Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018 kicked off this year with the world premiere of A Northern Soul, the latest film from director/filmmaker Sean McAllister.
It sees him return to his home town of Hull after a career of exploring the world through cinema. Hull recently became the UK City of Culture, an achievement which allotted it millions of pounds of investment and new opportunities for those living there.
It is a story about Steve, however, a man on the brink financially, that dreams of becoming a hip-hop artist without the means of doing so. The City of Culture has allowed Steve to hire a van to spread his love of the art and to take to the boroughs of Hull to help young children that otherwise would never have the opportunity.
I spoke to the director following the World Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018.
Christian Abbott: The film deals heavily with representations, of people and importantly Hull – how do you feel Hull is represented in mainstream media?
Sean McAllister: It was a big thing for me, doing the opening show I was very conscious of that and coming back.
How do we want to be known? Three years in a row one of the crappiest cities and the butt of the jokes, how do you rebrand yourself and become something else?
It was subtle, or maybe not so subtle to be able to say, it wasn’t an issue to be able to say Hull is a multicultural society. But it wasn’t an accident to represent it with a multicultural set of people. It wasn’t an accident to have beauty shots around the Humber. Not just the bad streets but to offer a dignified look at the city against the way the media has represented us for so many years.
Christian: How do you feel City of Culture has helped Hull?
Sean: Without a doubt, surely, some people never knew about Hull internationally so the year of culture there was phenomenal. For the people that did know Hull, for my understanding it was just the butt of the joke. So if you said you were from Hull in London people would joke.
There was a shot in the film were Steve comes across a needle in the street. It is such an overused image and we were tempted to use it but we decided against it. We wanted to change the image of the city and not add to the preconceptions. I mean, look at Steve, he is the north through and through, when you look at him you have all your preconceptions but when you peel back the layers he is this softly spoken, lovely guy.
The problem is northern people aren’t making films about northern towns. These southern people come up here and know fuck all.
Christian: Do you then think that this film will help to bring some pride back for young people living in places like Hull?
Sean: Well the City of Culture helped bring opportunities to people so they didn’t need to leave. I have been speaking to a few people recently down south who are thinking of moving back which is interesting. The thing is, when I look at myself, all I have achieved by leaving, would I have been where I am today if I didn’t.
Christian: Your career has been global, from Japan to Syria, how does coming home now feel and how do you feel towards it now?
Sean: I mean it’s certainly more cosmopolitan now, I mean I think they even have a Pret a Manger opening soon. It feels more liveable now; it feels like you can potentially do it. It feels more connected to the rest of the world.
The City of Culture was all about connectivity and I hope because of that the city has changed and is better.
Christian: Hope is definitely a major theme of the film, so much of it comes from The City of Culture, would you say that it’s something that lacks in the north?
Sean: I think it’s hard for people in places like Grimsby, Cleethorpes, and Scunthorpe being under the shadow of a major city like Hull. I mean I did wonder when I was in Hull what would be happening here without the City of Culture because you have austerity cuts that are penalising the north terribly and we had an artificial injection of £35 million. It feels like we have been taken away from austerity for a year.
What Steve was doing in the film, in the bus, was for me a mirror of the bigger thing, going to estates and helping give children a new opportunity. Twenty years ago there used to be opportunities like this, when I was on the dole I got a video camera from a community centre, that’s closed down now. The Tories going on and on about education when they are holding people like Steve back. People need to be shouting about this, but nothing is being said.