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April 5, 2012 – Sean McAllister takes part in a DocHouse Q&A at the Prince Charles Theatre in London following a screening of his most recent documentary set in the Yemen, The Reluctant Revolutionary.
You can download / buy ‘The Reluctant Revolutionary’ from www.seanmcallister.com/films/reluctantrevolutionary.php
As I prepare to return to Yemen tomorrow i try to bear in mind that I explore politics through people and try take an audience into a complex political world outside of their own familiar backyard by finding attractive articulate characters.
As always, my mates back in Hull being my target audience. Taking them to a place like the Republic of Yemen appears a lot harder than my previous films – Iraq, Palestine, Japan, Hull, seemed so easy, they had at least heard of these places, but the Yemen, where exactly is that?
To me my films are all are like children, taking so many years to find, source, film and edit… in their own way they become a very personal exploration of myself as manifested through others.
I had originally wanted to make more overtly propagandist films in the naive belief that I could change the world just so long as I shouted loud enough, but thanks to my ‘FREE’ National Film and Television School education I was soon able to discover a more subtle honest film style, one that would actually engage with the audience rather than just shout at them – I found that allowing people to tell us of their lives and their struggles, their victories and their losses, was a far more respectful (to the character and to the viewer) way of discussing political ideas than any simplistic one-dimensional tub-thumping.
To quote an old school-friend “I find the worlds biggest scuzzbuckets and make ‘Human Stories’ about them”, I see them more as people fighting against the odds, people who haven’t been completely beaten down by the system, whose lives seem to consist of one battle after another… And, as we know, television likes a ‘Bad-Boy’, especially one that is in touch with his feminine side, and if he is also in love, and is able to talk openly about his life then all the better, no matter how extreme or radical his views.
I feel my new guy in Yemen fits this criteria, he is a breath of fresh air, at least to me he is, in this highly uniform traditional society he certainly stands out and give me oxygen even if he does get scared at the mass demonstrations (the armed forces have opened fire on some of them), though I feel his fear is for me not for himself.
On my return to the hotel room I see news reports saying that Yemen has been put on the high alert dangerous places to visit list by our government – along with Libya, Somalia and Ivory Coast. Maybe if (like Cameron in Egypt last month) I was here with a gaggle of British arms traders the UK Foreign Office wouldn’t be quite so concerned.
Fresh figs in crisp fresh flat bread make the perfect breakfast as I relax on my balcony overlooking the gorgeous valley in Safita. Afterwards I head out and sit with Adnan enjoying the thick Arabic coffee watching the small town life pass by, speaking very few words strangers sitting comfortably together, “You’re welcome anytime Mr. Sean” he says.
But today is my last time here and I cannot bring myself to tell him. Adnan was the first person to befriend me in Safita and looks after me as if was the Arabic son he never had. I had so hoped to be here for the opening of his hummus cafe but it wasn’t ready on Saturday and now he says it will be open later in the week. I tell him I have to leave for a dental appointment in Damascus. “You will be back for the opening Mr. Sean?”
In the back of my mind I hope I will but in my heart I know I must move on. I cannot see the film I want to make in sleepy Safita no matter how amazing the place and incredibly accepting the people.
Last night as I walked home I met a shop owner in a cafe “Sean come join us” he shouted. Soon I was surrounded by bottles of Arak and a wonderful array of mezza salads, 5 or 6 of his friends arrived and they all struggled with broken English discussing the usual topics of English football and Syrian girls, “Really you are an Arab man” the shop owner said as we joked. Around us a very modern Arab setting, Christian and Alawite, religious and social cohesion, it is impossible for me to tell who is what from how they look or from what they are drinking.
Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey bottles sit proudly on tables as families arrive into the early hours, I enjoy the ambiance and the sweet smell of apple tobacco in the air from the shisa pipes, it is very easy to feel at home with such wonderful unforced hospitality.
It was Michael whom I’d returned to see in Safita and who had been my English speaking guide for the last few days. He is a wonderful eccentric character; an Anglophile and a poet, his poem ‘I’m Fed Up’ laments of life in this Syrian town. He and his brother were the best students in the English department, “We are Europeans in our minds, our family is descended from Richard the Lion Heart”, he tells me proudly, “We were here fighting with the crusaders”.
