Will the Real Reality Please Stand Up?

By Sukhdev Sandhu

sean-mcallister.jpgSean McAllister

Sean McAllister’s documentary portraits energise and inspire

British TV executives cannot bear too much reality these days. Book-buyers are turning in greater numbers than ever to non-fiction – from histories of cod and orchidaceous flowers to the bracing, muck-raking polemics of Eric Schlosser, Barbara Ehrenreich and Gregory Palast. The record charts and pirate airwaves are breaking up with the chatter of dizzee rascals and heartless crews claiming to tell it like it is. On television though, reality has been degraded to something called ‘Reality’, a lifeless, vacuum-packed horror-zone of makeover programmes, sham ontological experiments in fabricated social spaces and hideous talk shows whose cynical sensationalism would make Barnum and Tod Browning turn beetroot-red. It’d be no surprise if documentary makers, those brave fools who still have the temerity to think there are stories worth telling and unknown lives worth putting on screen, tired of having commissioning editors telling them to sex up their proposals and moved to less frustrating jobs.

All the same, it’s good when filmmakers defy commercial logic and carry on regardless. Especially when, as with Sean McAllister’s Hull’s Angel, the results are so utterly enthralling. I first saw it last year, shortly after it premiered at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and still can’t get it out of my head.

Effectively a follow-up to Michael Winterbottom and Tony Grisoni’s In This World, it’s a portrait of a remarkable 48-year-old woman called Tina, who volunteered to help the 1500 Iraqi Kurds relocated to a run-down part of Hull nicknamed ‘Little Beirut’ in September 2000. At best they faced indifference; more commonly, unstinting hostility. Tina says, “Saddam kills you instantly, and England kills you extremely slowly and painfully".

What makes the film so exceptional is its alertness to the way that the Kurds disrupt class as well as racial dynamics. Locals, especially young men, live in a town where few fishing jobs exist and they take out their frustration on the newcomers. After Tina’s daughter Nicola marries one of the refugees, she is treated as a collaborator.

hulls-angel-sean-mcallister.jpgHull’s Angel, 2002

Tina herself becomes a “mother" figure to the Iraqis, many of whom are macho layabouts. She creates a family for them and helps them to find work. But the only jobs available are unskilled positions at de-unionised factories paying less than the minimum wage. Tina, the daughter of a radical leftist, doesn’t want to send the refugees there, but they have no other options. After losing her own job, nor does she: we see her forced to work shifts at a chicken slaughter factory.

Hull’s Angel starts out beady-eyed and objective. Soon however, McAllister tries to help his subject, suggesting to her that she might not want to put so much faith in the lazy bastard, one of the Kurds to whom she offered aid, who’s sharing her home. It’s exactly the same dynamic of curiosity, followed by intervention, that we’ve already seen with Tina and the refugees. By the close, Tina has found a much nicer guy – also a Kurd, also half her age – but, weary of the abuse and ingratitude she’s had to face from locals, is about to leave for Bradford. “Like the asylum seekers, we’ve copped out and left."

Hull’s Angel wasn’t McAllister’s first documentary. Working for The Enemy is a about a guy from the same town, dubbed the laziest man in the country by his mates, who hasn’t worked in the eighteen years since he left school. While he picks up £48 a week from the social, the girl who shares his flat (and, it turns out, his methadone habit) is a seamstress earning £70 for a forty-hour week. Settlers focuses on a black Arab jailed for planting bombs after the Six Day War, who struggles on as a tour guide in Jerusalem. Minders, shot in sanctions-hit Baghdad, is a portrait of a Kevin Keegan-loving translator who at the height of the crisis earns more in tips from foreign reporters than he has in the eight previous years.

All these films portray individuals who are in some ways hostages to geography. They’re strong people, a bit feisty but in different ways have become estranged from their friends or communities. They put on a good public face, but underneath they’re slowly crinkling. They’re non-conformists too, cussed types whose dissent may not always be couched in ideological or party political terms, but which somehow keeps them alive, and prevents them from sinking under the weight of all the social and personal hardships heaped upon them.

That McAllister’s subjects are all very eloquent is critical. “I think it’s important to find someone who’s articulate and who’s dignified," he says. “Someone who’s got something to say, who is worthy of being filmed. I’m not really interested in victims, people who blame the State for everything or who see themselves as powerless. In Hull’s Angel, Tina’s daughter was more articulate than is actually shown but I was told by Channel 4 to take out her rant about New Labour: “Freedom of travel? If you’ve got money you can travel anywhere! There’s no borders if you’ve got money!" It was total poetry; but for those in the corridors of Channel 4 it was totally alien".

working-for-the-enemy-sean-mcallister.jpgWorking for the Enemy, 1997

This idea that articulacy renders the working classes inauthentic is common to the fluffers and production assistants on daytime TV who buss in audiences from the provinces to hoot and bray instructing them to emote rather than to analyse. But it’s a lie, and one that five minutes in McAllister’s company disproves. He left school at 16 and worked in a pea factory before giving up to go on the dole for the best part of a decade. That time give him a real feel for the rhythm of daily life and an understanding of how easy it is for people to spin and drift, their lives dribbling away all the while.

Is anyone interested in such people any longer? McAllister cites a recent speech by Peter Dale, head of Channel 4 documentaries, which proposed that the word documentary should be abolished because it has too much baggage attached to it. He laughs. “The last time I went to Channel 4, the commissioning editor looked up from his desk and said, ‘fucking hell, looks like you’ve come to give me a quote for my patio".

His films are regularly shown in Europe by Arte, in Canada and on the festival circuit but in the UK he struggles. “I’m not the kind of person who just likes the ego trip of the festival screening or the live audience. It’s important that my films are seen. They’re in the tradition of those 1960s’ and 1970s’ British films that were made for social change". It’s a worthy goal and worth sticking to, even if these days film-makers from that tradition are cited more commonly by foreign directors than by those here. Fernando Meirelles claimed Ken Loach as an inspiration for City of God; Gus Van Sant has spoken of how Alan Clarke’s Elephant was an influence on his Palme d’Or-winning film of the same name.

I love Sean McAllisters’s work for its sly radicalism and am bursting with admiration for the way he has managed to make films – warm, angry, emotionally involving – that run entirely counter to the dominant voice of today’s documentary mainstream. There’s no solipsism in his features, no cool stylisation: just a passionate commitment to the idea that a real world exists beyond the cynical, post-political metroland, one full of strivers, misfits and idealists. His success in putting those people on screen is a triumph for anti-apathy; theirs, his own and hopefully ours. He’s one of the best documentarians this country has right now.

Sukhdev Sandhu is chief film critic for The Daily Telegraph and has just published London Calling (Harper Collins), an examination of responses, historical and contemporary, to the city by Black and Asian writers.