Rebel Without a Crew
In Conversation with documentary filmmaker Sean McAllister
Reported by Tarini Mehta
In moments of great despair, we find ourselves turning more and more to storytelling as a tool for social change and a coping mechanism. Sean McAllister, British documentary filmmaker with more than 30 years of experience, a specialisation in revealing complex political situations through intimate personal experiences, and a great fondness for Indian food, is best known for his films “Japan: A Story of Love and Hate” (2008), “The Reluctant Revolutionary”(2012) and “A Syrian Love Story” (2015). He spoke to us in his frank and easy way about the power of filmmaking and the potential of journalism.
Q. The world today is deeply fractured across racial, religious, gender regional, and class boundaries while simultaneously being strangely united against the lethal coronavirus. Your documentary films, spanning over more than 30 years and several different countries including Yemen, Syria, and Japan, give the sense that you see yourself as a global journalist and citizen, even as you are rooted in British culture. Why is this important? As a storyteller, can these boundaries be truly transcended?
The reason I wanted to make films and shape my life around filmmaking was because I had a desire to travel and explore and see the world. Even though I’ve always had a close affinity to the North and to Britain, I’ve been making films around the world for 20 years now and have always seen my work as global in nature.
However, as a boring, middle-aged white guy, there is the problem of cultural appropriation. So, for example, Netflix is big on this now. If you want to make a film about Japan, which I do, a Japanese person should make it. In Yemen, a Yemeni should be the filmmaker. Why should a Brit go and make it? I suppose this is also because of imperialism and our history. The feeling is that first our ancestors cause all the issues in the world and then we come with our cameras to try and find out what the problem is.
But this, then, makes me think that all I can do is make a film about the North of England. And even that wouldn’t be completely authentic because I’ve actually lived in London for 25 years of my life! So where am I?
It’s a very difficult dilemma. Ironically though, the reason Japanese broadcasters commissioned me to make a film in Japan was because they are too shy to be critical of themselves. They need an outsider to pierce and see their society from a different perspective. I think it’s the same with the Arab world.
For me, it’s always been very touching to hear that people who belong to Japan find mine to be the most important documentary that captures the truth of the country. That makes all those years – I lived in Japan for about four years to shoot the film – worth it. In that time, I learned, I lived, I looked at, and I struggled with the culture. I was engaged in the psychology of the people and experiencing the minutiae of their day-to-day living. In the documentary approach, by going and living within that culture, we can feel and understand and connect with the people we are filming. That’s very different from sitting in a library and reading or researching about it. For “A Syrian Love Story,” I actually lived with the family and was completely embedded with them.
If you’re interested in something and are going to make a film, make sure you do justice to it. As long as you and the camera are invited into a scene and are not being voyeuristic, there can be a way of working in which the connection between the filmmaker and those who are being filmed is deep and real, irrespective of where either comes from. As a good journalist, you should be trained to understand and explore issues wherever you are in the world. You should be able to operate in any territory.
Q. Reporting and filmmaking in conflict areas and troubled zones around the world are, obviously, not easy. How have you navigated this challenge?
It is very difficult in conflict areas. I got arrested in Syria while making “A Syrian Love Story” and lost all my footage from that six-week leg! But when making films in these areas, I try to provide a multifaceted understanding of the situation, especially by focusing on deep human connections. We only see international conflict in three-minute CNN reports, and we never really see the people in their kitchens and living rooms, laughing and crying. I like to call this the “drama of the non-event.” So I try to capture the tension in people’s lives by getting invited into their private spaces, where the news cameras often never get.
You look at the Yemen story currently, it’s just despair. I, however, have a strange predicament because the teaser for the Yemen film I’m trying to present is actually quite funny. The relationship I share with my character is uniquely comical because he’s a switched-on former tour guide who understands the world in a very interesting way. And I think that’s exactly what we need. At the moment, all we see is an extremely narrow perspective and we expect people to fit into the simplistic stereotypes that the media and the international community have constructed of them. In documentary filmmaking, we can challenge those expectations. The news only has three minutes to tell the story and then it’s on to the next; we have more time.
