Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Sean McAllister - Japan: A Story of Love and Hate

From my interview with Sean McAllister: "I think I will write a book from the blogs from my film and credit you with giving me the inspiration and idea."

My most recent interview with Sean from April 2012 is here.


Sean McAllister at the British Independent Film Awards

Sean's blog. Naoki to Sean: "I am happy now, it is good. If post office fire me I must go to court and show film."


We're living in times where everything is cheesed up, watered down, disguised, homogonised, blanded to bleurgh and branded by corporations to simper to easily offended politically correct palates.

Well fuck that. That's not sexy. What's sexy is real life and what's sexy in filmmaking is documentaries made by people brave enough to break through the surface and swim in the murky underwater of other people's worlds, no matter how fetid the water.


Sean McAllister with Samir Peter.
© Sean McAllister

Yeah, doccos made by people like this, Sean McAllister. I know an alpha male when I see one.

I first saw Sean at the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival back in November 2004 when The Liberace of Baghdad was screening. Of all the filmmakers and industry movers and shakers at the festival, there was only one who really captivated my attention and that was Sean. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about him but I instinctively felt that here was one of those renegade geniuses whose private lives may be more troubled than some; an enfant terrible with a kind heart and vision.


In the early hours of one morning during the Doc/Fest I ended up in a crowd of people in the bar of Sheffield's Novotel Hotel. I only got one opportunity to talk to Sean, constantly surrounded as he was by admirers of his work wanting to bend his ear, and I fucked that up, stumbling over my words and mispronouncing the name of the subject of his film, Samir. Who then joined me and proceeded to charm the pants off me, such is his way with women.


Samir Peter, This Charming Man in repose.

On the last night of the fest, Samir gave a performance on The Showroom's resident piano which got a load of us dancing and brought the house down, amongst them the fabulous Beeck sisters, founders of The Boulder International Film Festival. It was one of those impromptu parties that ends up far more memorable than the official organised ones, one of those "Were you there?" parties.

The Liberace of Baghdad subsequently went on to win the Grand Jury prize at Sundance 2005 and I never forgot either Sean or Samir, such was the impression they, and the film, made on me.

Four years later Sean was back at Sheffield Doc/Fest again, this time touring the festivals with his latest documentary, Japan: A Story of Love and Hate. Here is the press release blurb about the film for those of you who know nothing about Sean or his work:


Japan: A Story of Love and Hate.
Naoki 56, had it all in Japan's bubble economy days: he ran a business with 70 staff, drove a brand new BMW, and lived in a 6 bedroom house. But when Japan's economy crashed in the early 1990's he lost everything, ending up divorced (for the third time) and penniless.
He was saved from being homeless by his new girlfriend, Yoshie 29, who took him in, despite living in a tiny one-room apartment with no windows.
At his age, the only job Naoki can find is part-time at the post office. Here, part-time means working 7 hours a day and earning just £4,000 a year. Yoshie now has to find extra jobs to support him: working 15 hours a day in 3 jobs.
Each evening Yoshie leaves Naoki at home to do the housework and heads to a sleazy chat bar, where she is paid to drink, flatter and flirt with married men. Sometimes she comes home drunk and teases Naoki about his poor income. After taking her nightly dose of sleeping pills, she cannot remember anything.
Naoki sees his relationship with Yoshie like father and daughter. He admits since losing his business he has lost his confidence and his ability to have sex with Yoshie. Their life is a love story of survival in the world's second richest economy.

As with The Liberace of Baghdad, Sean has once again been allowed into the life of a charming but broken man in a crumbling society, and presents the world with the innards of the situation rather than a botoxed surgically enhanced exterior.

I was so impressed with Japan:A Story of Love and Hate that due to having missed two minutes of the film for a loo trip during its first screening, I made sure that I went to see its second showing the next day, in order to catch the missing snippet and watch a further Q and A with Sean and the subject of the film, Naoki.
You can get an idea of the scope of Sean's work in the compilation Six Stories of Love and Hate on his Vimeo channel.


Sean was actually a pea picker and welder in Hull before becoming a journalist and filmmaker. Then he filmed the factory he worked in, which led to him gaining a place at Bournemouth College of Art.

In the 90s, The Silhouette Club in Hull had a sunken dance floor, ringed with a raised balcony, a bit like a Victorian Bear Pit. Having someone open up their flies and piss on you on the dance floor at The Silhouette, as happened to me, left me with a lasting impression of Hull. It reminds me in many ways of Plymouth...both ports...however Hull does have the Hull International Short Film Festival...

From Hull to Sundance, eh? You can take the man out of the North but you can't take the Northerner out of the man. Here's an interview I conducted with Sean last week:


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.

Sean's blog. Tuesday, February 21, 2006 -"The plight of the homeless salarymen and the tired army of modern day salarymen reminds me of a quote I read before coming here, 'Japan has one foot in the future, one foot in the past and nothing in the present'. Today it feels true."

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...


© Sean McAllister. Homeless in Japan.
"Sean McAllister makes filming look easy" - Nick Fraser, BBC Commissioning Editor

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 McAllister

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 McAllister

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.

***


Quotes from Sean's blogs (links at end of article.)

12.11.08

Naoki: "The film sometimes makes me into a ‘star’, this was never an intention to be ‘movie star’. This is bad, it is about showing the life for many people in Japan and telling a story not many people know about. I was shocked to be treated like a star at the Sheffield festival, so many people wanting to talk with me and shake my hands. Why?"


December 4th 06

I am lost in my translation staring into the 'space' that is my new prison, that is my Japan.


Late July 06

I've been raising money to make this film for the best part of 3 years ... the money allows me to make a film the way I want with the luxury of a year in which to make it. This was always my dream.

The problem is now my dream has become my nightmare.

June 19, 2006

Paul Weller to audience in Nakano: "It's a great pleasure to play back in this hall in Nakano. I played here 26 years ago when I started out with The Jam and ..." he smiles knowing he is talking to himself. "It was a fucking nightmare then and it is now" he hammers into another song laughing to himself.

This concert was more personal than most it felt like an epitaph to my time Japan. A grateful goodbye to 10 long weeks of alienation, confusion and disappointment.

August 5th 2004

I'm often asked to describe my approach to film making, the answer right now is quite simple, it is making friends and sharing experiences in interesting places. In everyone I film I see myself, my aspirations of what I'd like to be, but also my inadequacies and my failings. I look for people who are brave and honest enough to confront this, and allow me to film them, naked, often literally.


Sculpture in Abu Ghraib Art Exhibition

July 15, 2004

We get home safely to Samir’s and hit the whisky. He was panicking. "Do you realise what could have happened there? We could have been killed by both sides." Samir worries a lot in this dangerous troubled land. We relax and he opens up to me about his past. He tells me horror stories of his time on the front line in the war with Iran. He still has nightmares, waking up screaming in the night. He cannot forget the face of the young Iranian man he killed. The young man's eyes are still vivid in Samir’s mind, as he sliced open his throat.

"Imagine a pianist doing such things. I want to make the world more beautiful with my music, not kill people."


© Jesse Grant
Sean's blog. Tuesday, March 08, 2005
At the back stage party Samir and I held each other, he wanted to cry, he said he was so happy, not for him but for me. He could see how happy I was to have won and it made him happy and proud to have given himself to the film. "We're more then friends" he said, "We're like brothers now."




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