Director Sean McAllister returns to his hometown, Hull, as curator of its UK City of Culture opening. Back living with his 90-year-old parents and reflecting on changes to a city hit by cuts in public spending and divided by Brexit, Sean is drawn to the fringes of town where he encounters Steve – a struggling warehouse worker with a dream to take hip-hop to disadvantaged kids through his Beats Bus.
Sean McAllister’s deceptively casual documentary about a warehouse worker bringing hip-hop to kids in Hull reveals uncomfortable truths about inequality in the UK.
The hard facts of social mobility in today’s Britain come into sharp focus in this unassumingly scaled yet hugely encompassing piece of documentary portraiture. Filmmaker Sean McAllister, recently acclaimed for the affecting A Syrian Love Story, returns to home ground for A Northern Soul, having been appointed creative director of the opening ceremony marking his native Hull’s term as 2017 City of Culture. After years of austerity and a divisive Brexit vote, he ponders in an introductory voiceover, might this be the moment to turn the place around after decades of neglect. If so, what are the chances for someone trying to follow in his own footsteps? McAllister left school at 16 and worked in a factory for nine years before taking up a video camera and changing his life. In warehouse worker Steve Arnott, he finds a kindred soul: here’s someone who wants to transform his fortunes – and help others do the same – through the liberating power of hip-hop, but is faced with the suffocating pressures of exactly what it means to be among the UK’s many working poor.
Why A Northern Soul challenges TV’s ‘war on the poor’
The story of one man’s uphill struggle to pursue his creative dreams, A Northern Soul also gives the city of Hull a rare moment in the cinematic spotlight. Director Sean McAllister tells Brogan Morris why the system is stacked against modern Britain’s strivers.
When BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Sean McAllister was invited back to his native Hull to be one of the creative directors for the 2017 City of Culture programme, he seized the opportunity to examine, expose and champion this long-neglected city on film.
This Film Shows the Reality of Life in Austerity Britain
Hull might be the UK’s City of Culture, but that doesn’t change the day-to-day lives of many of its residents.
A Northern Soul, the new documentary film directed by Sean McAllister, is about the year Hull became the City of Culture.
It’s about the political and economic policy of austerity and the hardship it has visited on working class communities in the northern city – but most of all, it’s a story about Steve Arnott, who we find living back home with his mother after the end of his second marriage. It’s also about the Beats Bus, a bus turned mobile recording studio and classroom that Steve drives around Hull, running music workshops with the city’s children (and sometimes adults).
Steve is 43 years old and has a tattoo on his neck that reads “Tear it down”, the title of his first single, under the name Redeye Feenix. He’s big and friendly and open. Over the phone, he tells me he left school aged 16 and went to work with his dad as a labourer. A professional rugby league career looked like it might be on the cards, but then Steve was run over. It took him a year-and-a-half to recover, and doctors told him he shouldn’t risk playing again.
Depressed from the fallout of the accident, Steve became the manager of an arcade, where punters could gamble. “It was awful,” he says. “Watching people losing money is not nice.” But he needed the job. At the same time, he was doing gigs and making music, trying to make things happen as an MC and a producer. Eventually, he left the arcade and got a job working in a warehouse….
Sean McAllister fears that kids won’t be able to watch his portrayal of poverty in Hull’s poorest areas “because the f-word’s used” and has appealed to the BBFC to re-rate it as a 12A
Director Sean McAllister has slammed the decision to give his documentary depicting poverty in Hull a 15-rating as “insulting and devastating”. A Northern Soul follows warehouse worker Steve Arnott as he brings his hip hop bus venture to disadvantaged children in Hull’s poorest areas while navigating poverty himself.
Sean, whose 2015 documentary A Syrian Love Story earned him a BAFTA nomination for Outstanding Debut By A British Writer, Director or Producer, intends to appeal the board’s decision, and has requested a formal list of all the required cuts that would identify which four uses of strong language would be suitable for a 12A rating. He said: “I’d hate to recut it and use the wrong fucks.”
“If you get a chance to see A Northern Soul at the cinema, do it…The director, Sean McAllister, has an eye for detail and his camera finds the beauty, and more importantly, the dignity of people and places that are usually invisible on the screen. McAllister’s gift is to give access to a world that is at once local and foreign. Yes, if you get a chance to see A Northern Soul, you should. Unless, of course you are 15 and under. In that case the BBFC has ruled that you are not allowed to.”
“Sean McAllister returns to his hometown, Hull, as curator of its’ UK City of Culture opening. Back living with his 90-year-old parents and reflecting on changes to a city hit by cuts in public spending and divided by Brexit, Sean is drawn to the fringes of town where he encounters Steve – a struggling warehouse worker with a dream.”
Director Sean McAllister talks about his new documentary
Brian W. Lavery talks to director Sean McAllister, the man behind a documentary revealing the flip side of his home town’s UK City of Culture year. A Northern Soul follows a factory worker’s struggle to pursue what seems like an impossible cultural dream.
Written in the North of England by Northern writers, Northern Soul is a celebration of culture and enterprise, from theatre, music, authors and art to heritage, small businesses, food and leading figures, as well as everything in-between.
Brian W. Lavery is a Scottish writer based in Hull, where he runs a community writing project. He also teaches creative writing at the University of Leeds and with the Workers’ Educational Association. He is author of The Headscarf Revolutionaries and The Luckiest Thirteen (Barbican Press) Visit his website at: brianwlavery.com