Q. Even in India right now, we are seeing a clampdown on dissenting voices. What can documentary filmmakers do to circumvent such a problem?
That’s a great climate to make films, isn’t it? Narendra Modi presents a really great motivation to get out there with your camera. You need to find a way to play around the red line and figure out what will offend and what won’t. And then you can circumvent it by making a comedy set against the backdrop of a tragedy, for example. That would be acceptable in the eyes of the censors or ruler, while conveying a highly political message. Sometimes it’s quite simple really – you have to break away from conventions and communicate with the audience in an entertaining and inventive way.
It also depends on what you’re trying to do and what your film’s purpose is. If it is to be political, polemical, subjective and almost one-way with the message so that that becomes more important than the journey, then you figure out a way to show that. For me, I prefer the more intricate things – why has he got so much support and what has led to this situation? You can make the story global by equating the Modi story with the Trump or Boris story. It’s the story of populism across the world. How did we get to a point where populism has become, well, so popular? You have to decide who your audience is. If it’s a global one, the way Netflix prefers, you’ll have to simplify it because they don’t know the complexities of India. And if you’re looking at your audience at home, your message would have to be more nuanced.
Q. Storytelling, then, becomes an act of transgression. Even when all the odds are stacked against you, what keeps you going?
You need to have that drive to tell stories and see the world, because it is very hard and lonely. In terms of getting funding, sometimes it’s like knocking on a closed door and constantly getting setback. You develop something, film it for three months, edit it for another two, climb a mountain to make a teaser, and then you get knocked back and start something else from scratch. It doesn’t matter if you have a collection of successful films to your name or not, it’s still the same struggle and you cannot sit back and relax. We have to keep generating that passion and self-belief, despite all of it. The big networks are just money-making organisations that do not really have any idea what a documentary is; they need our ideas and enthusiasm.
When you’re making a film, your character is going through a struggle. Usually in my films, there is a parallel invisible struggle happening behind the camera of trying to get funding! But we shouldn’t think too much about that because what matters is what we’re putting on screen and the issues we’re highlighting. I’ve got my guy in Yemen, who I’ve been connecting with for five years now, supporting me and telling me that one day I will get the money and be back there to film him. It’s a mutual relationship of generosity, and it feels really good that he understands. That also builds a great compassion on camera. You know, I’m not a man from BBC with a big budget who can go anywhere in the world and do whatever I want. I’m a small guy, just like the small guys I film.
I feel a little cornered, but you just have to keep going. As soon as the travel restrictions due to COVID-19 are lifted, I will look at my options and just start filming as much as possible, with or without commission. You have a stronger case when you have visual material to show them. The youngsters coming out into the field today need to be tigers and lions, and really fight with the networks for what they believe in.
Q. At a global level, what, according to you, is the media missing today? Is the ‘fourth estate’ performing the duties it set out to?
The big conglomerates – like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple – are pumping a lot of material out, but they have almost no space for auteur voices. They just want formulaic films, and I suppose that’s driven by ratings. Here, we are fiercely fighting to keep BBC with the government because its content shouldn’t be governed by private, commercial reasons. Only then can it stand by the quality of different stories and storytellers. I believe the audiences want and need these alternate voices. But you can’t really stand in the tide of change, can you?
I suppose I am feeling this as an independent voice trying to tell stories in the way that I used to. We are at a kind of a crossroads. It’s terrible that I am even speaking like this in an interview now – I don’t feel like I am telling those stories anymore and it’s because I don’t feel supported to tell them. We, as auteur filmmakers, need to also have an outlet for our work in order to have the incentive to keep making films. It would be a lot more difficult to go to Yemen or Syria or Iraq if I didn’t know BBC would make my voice heard, you know?
