An interview with Sean McAllister, originally published in Industry Reel at East Doc Platform 2012, about the Middle East, outsiders and inner journeys.
Sean McAllister, the renowned author of several significant documentary portraits, was in March 2012 one of the key tutors of the East European Forum workshop. After the 2012 Berlinale saw the successful world premiere of The Reluctant Revolutionary, his latest documentary feature dealing a Yemeni state-assigned guide, McAllister comes to Prague to present his creative style in a Master Class, and to introduce a special screening of Japan: A Story of Love and Hate. Touching on his recent arrest and deportation from Syria, the British director discusses his character-driven documentaries and the reasons why a filmmaker needs to immerse himself in the lives of documentary subjects.
Why do you think Assad’s secret police held you down right next to an interrogation chamber, where other prisoners were tortured?
Well, I don’t think they intended to scare me with that. They are convinced about their work, about the methods and ways they use, they believe it is seemly, internationally acceptable. But they don’t see the violence anymore, which reflects the denial of the whole damned Syrian regime. During the day, they took me upstairs to their office and, paradoxically enough, they treated me really well the whole time. One day there was no one to look after me so they took me down to my cell and that’s when I got near to a collapse. I thought that was it – they are going to beat me now; but instead they began to calm me down, joking, asking about the princess and so on…
Although that is not your case, how does one avoid to get arrested in Syria?
It depends. There are less and less foreigners in Syria, and if they are holding a camera, they are being looked at as potential journalists. Of course, the government is primarily interested in the organized protests, for them they are a bigger fish to fry, so one is rather safe in Damascus which is a bustling city with cosmopolitan life still going on. It gets worse out in the country, for example Homs. You can only get there through several checkpoints, though one of my fellow journalists managed to get there as well.
You have also claimed that the government treats the protesters basically as terrorists. Does it influence better organization of the opposition?
One thing the protesters count upon is the stupidity of the police, and the fact they are easy to corrupt. You can always bribe someone. There are, however, cases of people who get arrested every other day. It is their daily bread, but they are ready for that, though. Since the torture is so severe, it’s acceptable to speak and the structure takes it into account - you only know people on the same level as yours so you never tell much. So at first I hesitated to film them, but later I learned their organization is so complex that they are not even afraid to expose their identity on the internet. Al Assad seemed to be rather benign dictator, but nowadays most Syrians have already had a bitter experience with the regime – directly or indirectly. Once tanks and military machinery get involved, the revolution will reach much bigger momentum.
What is the role of new media in the conflict?
I have an example for you. One of the most distinctive characters of the revolution is a young boy from Homs called Daniel. He got shot during the protests, he has seen 30 of his friends dead, he left the country with his parents and fled to Egypt to stay close, but eventually had himself smuggled back to Syria. He records videos of the revolution, about the conflict, and displays it all on the internet. At this time, all major broadcasters, including BBC and CNN, feature his videos in their Arab Spring newsreel. I am thinking of making a film with him and maybe his parents, too. It can be called something like Citizen Journalist – because he is like a citizen with the camera, doing something journalists should be doing in Syria but just can’t be there to do it. He is almost like a modern freedom fighter, holding a camera instead of a gun.
After your deportation, some people may consider you a western spokesman of the Syrian protest.
Well, I don’t feel like that at all. There may be some people who turn to me perhaps because I am a western journalist, I was held in prison for a while and I know a lot of people like Daniel around Syria, but honestly: I didn’t take such a risk, I knew they wouldn’t beat me. All they could do was to take the camera away from me. Many people don’t realize I was in Syria year before any of the protests took place, making a film there, and I am already looking forward to return there once the regime falls. I think it shouldn’t take more than a year.
Let’s depart from Syria and talk about your filmmaking a bit. Your movies follow people who can be characterized as outsiders. Do you agree with that?
Yes, I guess all my characters really are outsiders. I specifically look for outsiders, one foot in one foot out so to speak… They are people who are conflicted, caught in the dynamics about being part of any given place whether it is Japan or the Middle East. So I think that makes it more interesting and those are the kind of people I can relate to myself. I think someone being portrayed always makes him or her sort of a mirror. They are a reflection of the society they perhaps don´t belong to, and mirror well rather than those who are part of it. As I have said before, it makes it more interesting.
How do you look for your characters?
I don´t know. It is usually a nightmare. It takes a long time to find a good character, for you are looking for a character that embodies lots of different complex things, connected to the place where you are making the film. They also have to be interesting and engaging, open people you get the sense from that they allow you into their world. It is important for you to get along well with them, because these films take a long time to make so one needs to spend half a year looking for them. I have even spent a year looking for a character, like Naoki in Japan.
