Sean McAllister

Author: Sean McAllister

Documentary Filmmaker from Hull, England, specialises in giving the voiceless a voice

Love And Hate, part 2

I exited the women’s-only toilet on Japan’s fastest bullet train to be told by JR rail staff that I’d broken yet another golden rule. It’s great to be back in Japan, my Asian home!

Ive just spent the day in Kyoto with its beautiful temple gardens which stand in contrast to the chaos of city life in Tokyo but for me it is somehow cripplingly boring. But now it’s time to leave, and to be honest it couldn’t come soon enough for me. What a day.. caught between the hordes of tourists and all that tedious ancient temple life – I’m sorry but I can’t stand all the unbearable reverence and anyway, those Japanese gardens are simply far too tidy for me. The day just made me want to get measured-up for an extra-large kimono and run away. Which is funny because usually it’s the noise of Tokyo that kills me, but here it was the insane sterile silence and the over-orderliness of the people, excluding the odd clumsy British tourist of course.

Can some places simply be too perfect? But then, just when I’m thinking there really isn’t anything here for me here I read that Kyoto is in fact the veggie capital of Japan with an amazing total of 47 vegan restaurants! Now we are talking.. So I make quick notes of the best vegan lunch option and set out to find the place.

But in my excitement I forget the maze of winding streets and narrow lanes that Japan is and I am soon lost again. Getting directions this way and then that .. I find myself rediscovering that ‘love and hate’ feeling I have with Japan. I remember that (at least for me) to purposely seek something out here isn’t the way to go. I remember I must go with the flow and accept whatever comes my way.

My veggie dream dashed I skip lunch altogether and decide to get the bullet train to Hiroshima – I see a place selling beer and order the only thing on the menu that is vegetarian… Chips! Yes, Sean san is back in style… drinking beer and eating chips – again.

Greece is crying

A 10 year old boy fights with his 7 year old sister who’s been beating the younger 3 year old girl. They fight around 3 large suitcases presumably their lifelong belongings against the backdrop of the Acropolis, the ancient ruins of an ancient more hopeful Greece.

But here today, in austerity Greece the boy is now the head of what appears to be an abandoned family, he takes charge and claims authority whilst his mother and father are nowhere to be seen, they will probably have left to search for work or for food, I have no idea if they will return. This is not a normal sight but neither, it appears, is it unusual enough for passers-by to stop and offer any help…

Which means I am the only one who has stopped to observe this short episode from the unfolding Greek tragedy, a part of me wants to step in and control the boy, to stop him from hitting the girl, but I know I can’t and so I continue on my way wondering if this is a future coming to us all.

Around the city small Rapid Response teams of riot police relax around their motorbikes enjoying their cigarettes waiting for the call to action. In the Greece of today there is a heightened sense of fear and anger about what I am told is the seemingly uncontrollable flow of immigrants arriving in their hundreds of thousands from Africa and the Middle-East on route to western Europe – and because of the severe economic recession the majority of Greeks now see this influx as a major problem and want a clampdown on illegal immigration – in a recent newspaper poll nearly half of those questioned wanted all immigrants removed from the country.

But EU law prevents these immigrants from moving on into mainland Europe and with no chance of work many of them are forced to turn to crime. In these tense and austere times it is easy for people to believe stories they are told, and therefore rumour is rife and many locals believe rightly or wrongly that knife attacks are on the increase and that Moroccans are to blame.

The Rapid Response teams are part of the governments answer to these fears and tensions, but they don’t always get it right. Recently a Pakistani professor from Athens university was visiting an immigrant dominated area of the city to give a lecture just as the police team was doing a swoop of the same area against illegal immigrants, and before he knew it he was being bundled into the back of a police van. Protesting his innocence, and explaining that he was in fact a respected university professor the police just laughed and locked the door, to them his colour and origin meant he was obviously an illegal immigrant. He was held for a day before the police finally realised their mistake, issued him with an apology for their behaviour, and released him.

Welcome to the new democratic model possibly coming to a country near you, a broken economy with a broken political system.

As a friend explains to me “The people don’t know where to cast their vote because none of them trust their politicians any-more”. We are at the start of an impossible future where the only way forward is to break with the seemingly never ending cycle of corruption and find a clean start, but how to do this takes a revolution (a Greek Spring), and to do nothing provides Greece with no viable future in or out of Europe.

