Laure Vermeersch, Vacarme 37, October 2006

Portrait of the filmmaker as political lover

“Making a film with them is the only way”: Sean McAllister’s cinematography is a tapestry of encounters, of people and presences and in that it befits the challenge imposed when filming war, that necessity to resist the solitary cross-points made from a distant viewer, a raging fighter and a helpless victim. Several voices are needed to tell a war: This polyphonic portrait weaves in the filmmaker’s comments with that of Samir Peter’s, the pianist and main character of the film The Liberace of Baghdad.

“I made the first film to escape from the factory. I had got the story there. I sent it to Bournemouth cinema school. They admitted me on the spot and wanted to make the film. They offered a whole crew with cranks and all. I refused. They insisted. I left and went back to the factory with a camera in my bag. I would film whenever the supervisor was out of sight. I would get my camera out. The supervisor would clock me and shout. I once shot him as he was screaming at me and I understood what makes drama. I did that film from my mates’ point of view. My camera was nestled in my arm; I took it out from behind my back whenever I could. I would film all I could from my spot. That was the only way I could make a film that was real to them. What kind of a story would I have done if I had turned up with a whole crew on the shop floor? No way.”

“I sent the film to the NFTS (National Film and Theatre School) and got accepted. In 4 years, the NFTS taught me everything, all about films and how to make films. I never loved the cinema and had had no interest really, then here I was with two tutors, for four of us, the director Colin Young, who’d become a bit of a guru for me and every two weeks, a well-known filmmaker would come and speak about his films. Tarkovsky had once been invited and Ken Loach was there a few weeks ago to present his new film. I had to deal with all these filmmaking heroes and the history of cinema, I was able to experiment with my own work and work out my own voice. It was amazing.”

I had first seen his film at Dinard’s festival. He was there too. Still spell-bound though, I had not said a word. Sean McAllister is a well-known British independent filmmaker. He has done about ten films and his last one, The Liberace of Baghdad was shot in Baghdad nine months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The film starts with the sound of repeated explosions and a sky streaked with white flashes above a car park. “Samir, Samir what is going on?” “It is a war.” Samir – ponytail and slumped shoulders – smokes a cigarette and answers Sean, who is filming. “I wanted to make a film about what liberation meant for ordinary Iraqis, but I got lead astray when I met Samir Peter.” Samir is a pianist in the heavily fortified hotel compound where foreign journalists and Sean are staying. “Because of you, my romance started. I live for your love…” Sean McAllister’s familiar voice comments on: “In his heyday, he earned $10,000 a month as Iraq’s most famous pianist. Today he earns a few dollars a night and lives in the basement of the hotel… Samir was often questioned by Saddam’s police because of his taste for western music and his appetite for western women.”

“When I first started the film, I had spent a year in Iraq altogether and had made another film, The Minders, about the day-to-day life of two government minders in Saddam Hussein’s’ Baghdad. You look everywhere for something and something comes to you. Each night I was coming back to the hotel and drinking with Samir talking about Iraq.”

Samir is from a Christian family, one of 600,000 left in Iraq today. His son is secretly seeing a Muslim girl and he hasn’t held a job since dropping out of music school. Jobs are with the Americans and the resistance kills those who collaborate with them.

“The casting makes a film. I was really drawn to go back and make this film after the catastrophe of the liberation. The news broadcast was not providing the truth. I knew it was there, from the Iraqi perspective. I wanted to find out for myself. And I knew when I got there what I sensed was a lack of identity amongst Iraqis. By killing that regime and capturing Saddam they’d freaked them out. Samir felt sick when he saw Saddam on television and the dentist pulling his teeth. He hated Saddam, but when he saw that he said: “you have no right to do this”.”

“In 1991, Samir had composed a piece for the “Bombardment of Baghdad.” “It was hell. Millions of bullets, missiles, bombs. I poured a glass of brandy. My wife was shouting: “Are you a mad man?” In the morning I was looking out of my window, I found everything was quiet. No electricity. No water. No fuel. Only destruction.”

