Jude Calvert-Toulmin, November 2008
Japan: A Story Of Love And Hate
Jude: How many weeks altogether did you spend in Japan and for how many weeks of those were you actually filming footage for Japan: A Story Of Love And Hate?
Sean: I can’t remember how many weeks I spent in Japan in total. The whole experience has been over two and half years I guess. I would make regular trips with aims and intentions that would usually fail in some way and I would leave disappointed swearing to never return again. I guess I did about forty five weeks in total, or more. It is all a blur…
I spent two weeks with Naoki filming him in 2006 when I first met him. I never had the confidence to commit then to him or Japan, I guess. I felt there was more to discover in Tokyo so went back to Tokyo for another year and then returned about fifteen months later to film Naoki. Then I spent about four months filming in one go and we made the film, although I did use a little of the footage I shot a year earlier.
Jude: Why did you dislike Japan so much?
Sean: I never connected with it, in the city or countryside. I enjoy people and I never felt at any point I was really meeting many there. There seemed to be so much role playing going on; it drove me crazy.
There were many other reasons. Food is so important and as a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, Japan is a difficult place. Also I am looking for individuals and this society crushes them, making my search more difficult. I don’t know… the place always remained so alien to me. The streets small and winding, the traditional style paper houses, all made me feel I was in some kind of prison. It just wasn’t my cup of tea…
Jude: How do you think Naoki is going to cope with touring the film? Samir craved attention and fame, whereas Naoki seems embarrassed by the attention and told me that he is missing his girlfriend and just wants to go back to Japan. When I saw him in the bar at the end of the Doc/Fest he looked like a deeply troubled man! However whenever I saw Samir at the bar he looked like he was having a ball!
Sean: Samir’s troubles were in a way well behind him so could party at the bar; he’d made many of his mistakes and nothing much could be done. I guess Naoki knows he must return, he knows that all of this is temporary. I think Sheffield was a shock, he really is a loner in Yamagata, not really having any friends, so suddenly being on stage like this was a shock.
He has never been away from his girlfriend so he was missing her. Now he is better. He is looking forward to Amsterdam. In fact arriving back in London from Sheffield he said he was missing being ‘famous’ in Sheffield…
Jude: It says on your site about you, “His films are intimate portraits of people from different parts of the world who are survivors; caught up in political and personal conflict struggling to make sense of the world we live in.” And on your blog, you write, during your time in Iraq, “Samir has been an inspiration to me. The great thing about making films for me is that I can absorb myself in someone’s world. My friends at home always joke, “Why don’t you get a life of your own instead of sticking your nose into other peoples all the time?” But other people’s lives are so much more interesting than mine, especially in a place like Iraq right now.” So, how does your filming abroad affect your family life?
Sean: I miss my kids a lot when I film and to make these films they suffer because I have to give a big part of me to the film and not them. So this is a constant fight and the kids at different ages attack me for going away as well. I don’t know how to resolve this because I think I would be more miserable as a dad if I wasn’t making films.
Maybe I need to run away all the time. Sometimes I feel like I can’t stand still for two minutes. My girlfriend has got used to feeling like a single mother and struggles along. It often gets more difficult when I come back and disturb the routine at home.
I was drinking too much after both these films, in part through fear and in part to get through missing home, especially in Japan. I would come home drinking which wasn’t good and I have now stopped drinking at home. My aim is to stop completely but I can’t imagine doing that just yet, it kind of helps making these films. But when at home I try to be doing the dad stuff as much as possible. I enjoy it.
This week I’m alone with the kids, my girlfriend has a week off relaxing at her parents and Naoki is helping me with my duties at home. He looks a little shocked at all the work involved with three kids, but he is a good assistant. Although at times he feels like a fourth child…this is nice for the kids though…they get to meet everyone I film and travel to some of the places where I film as well. I try include them as much as possible as some reward for my absence. It is something I constantly struggle with.
Jude: On the Doc/Fest site, in the intro blurb about you, it says, “In over two years of filming British documentary’s sinner and saint, Sean McAllister, again offers extraordinary access and returns with an absorbing a portrait of inescapable contradictions, of life and the narrow lines love and hate share.” Why are you referred to as a “sinner and saint”? I’m more interested in the sinner part actually. Have you got a bit of a reputation in the documentary industry or something? If so, why? And isn’t every human being a sinner and a saint?
Sean: I’ve no idea where this sinner/saint thing came from. I thought it was my role in the film helping Naoki but also pushing things a bit giving his father-in-law Viagra. But it also stems from my drinking reputation at parties and tendency to use the ‘c’ word to commissioning editors’ faces.
Jude: With reference to this sinner/saint comment, some of the renegade enfant terrible stars of British rock climbing and mountaineering have troubled personal lives – they get to middle age ending up single, with a string of broken hearts behind them. I’m wondering whether this is the curse of the enfant terrible and whether you consider yourself an enfant terrible and whether the situation applies to you?
Sean: To be honest there is something about the ‘enfant terrible’ that I play up to for a joke and for its shock value, at festivals and other events that can often be quite dull. It amuses me in what are often very dull places…
Jude: (thinks…every enfant terrible I’ve ever met talks like that…) What interests me fundamentally is what compels you to archive the plights of broken men in crumbling societies and whether you see them as an extension of yourself or maybe a way not to have to think about your own situation? All I know of your situation is that you have children and yet you spend months and months abroad making doccos about broken men in crumbling societies. I want to know what is behind this, because you’re obviously a very caring, sensitive and intuitive person.