In “Ammonia” square I see more homeless Greeks collecting discarded cans to recycle for money. I pass a couple sipping from a can of beer, the man is crying intensely and the woman is trying hard to comfort him but she cannot stop his tears. It is an unusual sight but no-one else seems concerned no matter how much the man cries.

Freedom and a normal life

“Sean they are shooting people in the streets of Beirut” said Adad’s message, written to me from the cramped flat I’d visited him in just a couple of days before. The gunfight that had killed 8 in Tripoli had spread ominously to the streets of Beirut just as he had predicted / feared it would.

After being forced to flee from Syria and Assad’s onslaught he thought he had found some sort of safety in the Lebanon, though he always knew it was a relative, delicate safety which could end any-time. His and his family’s situation is made more all the more precarious because he doesn’t have a passport or any papers – if he were to be caught living there he we probably be sent back to Syria and to an end I don’t wish to think about.

But for now Asad keeps to the shadows as he looks for work and money to help feed the family. He locks the gate to his flat keeping Asu inside, the sound of gun crackle seeps in from the distance as Sargon arrives home late from work again. Adad finally settles Asu into his bed but he cannot sleep, disturbed by the rocket propelled grenades exploding in the distance. As if this family (like many other’s all over the region) hadn’t already seen enough danger and death in their desire for freedom and a normal life. “Some days we don’t even have enough money for bread” his message continues… “And now this is happening, where will it all end?”

Another day in limbo

Adad looks despairing when I ask him about the future. Stuck in Lebanon for 6 months half-way between his home in Syria and his dream of living ‘a free life’ in Europe he now lives by night and sleeps by day.

Each night he is locked next to his wife Lilith facing into their laptops entranced by ‘the Facebook revolution’ which holds them to the fringes of what seems like a faltering Syrian Spring, but despite their despair it offers the only meaning to their lives these days..

Asu aged 5, is used to playing alone, Adad and Lilith both know they should spend more time with him. If Asu is lucky he gets to play with his friends down the road but today like most days he play alone inside the cramped flat they now call home. Adad worries about being 2 months behind with the rent, he also needs a further $100 to get his increasingly serious heart condition checked-out but that, like the rent, must wait. Meanwhile, like many in this neck of the woods, he puffs away on his 40 a day habit, Lilith too is a heavy smoker. A year ago all seemed rosy with the revolution but now Adad has become gloomy about it all, believing that there is a real danger of the Islamist’s stealing the revolution from them the longer it takes.

Sargon was just a boy when I first filmed him some 3 or 4 years ago, he is now 16 and looking all the part an adult. Unable to find a school to continue his studies he’s taken a part-time job in a shop, at first they offered him 6 hours a day but now he’s working 12 hours a day 7 days a week for $300 (plus tips from his deliveries.)

“I feel positive and hopeful for the first time in my life” he tells me. I’ve seen this boy in some sticky situations in Syria, last year he was arrested with his father during street protests trying to get his mother out of prison – he succeeded, only to lose both his parents to the revolution and in the process lose the family life he cherished so much growing-up in Tatous. The new hope he has found in Lebanon comes not just from finding work but also from finding friends in the Jehovah Witnesses – a Christian group banned but still tolerated in The Lebanon. Sargon once dreamed of being political just like his mother but now he hates politics and says he has found new a meaning to his life, but his atheist parents don’t like it and have stopped him attending the Jehovah’s meetings.

I took Sargon for a pizza by the sea the other night, we both had a swim, it was a rare treat for us both “You know Sean I’ve moved house 10 times since I met you, I just want some stability” he confided in me “I haven’t had the chance to be a teenager… I went straight from child to adult”. Sargon looks and acts the adult these days but now and again, fleetingly, I am reminded that he isn’t when he cracks his wonderful childlike jokes, jokes that his father has no time for… he expects him to be an adult now.

After the swim I allow him a bottle of Smirnoff ice – well if he must carry some of the burdens of adult life he certainly deserves the odd drink like an adult. Sargon really is a good boy, smart, honest, and witty despite his difficult life. Even his dream pair of Nike trainer shoes must wait another month as the money he set aside for them has gone to buy food for the family again, just like the rest of his salary. But he doesn’t complain, “We are a family and I must help contribute to it” it is a wonderfully generous statement and quite typical of the boy – Sargon has spent his life putting his family first.