“I am not interested in preaching. Samir doubts. He is philosophical. I did not know what to believe either. We’d freed them from dictatorship but then what? You select somebody and give him a voice. Making a film is all about having a moment of power. But then you do what you can. Samir is unsure and he is ambiguous. His country has just been freed but he wants to be famous and go to the States. Between Kevin and I, (Kevin is the main character of Working For The Enemy, he never held a job, as a statement against the system), we’d feel the film was a conspiracy. We were both making a film together.”

Samir takes Sean around Saddam Hussein’s bombed palace. “The people of Iraq were expecting he was going to live forever and govern Iraq forever. So they will have to kiss the ass of Mr Bush”, says Samir.

“I never know what the story is. I am thinking that the end of the story is that Samir is going to go to America, which is the third act that I am looking for. It’s complete stress and nightmare, you’ve got a good character, you know there is a story but it never looks as simple and as exciting as the finished film. For Liberace, it happened when I met his daughter, Sahar, she was pro-Saddam, she’d said to the camera “I love him: he has guile”. It struck me that the conflict within the family actually captures the problems of the future for Iraq. Initially she did not want to be in the film. “No way I am going to be in the film.” So there’s the number one obstacle. There are little things to overcome as well as staying alive. Suddenly, when journalists around are getting kidnapped, I realise I am on a topical story, it is history and I am the only one doing a long term documentary at this time.”

A young man blows himself up killing twenty people who were queuing for jobs.

“I have got a million questions and I need a Samir I can fire them off to. My brain is like a computer, what I know of the countries, the situation and the people. I have to wait for the right moment. That instant where people will open up and be captured on film. Questions often fall short. Staying still, letting silence grow and then knowing when to intervene and when to listen. In Liberace, Sahar says “Freedom of speech? What for? Nobody is there to listen”. It needed that moment of anger. I chose it. I wanted her to make a strong statement. I had felt this for some time. Samir actually points to me and tells her off. “You don’t know what you are saying. This will be on the BBC.” I was just hanging in there and following what is going on… Samir was scared of offending the Americans; he knew he wanted to live there so he did not want to speak out. Which is why I took him specifically to the site of the bomb attack, because I knew that would break him. That was also a sort of departure from observational documentary for me; it’s being in there and working with people. Besides “fly-on-the wall” documentary, which is all about seeing without being seen, someone coined the idea of “the fly in the soup”. Was it Jean Rouch?”

Seeing the bodies of the dead people and families in tears, Samir entrusts Sean: “This country was about to become the Japan of the middle-east and they stopped it.” “Who?” “You know who, Sean, the Americans.”

Pathetic, seeking glory even more than women, torn in a country that is falling apart, Samir is, Sean tells me, deemed charismatic or unbearable by women in general and television producers in particular. I find him to be both, but what does it matter? I am Samir. Such film plays on identification and for me, one thing he says does it: “Every year Sean, I have been writing a ballade for a lover but this year I didn’t, that makes me unhappy.” I take the liberty of a first person portrait of Sean McAllister after a lively conversation in a street in Soho, “Bombers” bitter in one hand. It is a portrait with two voices.

Carried away by his explanations, I did all I could, rather clumsily, to impose on Sean a Cartesian mindset. I wanted to make him say there was logic to this free flowing film, which meanders like days through dangers. I wanted him to define what I’d call inadequately the writing, “I do write the commentary” Sean granted me, this astonishing writing that I could see behind the unbridled flow of Samir’s life in Baghdad, the crumbling, occupied and violent city and the stream of a tested friendship between Sean and Samir.

“Ollie Huddleston, the editor, would be better to answer that. He has worked on all my films, he knows. He often teases that my characters are too difficult and unfriendly. He included a lot of the material that I would have normally omitted from it. He adds the playfulness. It brings it alive. With international filmmaking, it is very important. Samir is right. No-one gives a damn about what is going on.”

“Sean, you love your camera.” Says Samir looking distressed over his beer. “Sorry.” “- Always… Your camera in your arms. You love it more than a woman.”

What distance do you adopt to film?