Sean: I love your quote and will use it on the website; ‘broken men in crumbling societies’. They need championing I think. I guess I am working through stuff in my life with people I film. That is why it takes so long to find people to film for me. I am interested in the political backdrop of a country like Israel, Iraq or Japan but then I’m looking for someone I can relate to in order to explore more personal issues. Often someone I genuinely learn from and someone who will benefit from the film. All of this makes the two/three year thing worthwhile to me. It is an exchange in that sense. I guess people often associate me with my characters. This is to some extent true. There is a part of me in everyone I have filmed. so in this way I should look out and take care judging by their track record !
I guess I am a broken man now – with this recession I am in a crumbling society and my relationship is always on the rocks, so there you go!
Jude: Did you manage to attend the debate “Documentary filmmakers, profiteers of human misery?” at The Chapel during the Doc/Fest? The motion proposed was, “Are filmmakers doing some good in the world? Are we selflessly sacrificing ourselves for the greater good? Or simply exploiting the vulnerable, taking advantage of conflict zones and cashing in on the world’s troubles?” If so what did you think?
Sean: In addition to what I’ve said above, Samir moved to America because of the film and found the fame he yearned for. Naoki moved his relationship forward in the film, regained his confidence after with the film at festivals and also pushed in the only way he can his political view of the society in Japan today. I facilitated their window to the world. I am looking for ‘my kind of people’ wherever I film in the world to give them a platform and voice. There is a small political ‘p’ in all my films. It an important part of what I do. All of these things are the reasons I sacrifice so much for the film, not just one of them.
Jude: What’s your opinion on the debate’s proposed motion in general?
Sean: I think more people should find at their heart why and what it is they want to make films about. I sometimes wonder if people know why they are making films. I am drawn to question this often when I watch films. I’m not sure whether filmmakers profit as much from misery as the broadcasters; filmmakers rarely profit.
Jude: What initially attracted me to your work as a filmmaker, three years ago, was the fact that you became so close to Samir Peter during the making of Liberace of Baghdad. You quite obviously deeply care about both the man and his plight. Similarly, Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza told me that several of the subjects of Second Skin remain friends of his long after the film’s completion. Which brings me onto the fact that in Japan: A Story Of Love And Hate, for the first time you appear in your own film. How do you feel about this as opposed to remaining behind the camera? The fact is that some documentary filmmakers / producers are incredibly charismatic in themselves – you, Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza, Mark Cousins and Nick Broomfield stood out for me in this respect, Nick Broomfield being the only one whose body of work I was familiar with prior to the Doc/Fest. As a writer, I find every human being fascinating, but not all are charismatic…
Sean: I appeared a little in The Minders in 1998 and a little in Liberace of Baghdad. I feel at ease with this. But it is a thin line. Step over it and you can humiliate yourself and lose the film. For a long time I was making ‘Sean Lost in Japan’ on account of not being able to find a character there and this was less interesting. I am in this film as a bridge for the audience to help step into something very difficult to understand.
Jude: Johnny Burke made Coming to America – Sean and Samir for BBC2’s The Culture Show – I noticed Johnny with you at the Doc/Fest and that you were being filmed for some of it. Is Johnny making another docco about you? If so, for where is it destined?
Sean: Johnny helped me find Naoki. He lived in Yamagata for a year as a teacher and knew Naoki. He also helped edit the final version of the film. I ran out of time with Ollie, my editor and Johnny stepped in. He was great. He knew this place like me and we could exchange and find the right words for what was a very difficult commentary to write.
The simplicity with which the film flows only comes through hours and weekends of work at trying to make it work. Japan is by far the hardest film I’ve made to date. I wonder whether its strength is because I’m working out of my comfort zone? Do I need to suffer? Is this your next question?
Jude: Would you like to make a film in the UK? Would making a film in comfortable circumstances not appeal to you? Is there a masochistic element to your filmmaking? Or on the contrary, a humanitarian one ie you suffering in order to help these men who are worse off than yourself?
Sean: Perhaps I need to suffer. In some ways I always do. Films are always hard to make, even the easier ones. I don’t like lazy films and resent the lazy filmmakers out there who wander round shooting ‘art’ and cut it together. I guess I always find ‘comfortable circumstances’ with the people I film, they take me in, but I am often in hostile or uncomfortable places. At the moment the BBC would like me to go to Dubai (where I’ve already been for four weeks to look and think) then came back and am trying to persuade them to do similar story in Damascus which has more going on in my mind politically but is less sexy for commissioning.
I must say that there is a part of me now wondering whether I should take the challenge though with Dubai. I really did kind of hate it though but there is something we know nothing about that would be my challenge. My dilemma is that I need to care and need to find that person whose cause I can champion. He must be there but would I find him? My instinct was that Damascus has a bigger political backdrop with lots of Iraqi refugees and more for me to champion.
Re, the UK. I feel a duty to make a film in the UK. I am disappointed by the films made here and feel a little bit like it is my duty to make a film here. I used to make a film abroad then one at home. I am struggling with this now. I like the idea of making a film here but can’t seem to get into it. The recession interests me. I meet the BBC next week and bought a paper today to think about something. I saw a film about Prescott and thought a film about class or recession or something…but only if they give me a film abroad as well. I’m addicted to the Arab world I think I need after Japan.
Jude: How do you feel about writing a book based on your blog and filmmaking? I think you ought to, your blog is wonderful and you have a very pure, straightforward and self-deprecating writing voice without a trace of guile, pomposity or pretension.
Sean: Blogging about Dubai was amazing. I should do a film there just to write the ‘blog book’. It was incredible each day, encounters and re-encounters. I have nearly convinced myself about Dubai now doing your interview. The book on Japan would have been really insightful as well… yes I think I will write a book from the blogs from my film and credit you with giving me the inspiration and idea…my fear is that the book would be better then the film…I think Dubai is a fascinating read, not so confident about the characters for the doc though.
Thanks for some great questions, Naoki says hello, he is living with me until Amsterdam fest.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin
See the original interview on Jude Calvert-Toulmin’s blog.