His parents have struggled as the Syrian regime has taken one and then the other to prison. But now, hopefully, they are one step closer to some sort of stability. They are in limbo in Lebanon but relatively safe so long as Adad keeps his head down, as a ‘stateless’ Palestinian he has no papers or passport, Syria has been his temporary home until the issue of Palestine is resolved!

But with this stability comes the pain of being outside of the revolution – it was too much for Lilith, recently she took-off back to Damascus, smuggled herself back into Syria and stayed in-hiding for a month setting up her new revolutionary Youth Organization, but it is all a terrible strain on the family and kids, Adad would like to turn his back on it all and leave for Europe but Lilith cannot leave the fight. And now their existence in Lebanon is made much more dangerous as fighting breaks out in the northern town of Tripoli between Alawite loyalists of the Assad regime and opposition rebels, some news report are suggesting that this “Threatens the stability in the whole country, and could come to Beirut” rekindling old factional enmities and reigniting the civil war.

In the meantime Adad and the family struggles to get-by on Sargon’s wages plus money sent by his relatives in Syria, and some help from charities in the west. His heart-scare is on his mind, as is the unpaid rent, putting the food on the table each week, whether or not the Islamist s are winning the revolution in Syria, and if the street fighting in Tripoli will bring war to Beirut. Outside, the walls of his house are spattered with bullet holes, a reminder of the bitter civil war he was caught up in in his youth and which is now once again so desperately trying to escape from.

Tonight Lilith hears of yet more rapes in Hom’s, and more new videos emerge of tortured corpses, Asu plays on alone in the background, and Sargon returns home from work.

Another ordinary day in the life of a family in limbo, wondering where their place is in the world, wondering how and when it will all end.

There is nothing quite like a female Israeli airline security guard

During the 14 months I spent in Israel making my 2000 film Settlers I spent many hours being questioned by the security boys and girls at Ben Gurion airport as I travelled in and out of the country… So it is from experience that I know they hate it when you get annoyed by their questions – obviously I always make sure to take great offence and obviously I always get annoyed when stopped for questioning, but today is different, today I approached the guards with a gleeful smile, knowing already that I would definitely be in for a question or two because of the Syrian stamp in my passport.

I am stopped by two female security guards… “Where are you going today” they ask, “Beirut” I say.. “Oh really, why?”, they ask, “I’m filming there”, “Why did you go to Syria?” “To film” I say.. “Ah you are a brave man” the two women say almost flirtingly, It’s going well so far I think to myself. “Did you make any friends in Syria?” they ask, “Yes” I reply, “Why would you do that?” they ask, “I need to know people to make films” I tell them, “But do you STILL know them?” the girls ask, “Yes” I answer, suddenly I get the feeling that the women are no longer flirting, the rubber finger is getting closer to my ass unless I get better control of this interview.

So I go for broke and play (what I hope will be) the winning card, and one which happens on this occasion to be the truth… I tell them that the Syrians I had been filming were now living in Beirut because they had to flee Syria in October last year after I was arrested and held secretly in a high security Damascus prison for a week. Thankfully the girls faces soften, and a sense of the relief comes over me as the rubber finger retreats and I begin to win back control of the encounter.

They both go away for a private whispering session looking at me “flirtingly” out of the corners of their eyes. They return, handing me my passport, “Mr Sean.. You are very cool, one women says.. you can enter this way no problem, in that direction”. “Where will you be going next after Beirut?” one of the women asks as I move along, “I leave Beirut for Athens in a few days where I am starting a new film” I explain, the woman look surprised and excited, “This is the new Nazi land of Europe” the perceptive women tell me, “Yes” I tell them, “The neo Nazi’s just got 8% of the vote – these are very dangerous times in Europe”. I tell them the story of how I arrived in Athens last month and was tear gassed within 2 days at an open air party set up by anarchists who keep the police out of “their” part of town.

The women look very impressed and I feel calm, no rubber fingers coming my way now I think to myself. “You are a very brave man” they tell me, “You go to all the hot spots in the world and you put your self in the fire”, I smile and tell them that the bravest thing I’ve ever done is taken on the two of the most feared security women in the world at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. They both smile, laugh flirtingly again, and usher me on my way.