“No distance. I get as close as I can and intervene in people’s life. Tina, for example, was the main character in Hull’s Angel, she is 45 going out with a 22 year old Kurd, one of the asylum seekers she has been helping. One night I call her up: “Don’t bother coming tonight.” “Why? What’s happening?” “I am having a fucking argument with him again” I finish my beer. I don’t have to rush or worry I have missed the moment. I walk in. She does not mention that she said “don’t come round”. The argument is probably finished and he sits over here and she sits over there and I get my camera out and I say: “so what did he say and she says he said “fucking…” “No, I didn’t.” “What did you say?” and I just step back and I get the scene. She’s OK because I have been filming her for 6 or 9 months. In my book, I have earned that kind of trust. With the relationship I’ve got I feel that I can do that and they don’t mind. I shoot the trigger and sometimes I include it and sometimes I don’t.

A good character, in documentary like in drama, has got a good back-story. He is going to be filmed with his trousers down and take some punches. I try to find someone that reflects the society. Samir is an ambassador for Iraq. In Settlers, I film in Jerusalem a Palestinian ex-terrorist who spent twenty years in prison and a settler ex-hippy from New-York. I suppose that I was arguing that Ali is Ali and Dov is Dov. The Israelis said “No, when you make a film like this, in this political context, and you put them together, they represent Palestinians and settlers yet, they are not representative of either side.” I came under huge criticism for that film. If you have one person you can get away with it, with two I didn’t.”

The boy in the local shop warns Samir: within a couple of days, foreigners will be abducted. “He scared me Sean”. “He scared me too.” “Anything can happen in Iraq, now, nobody cares about us.”

At the end of the film, you show Samir with you for the first time, you are both fooling around on the beach. Some kind of an epilogue, which isn’t one. It also breaks the rule. The filmmaker is shown as a fooling friend.

“Had to find an ending. So maybe there should be more of that in the middle cause he used to stay in my room, I had air conditioning, he didn’t. Samir was like a long lost love. Anyhow, the end is only determined by the point you decide to call it a day. Nothing else.”

In the film, as a narrator, you seem to be this odd appendix of a camera stuck in the narrow space below the passenger seat. It seems as though you are filming from this impossible position whilst Samir answers the patrols, in Arab or English, explaining who you are. How did you portray yourself in this film?

(Silence)

The night in Liberace glows of white, red and blue, warmth, cold and truth. Between the neons and the lights of the city, rockets streak the sky of white.

“I don’t give a damn about aesthetics. I shot landscapes out of boredom.”

Why did I even try? I had gently said weeks earlier that the French must like his films for they seldom made them like his; larger than life, a chaotic flow of anecdotes mixing entangled threads of lives, loves, children and departures, as though touched by the echo of fallen dictators, of heads of state, hated, feared or admired, of Hussein and Bush? I had spent 15 years loving that of Englishness, in love more than once, and here I was back in Soho with Vacarme under my arm, mentally holding on to some old debris of ill-fitted notions. I gave way. “Who is your favourite filmmaker?” “I don’t know.” He would not be cornered, Sean edged out.

Colin Young, theorist of “observational cinema”, says that through details of daily life, cinema can show people to be grand. “You can only appreciate this grandeur by being witness to it. I don’t mean by making another life exotic but by knowing what is actually happening in that other person’s life.” In the film Divorce Iranian Style that Sean mentioned to me, Kim Longinotto, keeping to a neutral style, reveals the unexpected vivacity of wives, who come to court to file for divorce. But Sean McAllister’s films are committed and passionate; they hit you somewhere between the head and guts. The French gave a standing ovation twice for Working For The Enemy in Paris, yet Liberace perhaps the most accomplished of Sean McAllister’s films, very well received in Dinard, is the only one which has not yet been shown on ARTE.

“An old friend told me once that I may be making the same film over and over again. That may be. I will find a Liberace wherever I go. One of these excessive characters I love, full of their own faults and meanderings, as if haunted by a sense of failure and dithering, of regrets and deceived hopes.” Sean closes his eyes laughing reminding me a bit of Ray Charles’ head spin at his piano. “My friends are from Hull and they are not interested in Baghdad, they don’t know where Iraq is. They have to connect to these characters and might spend an hour in Baghdad.”

