea factory!
Would you consider 1997’s ‘Working For the Enemy’ your official debut?
Well, it was the first TV film I made after I’d graduated, and that came from returning to Hull to look at a story about work. I was looking at the American idea of forcing people to work for their benefits. As someone that has spent a good few years of my life on the dole, and used the dole productively in order to find myself and get out and be productive to society, I looked for a character that was politically opposed to work and found a way of telling his story and putting it on BBC2 at 9 p.m. I realized when I made the film that that’s the worst thing you could possibly do in Britain – find someone that says, “I don’t want to work.” [Laughs] Unless they’re the royalty and living at Buckingham Palace and they’re somehow exempt.
How do find the right subject for the film you want to make? For example, how did you find the subject of your second film, ‘Minders’?
Well, after graduating, I got a job in Baghdad, which was just working for a volunteer team, and I’d gone into this country and saw the appalling suffering of kids dying of diarrhoea and stuff that wasn’t being documented. But what I really was taken by was how colorful the people were, in terms of their character, and how that wasn’t really represented in the news. I wanted to go and make a film, basically, that connected with them rather than showed them to be these kinds of chest-slapping, death-to-America people, which they really weren’t. They were total Anglophiles. So I was motivated by that experience. They were about to bomb [Iraq] in ‘98 and I managed to get a visa. On my trip, I befriended the minders [that were assigned to look after me], and that became my second film on TV. I suppose I treated these characters like mates, like I would in Hull, and up until then people had always gone to the Middle East and done current affairs-y issue-based work. I just wanted to do character-based portraits of people as if they were in Hull but in Baghdad. Which was quite unusual, I guess, at the time.
Do you look for characters first or situations?
Characters, really. My target audience is a few mates in Hull. Whenever I go to the most bizarre places in the world I always think of Andy, Ted and Nick. How would they be in Yemen? How am I going to get them into Damascus? How am I going to get them into some dark place in Japan, when most people are just happy living in their own local communities? But, actually, most stories are universal. It’s about finding the universality of who we are, isn’t it, really?
Are Andy, Ted and Nick real people – are they really your mates?
They are, yeah, definitely, and they’re all people I kind of answer to. I mean, you have your executive producers that are the real people that you’re supposed to answer to on a film. But my mates are the ones I secretly send links to and say, “Am I on track with this? What do you reckon to it?” They give me the guidance, you know?
Has anything ever not worked out, or disappointed you?
Yeah. Nine months of filming in Japan one time ended up with a bit of a fight and a fall out, and I had to start again. That’s a really crazy country, and sometimes… you just don’t know. It’s about getting an on-screen connection with people. Sometimes they don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for, and they realize that, actually, I’m a bit too intense, because I want complete access. You have to have the right kind of person that wants to really let you in.
How long would you say the average project takes you?
It’s quite awkward. I’m trying to get a bit more productive, but they’re at least a year to two. There’s usually a year after you’ve done the film, like doing what I’m doing now with my last film, “A Northern Soul.” I’m trying to move a bit quicker and be more productive. But, you know, it’s about finding the right voice and the right character, and I don’t think you can short-change that. Because if you’ve got the wrong character you’ve got a crap film, it’s as simple as that.
Are you ever worried about putting yourself in danger?
Yeah, well, I try to minimize that and be what we call a soft target, I kind of embed myself with the characters and their world. But, I suppose, by the very value that you’re in war-torn Baghdad and not, you know, war-torn Hull, your dangers are increased. But I got my comeuppance when I was arrested [in Syria], eventually.
When was that?
That was in 2012, just after the revolution had kicked off. The premise of the film was that there was a lady in prison, and the story was following her husband and the kids. She’d been released from prison, and I was filming, and I got picked up on a protest. Anyway, in the course of the film, I was arrested for a week, and they had to flee, and the film then follows their story, following them in exile. I was then in prison for a week in Damascus, but it was fortunate that it was before everything got really fucking bloody there, and they didn’t dispose of me. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on with the [British] Foreign Office. But it was interesting to see the inner workings of the torture chambers, if you know what I mean.
You had a big break-through with ‘The Liberace of Baghdad.’ Is it true that the film you made was not the story you originally set out to tell?
Well, it’s usually the case with them all, really – you start on a venture, and it ends up being something else. With that, I’d gone, on money from the BBC, to look at the trial of Saddam Hussein, but then I bumped into a rather interesting character in a bar, who… led me astray, should we say, to his family drama and into trying to get his family over to live in America, actually. But the dilemma that he had was, since the Americans had invaded Iraq, his daughter had been turned pro-Saddam. That very conflict represented a very big divide, I felt, within the Iraqi psyche, once the Americans were on Iraq soil. And I thought that was just a really interesting thing to look at. Eventually his dream was fulfilled by Robert Redford, who invited him, with the film, to the Sundance film festival, and he got his visa out of war-torn Iraq thanks to my film.