Michael and his brother both dream of a life in the west and own much property and land in Safita, but Syrian law does not allow them to take money out of the country. So they stay here looking after their elderly mother, and dreaming of European brides.
As we talk in the street some taxi drivers stop to say something to Michael and his brother, “They are telling us to leave you alone, they think we are trying to get money from you.” We can talk in my hotel I tell them, “No” they say, “Here it is dangerous for us to go inside your place, people get suspicious and make reports to the secret police”. They both decide to leave.
Adnan is painting his new counter when I arrive for the last time, “Go inside Mr. Sean, it is too hot today”. He looks at me and asks if I had a rough night’s sleep, I feel paranoid, maybe he can smell the Arak on me, I feel distracted, torn, a mix of sadness and the usual apprehension I get when striding forward.
Moving on is never easy and one can never be sure it is the right thing to do. Looking for a story always involves learning about a place, a people, and making good friends, but saying goodbye never gets easier and I’m never sure if I will be back. Adnan makes the coffee, a man pops his head through the door asking for a job, Adnan tells him to come back in a couple of days, Adnan turns to me and says “Soon the shop will be finished Mr. Sean and we can eat hummus together”, I nod in agreement and smile sadly to myself.
Before I returned to England a couple of weeks ago I made a trip to meet with someone whom I hoped would be an interesting character for a film I wanted to make. I didn’t mention anything about him in my blog because I wasn’t sure. When can we ever be sure for sure?
A few hours before I was due to leave I took a rental car into the Syrian countryside and went to meet him, and managed to film a little taster-piece for the BBC. I hadn’t got around to telling them that my previous film with Nizam had fallen through, I was worried that they may see me as being rather unreliable over these last few unproductive years.
How the years pass. It seems such a long ago since I finished the Japan film; and everything since then… it all feels like a series of failures.
Failed projects in South Africa that the BBC didn’t want, films the BBC did want in Dubai that I didn’t want to do but still gave (virtually unfunded) the best part of a year to trying to make work followed by a year and a half finding, and eventually failing to make, a film in Norway and Syria with Nizam.
I remember NHK my Japanese co-broadcaster offering me 100k for an idea I’d written about Damascus. But the BBC said they wanted Dubai. In my niceness I tried to persuade NHK to put their money to a more worthy cause – a far more popular film set in Dubai for (and backed by) the BBC.
And so I went to Dubai and over two trips lasting a few months found myself dying inside. Lost and without direction, the evenings became nothing more than a series of blurred bar scenes, I wanted to lose all my sensibilities and completely withdraw from that plastic nightmare hell-hole.
So I found myself migrating from Dubai to Damascus to meet with Nizam again; which began yet another mistaken adventure. But by this time the BBC had begun to show some interest in Libya, and, as Nizam was half-Libyan, his story would fit the bill. In the end they commissioned a story half-set in Syria and Libya. But a year and a half had passed since I’d tried to persuade the Japanese away from Damascus towards Dubai and now here I was again trying to persuade them (NHK) away from Dubai and back to Syria with a little bit of Libya thrown in too.
Two years after their original 100k offer we meet at the prestigious Yamagata Film festival where my Japan film picks up two awards. I sense awkwardness in the NHK Commissioning Editor, something had changed and I wasn’t sure what, and in true (non-confrontational) Japanese spirit nothing is said. He takes my Nizam trailer and promises to submit it, 6 months later he finally submits it but by now rumours emerge that he is being moved to a new department and my project with Nizam is falling through. Could it be that I spent too much time fund-raising and not enough time filming?
And so it was, in the final hours of my time in Syria that I found myself making an impromptu trip into the Syrian countryside to find a new character. The BBC like him but they can only offer a small budget to make it and suggest NHK to co-fund it.
But it is now 2 and a half years on since their offer of 100k for a film in Damascus – money I couldn’t accept because the BBC wanted a film in Dubai – and things have changed, my man at NHK has moved departments and it seems the money is no longer there.
The motto of the story is never refuse money from TV!! Lie and cheat and tell them whatever it is they want to hear but never never ever refuse their offer of money, because, in TV, as with life, you never know what tomorrow will bring.