British documentary Sean McAllister is known for launching himself into foreign lands, often in the midst of war, and finding unforgettable personal stories. Whether it’s via a piano player in Baghdad, a postal worker in Japan, Sean’s own “minders” in Iraq, these are stories of ordinary people – though always strong characters – struggling to survive in an often unkind world. Sean’s latest film, A Syrian Love Story, is perhaps his best yet. It begins as a very local story about Amer and Raghda, a couple who met as political prisoners in Syria and went on to have four sons together. When Sean is arrested with footage of them in his camara, the family has to abruptly flee to Lebanon, and the film turns into a larger story about lives in exile. Sean continues to follow them as they struggle to find solid footing, not least in their marriage, whilst watching a deteriorating Syria from afar.
I spoke to Sean a few days before the film’s world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and he explained a bit about the circuitous way the film was made:
It’s been a long time in the making. Is this your longest project?
Yes, it’s a labour of love, isn’t it? It didn’t get commissioned. That’s why it went on and on and on. I suppose the interesting side of it is that I’d given up on it actually. Then Matt Scholes, who graduated from Sheffield University film school, read an interview with me about it, and contacted me and said rather than working in the industry I’d like to edit this material of yours. I said I’ve given up on it – it’s not happening. And he said, well let me just have a look at it. And he went off for three months and started cutting it together and got me excited again. So I went off filming again because of him.
That’s amazing. At what point had you given up on it?
I gave up on it so many times. But the most significant point probably was two years ago, when I finished my Yemen film. I took off from Syria and went to Yemen and made The Reluctant Revolutionary. Nick (Fraser, of BBC Storyville) had sort of wanted a film from Syria. I gave him the Yemen film. I think he felt after the Yemen film and post Arab spring that it wasn’t so interesting to have an Arab spring film again…So he then sent me off to Greece to make a film. So I used the development money in Greece to fly off to Lebanon to film them, with the development money from Greece.
There’s no Greece film, huh?
There’s no Greece film. But like at the beginning, when I wanted to go to Syria and couldn’t get Syria commissioned, they sent me to Dubai. So I used the Dubai development to go to Damascus. So where there’s a will there’s a way. At the end of the day Nick saw there was nothing happening in Greece, and I was very passionate about this. And by then it wasn’t Arab spring; it was a different story. The arc of it had changed over the course of five years; it became a story of exile. It became something a bit more unusual because of the time frame. And this was all possible because Matt had got on board to construct the material, so we had stuff to show. And then when the BBC came on board, we pitched to the BFI. It’s perfect for a BFI pitch because they need to see what they’re getting into. And we had certain scenes cut, and they were excited.
The family’s story arc changed thanks to you, probably in a more direct way than has previously happened in your films.
I just came back from the border, screening the film with Raghda, and one of my questions (in preparation for post screening Q&As) was did she blame me for life today? Because I got arrested and they were all thrown into exile….And she laughed and said “I cried when you were arrested, I cried for you. The only people I blame in any of this are the regime.”
A Syrian Love Story has its world premiere screenings 7 and 9 June at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It will then be playing at festivals internationally and following a cinema release will be broadcast on BBC Storyville in early 2016.