Arab spring

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Broadcast Magazine

If you are a subscriber to Broadcast Magazine you can see the following piece on Sean McAllister by George Bevir

Sean McAllister: A Syrian Love Story

Seasoned documentary-maker Sean McAllister talks to George Bevir about filming during the Arab Spring, and why commissioning editors should reject the urge to play it safe.

Having been travelling to Syria since before the uprising in 2011, film-maker Sean McAllister was used to passing himself off as a tourist to avoid attracting the unwanted attention of the Ministry of Information.

But when the revolution swept the country, filming proved more problematic: such was the threat from the Syrian regime that protestors were reluctant to appear on camera because they didn’t want their identities revealed. “It was fucking difficult,” says McAllister, in typically candid fashion. “Even if you used a phone to film, the snipers could get you.”

The testing conditions required an innovative approach. McAllister bought a batch of glasses with built-in HD cameras and dished them out to protestors so they could surreptitiously capture footage of the revolution without being detected.

Involving those he films in the production is a hallmark of McAllister’s work, which he describes as “fly-in-the- soup, rather than fly-on-the-wall”. He embeds himself in the lives of his subjects – or collaborators, as he refers to them – to the extent that they become part of the process, looking after back-up copies of rushes and even working with him on other projects long after a production has finished.

Political prisoners

The downside of the camera glasses was that they didn’t convey this transparency. “What they captured looked like spy-cam footage, and gave it a kind of undercover documentary look, which wasn’t what I wanted.”

The relationship at the heart of McAllister’s latest film, A Syrian Love Story, is that of Amer and Raghda, political prisoners who met in a Syrian prison cell 15 years ago and later married and had children.

The documentary, commissioned by Nick Fraser for the BBC’s Storyville strand and part-funded by the BFI, spans a five-year period that began in 2009, before a wave of uprisings swept across the Arab world. It charts the story of the family as father and mother are jailed for their political beliefs, and ultimately exiled.

Before the BFI agreed to back the project, it wanted to know why it should fund what appeared to be a TV documentary. “I told them it was like one of my favourite John Cassavetes films, Love Streams, with Amer playing the role of Cassavetes and Raghda as Gena Rowlands,” says McAllister.

“There’s drinking and fighting, and it’s about the impossibility of love against the backdrop of a revolution. When I pitched it for one-hour doc slots it was a current affairs film, but now it is more rounded. That was the beauty of filming over five years: it’s a bigger, more theatrical experience.”

McAllister’s films have a habit of morphing into something else. When the story fell through on the film the BBC initially commissioned him to make about Syria, he kept quiet and hung on to the budget, turning his attention to Yemen for what became 2012 Storyville doc The Reluctant Revolutionary. Similarly, funded trips to Greece and the UAE enabled him to visit Beirut and Damascus to catch up with Amer and Raghda.

While he acknowledges that deviating from a broadcaster’s brief is a risky strategy, he wants commissioning editors to be just as fearless. “If we don’t make these creative decisions about how money has to be spent to find the films, how will they ever be born? Not from commissioning editors standing like gods in their ivory towers on six-figure salaries; they ain’t gonna dream up the stories.

“The only people who can find real stories are those who get out there with a camera. Film-makers who take risks need a commissioning editor who is as brave to allow these projects to be born.”

© George Bevir

Broadcast Magazine

‘The Reluctant Revolutionary’ Captures The Bloody Cost Of Freedom

After last year’s Arab Spring, there will undoubtedly be a host of documentaries and narrative projects with Middle Eastern revolution chanting from their cores. It will be interesting to see how well they stack up against The Reluctant Revolutionary because it should be considered the standard. Sean McAllister’s tennis-shoes-on-the-ground doc is unexpected in its storytelling and unflinching in its display of the mass murders that cemented the people of Yemen against their leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But this story doesn’t start with crowds shouting from tents. It starts with a tour guide named Kais who can only see his business dwindling because of some disgruntled citizens. He’s actively against the revolution for that pragmatic reason, but even as his professional life deteriorates, his understanding and support of the movement dramatically shifts his opinions.

The second greatest strength of the film might be McAllister’s disarming presence. Normally a documentarian that shoves him or herself in front of the camera comes off as desperate for attention and willing to sabotage his or her own story in the hopes of getting some screen time. McAllister’s first few scenes come off a bit like that, but further down the dusty road it becomes clear that he had to include those early moments as a set up for when the Yemeni government forces him to become a part of the story he’s trying to film. Why he wasn’t on a plane back to the safety of his home after being targeted by the secret police is anyone’s guess, but it’s a damned good thing he stuck around because the footage he got is not just fascinating – it’s vital.

Of course, it’s really Kais – the frustrated yet warm Yemeni man – that anchors the entire project. He’s a sweet figure, one that is strongly opinionated, quick with a joke and struggling with economics and emotions. He’s trying to do the right thing toward his business and family, but doing so seems about as worthwhile as shoving his head into the ground. The ornate hotel he used to run has fallen into ruin, and his only avenue for money is the withering tourism business that was anemic even before people started gathering in the streets. His wife is threatening to leave, he has to borrow money to buy them a few days’ worth of food, and he’s convinced that the movement everyone puts stock in will fizzle out like all the others did before.

Kais, with his cheek full of a leafy drug called khat, looks like a chipmunk trying to smuggle a baseball but his sunken eyes belie a more serious man. Without him, there is no movie.

The introduction of Kais into the blocks that the rebels have occupied slowly wins him over, and McAllister’s constant questions (which come of as genuine and naively Western) force the issue of revolution into the mind of a man unwilling to join the cause.

Then the violence gets worse, and like many of his neighbors, Kais chooses to become a new element of the growing crowd.