How do you find out your film is nearing the end? In Settlers, Dev is getting overly suspicious and paranoid, so I guess you lost him.
Near the end you feel you got over a hill with the narrative. The characters complete a journey within themselves, and I complete some sort of journey with them as well. Sometimes it gets too dangerous and I have to leave or it ends abruptly. Usually, however, we end up as friends, so it most likely doesn't end up like Dev – that was rather exceptional.
You shot most of your films in the Middle East, only two were shot in Britain. What led you to the new territory?
I got really interested in the Middle East at the time I was in the film school. In 1995, I was given the opportunity to go film in Baghdad for a month with a bomb drill organization … At that time I had lots of ideas about what Iraq was or what Saddam represented, but, in the end, I was amazed by what I discovered, what really happens to the people in there. So that really drew me in there and that’s when I began a love affair with the Middle East, I guess. Eventually, I went back to make Minders, which is based on my experience. What I have seen dealt with something rather hidden to the world, which was basically the fact that these people, the state-assigned guides, were human beings as well. You very rarely see the documentaries coming from the Middle East show people from there as human beings like us, you will see either a historical documentary or you see a news-based, current affairs documentary. Very seldom you get the kind of characters that are the same as the ones I found when I am making films in Britain, and I look for those characters in the Middle East as well. I am seeking subjects similar to the Northern England ones, so one is able to connect with them, cling to these characters.
Can you imagine going somewhere else than the Middle East? Is there any particular region you would like to explore?
I did Japan, which was a big change, a big departure and a big headache. To be honest, I was less interested in Asia. Now, when I see the crisis around Europe, I am thinking about doing a film on Europe, about the demise of the European dream.
What do your characters tell about you, about your own character? What did you learn from your characters?
You always share the same dilemmas and you see the weaknesses that are your own kind of weaknesses. It allows you to explore things that are within yourself through your characters, which is the other reason for choosing the people I chose. Ollie Huddlestone, the editor of most of my films, says that I go all around the world to make the films but I always make a film about myself through these characters. And that means getting involved, it means connecting with them. Documentary isn’t just observing the pain, so maybe I am also trying to help them in some way, perhaps changing the course of the story. But I always leave that in for people to see it.
If you were to give your students some advice, what would you consider to be the essence of a documentary portrait?
It’s the connection with the people one is filming, being emotionally engaged with the story they care about and putting all their passion and vigor into doing that, really. They should also understand that the film has to be interesting, entertaining and not necessarily just worthy.
Your filmmaking never relies on a film crew, you film alone. Are your films based on your independence? Is this a creative method you can never imagine leaving?
I have never worked with crews apart once at film school and I ran away from it. I immediately started making films with hand-held cameras, and I embrace that as a future of documentary film making, because it allows you to be free, it allows you to be intimate and it allows you to work in a different way – a way that is governed by the story. The needs of the story are other than finances and budget that is only keeping the expensive operation of full crew.
Could you compare your filmmaking in the 1990s and now? How have you changed as a filmmaker?
I don’t know. I think I’ve got more involved in some of the films and maybe I put more of myself in the films now. I find myself having more freedom with the process of making the films rather than holding religiously to certain rules that I learned in the film school – the golden rules of documentary, etc. I have liberated my films from that.
Are you more objective now?
No, I don’t really go for it. I don’t see it and I don’t like it. I am always working on an authored piece of work. I am looking for an opinion even though I may disagree with it.
What about your new film, The Reluctant Revolutionary? Does it add something new to your style?
I don’t think there is any development of my style. The problem about the film is that it was shot on a very small camera that does not really capture all the danger and tension that was all around. It is probably the worst-shot film of mine, but also probably the most heavily dramatic under the circumstances. It plays with the intimate development of the character, following the bigger story that is unfolding around, which is the revolution. So that’s quite a big thing…
Where do you see the future of filmmaking?
I guess it depends on broadcasters, on the attraction of the people, of the audiences to want to watch documentaries. One always hopes that in face of digital technologies, YouTube and all different ways of downloading and instant viewing, documentary will still remain on TV and, hopefully, in cinemas. Because people want to watch a good story at the end of the day, it’s quite simple.
This interview first appeared in IDF's Industry Reel, published in March 2012 at the East Doc Platform.
Please visit seanmcallister.com for more details on Sean McAllister's films. Follow him on Twitter @mcallisterfilms.