Hull is in the north of England and the North is to the South what Naples is to Milan. My ex-husband was from Lincoln, not far off, Sean had expertly got that story out of me on a previous encounter. “Northerners” won’t be fooled; no storytelling is worth anything short of dreamed and failed loves.

Your characters have torturous love lives.

“Really? That is necessary.”

Blog extract : “Love. We are driving in Baghdad, looking for pizza. Danielle is on Samir’s mind today… “Sean, I keep thinking of her. Really I still love her.” I point out to Samir that he said he still loved his ex-wife a couple of days ago… “Yes, I love her as well.” Later we open an email it is from Angela, another NGO worker… “Really Sean I love this woman also.”

Why do you write a blog?

“I started writing the blog for my own mind really. In Iraq, everything was mad, and I thought the film could be lost, so I started documenting. You also write a film about people who have death and losses in the family and you can’t tell it all in the film. The blog also helped with the commentary. All gets forgotten, even the most intense. The whole point of my commentary is to try and do this kind of whispering in the ear. It is difficult to get that feeling. I would read the blog and anecdotes would come back and I would have less of the formal stuff.”

Security in the hotel increases at the same time as my sense of “insecurity”, says Sean in Liberace.

Your whispering tricked me in a false sense of relative safety, as if the intimacy and your laughs quietened our angst and softened the slow progression of drama. Then the ultimatum Samir delivers half-naked from his couch “Sean, you have to go now, I could not take the responsibility of your death.” – suddenly brings home with uneasiness that we have barely seen the violence.

“Samir was more of a worrier than I was. You either freak out or you forget the whole thing. The night the hotel was attacked, we were nervous, and a few mercenaries all fully armed, turned up and hailed me “Mr Sean, Mr Sean, we have 6 or 7 Kalashnikovs and no one will touch you.” But I had planned to escape by the fire exit. If you’re bombed then there is fuck all you can do anyway. I was a virgin. Only in hindsight you realize how stupid you were, people died in that street and until someone points a weapon in your side… I wouldn’t do it anymore. But my stories always spring from encounters and I am looking for one in Japan, someone like Samir, for my next film. They can be too crazy; they have to be a little crazy. I tend to follow people who have chosen the off-paths in life.”

Blog Extract: “It is hard to get inspired here. Sometimes I get the feeling, the urge… I know I want to make a film about freedom. Modern Japan reminds me so much of life in Saddam’s Iraq. The safety I felt there I feel here, no-one will touch me, nothing will happen to me. This is why I like Japan but also why I hate it.”

“Getting these characters in people’s living room, I used to think it was about changing the world or changing people’s opinion, I don’t know anymore. 2.5 millions saw The Minders on BBC2. Maybe we should not overestimate how much people care. And I think they relate to the people and what I really care about is that people meet other people that are like them. In a funny kind of way Samir is more important because he speaks his mind. And more people should speak their mind. And I think that is wonderful as well as rare”

Sean’s film gives an exhausting account of the chaos that takes hold of Baghdad after the “liberation”. Holding his camera in an embrace, the filmmaker tests us to the point where we end up loving the aberrant flow of the life of an individual caught up in violence. He forces us to feel and to re-evaluate beyond our judgments and preconceptions, what is taking place. He hunts down History where humanity shines like a heart on one sleeve. The settler and the Palestinian in Settlers, Dov and Ali still inhabit, I think, where Israel was invented with Exodus; it is from that dream as well as the hesitations, the choices, the commitments and the sufferings unchained since, that they carry on loving and thinking. His spoke-persons keep on struggling, beyond hope, with their disappointed dreams as well as with reality, away from any dogmatic stands. Without pretending to be right, they may well be charmers, players and why not liars, but thus show better from the margins all tensions and collapses. They also show people that it is possible? to love and meet, even when most unexpected. Sean McAllister’s films become a passionate indictment against any form of arrogance. Filming larger-than-life eccentrics, he avoids any stiffening and inhabits the margins, bouncing us off some comfort zone. I believe Sean may be doing politics at human height, where – how rare? – the heart frees the mind.

© Laure Vermeersch

See the original interview on the Vacarme website