While the big corporates have a narrow and predictable agenda that they want explored, I have a quirkier style. Instead of doing talking-head interviews with specialists, I prefer the observed documentary approach in which I use one or two characters who are caught in an issue to tell that larger story. This helps to widen your audience and you can also then use creative devices such as humour.
We also need to break the fatigue of a boring, formatted BBC news programme presented by a middle-class Oxbridge white man. This lack of representation of a more broad range of the country seeps into the methodology, output, and programme-making of news. If you get to the core of this, you can start making programmes from a whole different point of view.
Q. Your “quirky” style of documentary filmmaking also shows in your preference to hold the camera yourself. Is there any particular reason for this artistic choice?
I just want to be able to be free, to be alone, and to forge the best relationship I can with the people I am filming. I found, early on in my filmmaking days, that I was struggling to communicate with the crew. For me, the barrier to my subjects was the crew! So it seemed logical from the beginning to do the camerawork myself.
Unfortunately, it’s very lonely to work on your own, but your relationship with your subjects makes up for that. In “A Syrian Love Story,” I had a bed in their house – I became a member of the family in a sense. This also brings the audience much closer to the characters and builds intimacy in the film. You create a truth in that space. I’d rather my film have a soul than perfect camerawork. I don’t intend to have a wobbly camera, but I also never shied away from it because it made the moment real. In fact, the editor sometimes chose the shaky camera shots since they add to the dramatic tension of the sequences.
The beauty of documentary also lies in the surprise of never knowing what’s going to happen next. When you have a crew, they usually want to know what they’re doing every day. On some days, I don’t even know what time I’m waking up and I don’t want to either. I need that freedom.
And similarly, I chose not to hire a translator even when language is a barrier because I like that organic attempt to connect and communicate. It is more powerful and emotional in terms of the cinematic value. With a translator, it becomes a bit like a machine gun firing bullets and it takes me out of the picture. The strength of the drama, I believe, lies in the deep connection between me and them so I don’t let that break.
You have to free yourself up and break the rules! And part of that, for me, is being a “fly in the soup” as opposed to a “fly on the wall.” It allows me to be myself and find my unique voice in filmmaking.
Q. Finally, what do you think journalists, at an individual level, can do in order to better tell people’s stories?
Look for a way to bring together the personal and the political in your narrative. I try to find somebody emotionally involved in the situation who can articulate it well, but not a specialist. Find a parallel personal struggle that is tangible and universal at the human level.
When I think of my friends in the North of England, they don’t engage in international politics. In fact, most people around the world are only interested in stories from their own context. Our challenge, as journalists and filmmakers, is to try to bring an understanding of the world by making it universal so everyone can connect. In this way, the person who wouldn’t normally go to, say, Yemen will go even if only because they’re following the character’s personal plight, while their understanding of Yemeni politics remains incomplete. And it’s enough for me to have engaged them to stay till the end. So the next time they turn on the news and Yemen comes on, they’re in Yemen a little more than they were before. In this way, character-driven documentaries are more important than ever because they help us to understand the hardships behind the headlines. Storytelling allows us to get to the truth and challenge our preconceptions.
You and I need to genuinely care about what we do and not just do it as a job. I think that’s what becomes a trap with journalism – you end up running out on your editor’s orders and simply following the commands of the newsroom boss. We are the bastions of and witnesses to the truth. Find a story that you feel passionate about and pursue its truth. We need to be encouraging journalists to be more driven by their own passion, because that’s when real compassion for the subjects will show and the stories will be marked with an authenticity that rings truer to audiences. Whatever our tools are, we have to find a true engagement between the people we are reporting on and those who are receiving the news.
To know what McAllister said about the role of storytelling in journalism, please watch the online conversation above.
(Tarini is a Multimedia Producer at StoriesAsia and a graduate from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. She covers politics and culture, and dabbles in theatre in her free time.)