McAllister finds himself in places cameras just aren’t meant to go. The plainclothes cops of Yemen who try to infiltrate the movement are highly interested in him, but he and Kais lie daily to protect his status as a harmless tourist. To them, he’s a teacher, but it’s a protected status that won’t last forever. When five journalists are deported, it’s a sign that something huge is going to happen.

Words, with as much faith as they’ve built up over the centuries, are useless in the context of what the movie shows next. The bittersweet nature of the story is blown away by the first explosions and rain of bullets, delivering a wide-eyed look at true violence and chaos. It was enough to make action movies look frivolous and insulting. McAllister captures the very thing the Yemeni authorities didn’t want him to capture, and it’s not easy to watch. Even tears seem like an inadequate response to the manic, screaming triage room that rings out with a terrifying, mortal urgency. The floors are smeared with the real blood of real men dying on screen. Nearby, a skull is caved in. A hole large enough to stick a finger into marks the neck of a man inches away from sucking in the last breath of his life. A 10-year-old boy lies limp on a cheap table. These are images that don’t fade away. Not from the mind and not from the heart.

McAllister has achieved something incredible here. The Reluctant Revolutionary is a stunningly humane portrait that shows vividly what’s at stake before leaving it bloody on the Formica floor of a battered concrete building. Fifty-two people died that day. The movement grew, Saleh left his office months later, but things are still burning in Yemen. This doc is the kind of Pulitzer Prize-winning work that boldly and at great risk to personal safety showcases how powerful media can be. It’s entertaining, yes, but it’s also film as indictment. Film as evidence. Film as historical document.

Through a smiling man with a face full of khat, McAllister has utilized a unique window into a world of personal pain and found the beating heart of a country paying in blood to be free.

© Cole Abaius / Film School Rejects / February 15, 2012

See the original review on the Film School Rejects website

Another Damascan Friday

Friday started with the same ominous silence, from my balcony I looked down upon the empty eerie street, I thought to myself ‘what would this day hold?’… I couldn’t help wondering if Obama’s recent comments condemning Assad for the killing of unarmed demonstrators and demanding that he either ‘reform or get out of the way’ would spur them on.

From my balcony I could see the 50 or so guys given a days work by the government to ‘look out’ for protesters, some sat around smoking, others walked up and down twirling their ‘government issue’ wooden batons. The empty building where they are stationed is away from the public eye but close enough to be on hand if needed.

Across the street a man sits with his legs swinging out of his window, he is also looking down onto the empty market street below, “Good morning” he shouts, I look over stunned for a moment, he is perched between two huge pictures of the President, I smile at him thinking it may not be such a good morning for many of the thousands taking to the streets across Syria today. Though once again as usual, here in central Damascus, we hear and see nothing.

I am now the only guest staying in this 3 storey hotel – so I eat my breakfast alone accompanied only by a couple of goldfish and the cleaner who smokes as she serves breakfast. The news blasts out from the foyer, Friday payers finish and everyone braces themselves for another day of protest, in what has become known as the Arab spring.

Yesterday I met a taxi-driver who was convinced it was well-organised well-funded ‘outsiders’ who were taking to the streets to protest against the government, he told me that the television images of people dying in the Syrian streets were from Iraq not Syria; such is the power of Syria’s state run media.

Later I meet a European lady who is married to a local here in Damascus, she asks if I have seen any ‘action’ since arriving, “No” i reply, “Nothing”, “See” she proclaims “It is being blown all out of proportion by the Western media, they are pushing for change here more than the people themselves”.

But it seems my dentist has finally seen through the smoke and mirrors as she confides in me that she is frustrated and disappointed with the once treasured leader, “We didn’t expect him to behave like this… all this killing” she says sadly.

The awful images of protesters laid out on the floor and being jumped on by soldiers screaming “We’ll give you freedom” shocked the world. When the authorities tried to say it wasn’t filmed in Syria, that it was from Iraq, and that the soldiers seen abusing the protesters were American Special Forces, a 22 year old protester, Ahmad Bayassi, one of those who had been filmed being trampled on and kicked whilst laying on the floor, bravely went back to the spot where it happened and recorded himself there again stating that it was true and showing his identity card to prove that he was from Syria.

A couple of days ago after recording himself the young man was back in the hands of the security services, human rights organisations believed he had been electrocuted and that he had lost consciousness from the torture, there were also reports that he had died – rumour spreads fast in Syria these days. Then, a few days later the man appeared on Syrian state television and announced that “When they said I was tortured and killed I was surprised, no-one has imprisoned me, and I am leading a normal life.”

News starts to filter through via Al Jazeera of 10 or 20 deaths, but Damascus is as peaceful as it was last Friday. The empty streets, the 10 or more empty buses waiting, engines running, the army of baton carrying men sitting, smoking, in the security compound just round the corner, all waiting to see if the protesters dare to show their faces.

The streets feel nervous – people are afraid of being out in case they are wrongly (or rightly) picked-up by the secret police. But, again, no demonstration comes my way, it seems that the protests are happening away from the capital, in the smaller poorer rural towns which have been crippled by poverty, unemployment, and corruption, the parts of Syria that are generally hidden away from tourists.

And soon life returns to normal here in Damascus, the people finally feel safe enough to come out of their homes, and I’m heading out for a pint – My taxi driver is already drunk, sipping away on his 10% alcoholic beer as he speeds along, the car, the driver, and me, swing from side to side to the Arabic music blaring out of his radio as we enter the glitzy old city.

Another Friday is almost over, tomorrow is another day for this troubled country, a day when 60 more families will morn 60 loved ones killed simply for demanding freedom. My cab driver hands me his beer as I get out of the car, I take a swig, hand it back, and walk off into the Damascus night.