Hull 2017: From dole queue to Bafta nominee, meet the filmmaker kick starting Hull’s year as UK City of Culture

Sean McAllister, the award-winning documentary film director, who is curating the opening event for Hull 2017 City of Culture. Picture Tony Johnson.

Sean McAllister, the award-winning documentary film director, who is curating the opening event for Hull 2017 City of Culture. Picture Tony Johnson.

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His filmmaking career began in the 1980s while on the dole in Hull. Now Sean McAllister tells Sarah Freeman why he’s coming back to raise the curtain on City of Culture 2017.

It was a couple of blokes with tattoos who inadvertently convinced Sean McAllister that Hull is set to make the most of its year as UK City of Culture.

Two months ago - and as a little taster of what’s to come in 2017 - Place des Anges arrived at Queens Gardens. Most of the crowd weren’t quite sure what to expect and as night fell thousands of feathers were released from angels suspended in the night sky.

“I followed these blokes who were there with their wives and kids to the pub and sat on the next table with a pint,” says Hull-born McAllister, who come January will be charged with the opening event of the year-long programme. “They were picking feathers off each other and then one of them turned to the other and said, ‘I’ve been whinging about City of Culture for about a year, but if it’s going to be like that, then I think it might just be good’.”

McAllister, who was not necessarily the obvious choice to put in charge of the curtain raiser, could have been forgiven for breathing a large sigh of relief after finishing his pint. While a skilled and award winning documentary maker, who has spent his career championing ordinary voices, he admits the brief from Hull 2017 director Martin Green pushed him to the edge of his comfort zone.

“I’ll be honest, the first thing I wanted to do was run away. I make documentaries. I don’t do this kind of thing, but Martin persuaded me that I did. Once I was on board, I knew the kind of event I wanted to stage. The problem with a lot of art is that it is either incredibly patronising or so high brow that it goes over everyone’s heads. I want to do something that hopefully appeals to everyone in between.”

That was the easy bit. With such a broad canvas - Green effectively said to McAllister that the entire city was at his disposal - the hard bit was deciding exactly what shape his project would take.

“Hull has so many interesting stories to tell, but I’ve decided to focus on the 70 years from the Second World War to the present day. It was a neat timeline, which runs from pretty much the city’s oldest living generation to its youngest. The war is a good starting point. Hull was the second most bombed city after London, but there were a lot of people who felt that it was ignored and the sacrifice it made never really honoured. Much of the rebuild which took place afterwards was really down to the character and resilience of the people of Hull and that I think is something worth celebrating.”

Using archive footage, and with a little help from renowned lighting director Durham Marenghi, fresh from the Rio Olympics and theatre director Rupert Creed, McAllister has devised a plan which in the New Year will see various buildings and streets in Hull transformed by a series of projections, each one telling a different chapter in the city’s history.

As well as the war, it will also honour the city’s once thriving fishing industry which created a generation of three day millionaires and entitled Made in Hull it will bring the story of the city right up to date, acknowledging the importance of music and sport and the arrival of the offshore wind farm industry which has brought much needed jobs - and hope - to Hull.

“In recent years working class cities which lost the industry on which their wealth was built have often been demonised as being part of the Benefit Streets culture. It’s unfair. Given the chance, the people of Hull have always wanted to work, but sometimes there just haven’t been jobs for them.

“Right from start, Martin told us not to be afraid to be brave, provocative or political and I hope that’s what we have done. There is this false stereotype that Hull is a place that no one passes through, that it’s cut off and inward looking, but that’s just not true. It’s a port town for god’s sake, most of the people who have made their home here have come from somewhere else.”

McAllister is also a good advert for the city and while he now lives in London the elastic which ties him to the north is long and robust. He left school in the 1970s aged just 16 and like many before and after he went straight to work at the Bird’s Eye pea factory. He was there 18 months before he knew he had to make a decision - leave or risk being forever on the production line.

“I went on the dole in order to find what it was I really wanted to do. It was luck really. I went to a community centre which had a video camera, picked it up and it all started from there.”

He turned the lens on the communities he had grown up with and somewhat ironically it was a short film of the pea factory he had run away from that secured him a place at the National Film and Television School where he was one of just four students studying documentary.

“I didn’t grow up knowing the language of film or with any ambitions to go to Hollywood. What I liked were characters, like the old fishermen who lived down Hessle Road. Ordinary working people who get by in life through humour so I guess I was always going to be drawn to documentaries.”

McAllister has filmed a number of times in his home city, most memorably Hull’s Angel, which followed 48 year old Tina, who despite losing her job at a hostel for failing to work within the Home Office’s strict guidelines, had continued to help Hull’s 1,500 asylum seekers for free. However, he has also found a perhaps unlikely second home in the Arab world and resulting documentaries from A Syrian Love Story to The Reluctant Revolutionary have told the story of a country through the eyes of ordinary individuals.

“After I left the factory I had what I called my left wing phase. I read about this egalitarian way of living on a kibbutz so I took myself off to Israel. I spent six months out there, but when I came back I realised I had never gone to Palestine. I felt cheated, so I have pretty much spent the next 20 years of my life going back there. It’s the people and the places I’m drawn to, coupled with the fact that I love hummus.”

McAllister will have to go cold turkey on the chickpeas for the next few months as he works out the finer details of the projections which will takeover various locations, including Victoria Square, Zebedee’s Yard and Humber Street. There will also be one on a job centre, although not the one where McAllister claimed his dole. It is, he says, too far off the city centre beat.

“There are always going to be some people who will be critical about the money spent on an event like UK City of Culture. And yes, who knows how it will touch someone on benefits living the Bransholme estate, but my gut feeling is that it’s got to be better to have it than not

“My target audience has always been my mates Andy and Kev and while I’ve really enjoyed myself ultimately I hope that I give Hull a voice. I hope that when people see what we’ve done they not only feel that it’s about them, but that it is them.”

Made in Hull curated by Sean McAllister, January 1 to 7. For the full programme go to hull2017.co.uk

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