The film after that, ‘Japan: A Story of Love and Hate,’ took you to the Far East. How did you end up there?
Well, it’s about the working poor in Japan, actually; it’s about the struggle of a guy that had had it all and lost it when the bubble burst in the early 1990s. And I did it partly because I felt I was putting myself at risk in war zones, I wanted to get away from war zones, and I got the offer of a co-production between the BBC and NHK – the Japanese BBC – who were basically wanting a film from outsiders. They wanted four different filmmakers to take an authored view of the country. I kind of got lost there for a good three years with that film, and that was where I started on a nine-month venture that ended with nothing. It’s a very difficult country to operate in. But the film I [later] came across was a more empowering story, about a guy who’d lost it all and was living in a windowless room with his girlfriend who was half his age and working three jobs trying to support him. It showed the other side of Japan that you never really see: it’s a dark story of poverty in one of the world’s richest nations.
These films take you away for weeks, months and even years. Do you have a base in the U.K., or do you just throw yourself into each production?
I try to come back, because I try to maintain a family, believe it or not, during all of this kind of crazy shit. So I live in South London, but I kind of try to immerse myself in wherever I’m filming, believing that you should sort of get lost in the place and somehow find it, and find yourself, through it, with the film. The most difficult thing was returning back to Hull for the last film, “A Northern Soul.” Seeing it afresh was quite a challenge.
What do you mean by that?
Well, it’s difficult, isn’t it, going back home? It’s somewhere you know and everywhere is familiar. And also I was living back at home with my mother and father, who were in their nineties and I was in my fifties, and I was back there for a good year, filming. I try to film [my personal] experience when I make a film, so a lot of the journey [of making the film] is in there, or some of the journey, which is why my parents appear as characters in the film.
Are you comfortable doing that?
There’s a very thin line when you’re positioning yourself [in a movie] so that the audience are comfortable with knowing whose voice it is. I’m very present as a voice behind the camera, and I try to keep myself behind the camera too, but I plonk myself in the picture a bit occasionally, just because I think it’s useful for an audience to visualize [the storyteller], without it becoming too dominant in that Michael Moore kind of way, if you know what I mean.
With ‘A Northern Soul’ there was a bit of controversy about the film’s certificate, wasn’t there? What happened?
Well, it’s a beautiful film about a guy trying to help underprivileged kids in Hull through taking rap and hip-hop music to them with his converted hip-hop bus. But, of course, he’s a working-class warehouse worker who just speaks in the way that he speaks, and it hadn’t really dawned on me that he swore, because it wasn’t really like swearing like “Fuck you” or “You motherfucker” or anything aggressive. It was more like, “Oh, I don’t fucking know…” I’d argue that it’s just the way people speak. But, anyway, we put it in [to the BBFC] for classification before theatrical release and it came back with a 15 rating, and I said, “No, they must have made a mistake.” [The BBFC] said, “No, no – strong language.” So we then kind of looked at it, and then I thought, “Hold on a minute, here’s an opportunity for milking a bit of cheap publicity.”
What did you do?
Well, “The King’s Speech,” which has 12 f-words in it, got given a 15 rating originally and then got re-evaluated as a 12A. They weren’t going to do that with us, so I made a big hoo-hah [about the double standard]. We got loads of media attention, and more people saw the film as a result. We took it on tour, and in every city we went to we asked the local city council to re-classify it. Which they can do – they can overrule the BBFC. We were told initially not to bother, because they would all side with the BBFC. But you know what? So far, 19 cities have sided with us. [Laughs] But on a more serious note, I think “A Northern Soul” is a very simple story [about a man who is just] fighting against [the system]. Everything’s stacked against him, and it touches a raw nerve. It’s a sweet film that’s done incredibly well because, I think, of that voice – a voice that has been ignored for so long, and not given a space, and not given any attention. It’s partially what’s led to Brexit, and the BBFC’s attitude to censoring this man when he speaks like this, it’s just out-dated, man. It needs to be re-evaluated.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m touring constantly with “A Northern Soul.” We’ve got Michael Sheen putting it on at a special screening in London next week to try to bring in key staff at the BBC and Comic Relief. We’ve got a House of Commons screening of it as well, to try to find a way to somehow help find those kinds of marginal voices get a say in the mainstream. We’re touring that message with the film, and I’m pursuing other projects too, I guess. British-based projects, because the appetite for this film has been so much, it’s worth delivering more, especially in these desperate Brexit times. We might have a second referendum yet, who knows?