When BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Sean McAllister was invited back to his native Hull to be one of the creative directors for the 2017 City of Culture programme, he seized the opportunity to examine, expose and champion this long-neglected city on film.
The result of an intimate shoot is a new documentary that explores the director’s own relationship with home, while following a fellow Hull native who has never been fortunate enough to pursue his creative dreams out of the area.
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A Northern Soul is chiefly the story of debt-saddled warehouse worker and father-of-one Steve Arnott, and his attempt to get his business idea – touring disadvantaged schools with the Beats Bus, a mobile recording workshop offering kids classes in music-making and performance – off the ground in Hull’s year of artistic opportunity.
“I had been trying to make a film in Hull for a while, before City of Culture”, says McAllister, whose subjects have usually seen him travelling far further afield. Both 2005’s BIFA-winning The Liberace of Baghdad and his 2015 film A Syrian Love Story took McAllister to the Middle East, offering him the chance to be “the adventurer in a sunny place abroad”.
But City of Culture seemed to McAllister like a chance to create an essential record for his hometown. “You come back to Hull and talk to people and you just think: there’s shit happening that’s just not being documented and told. I suppose I felt a sort of duty of care.”
Twenty years ago, McAllister was in a similar position to Arnott, working in a Hull factory and dreaming of breaking out and into a creative industry. But what McAllister finds in 2017 is a city with even less opportunity for the artistically inclined than he had as a younger man, with the government’s austerity plan having brought increased poverty while decimating arts funding. “The first port of call is paying your bills, second port of call is art and culture. A lot of people round here are struggling to pay the bills. Zero hours contracts are crippling everyone.”
At the beginning of the film, Arnott is living with his mum after the breakdown of his second marriage. He’s chain-smoking his way through a relentless work schedule that can find him working 19 days on the trot. Yet things only get worse from there for Steve, with demotion, setbacks with the new business and bankruptcy all coming his way through the course of the film. A Northern Soul is a desperate portrait of a Britain that the media today scarcely recognises, save for in some less-than-flattering TV documentaries.
McAllister wondered if he could avoid making a “bleak and endlessly depressing” feature out of the non-events of regular working life in modern Britain, in a place very “northern, very nothing and very insignificant”. He decries what he refers to as ‘war on the poor’ television, which judges people like Steve for falling prey to a system over which they have no control. “You can’t blame him for anything, all he’s doing is working his arse off in everything he’s doing, but he’s still not making ends meet. That was the story I really wanted to get to, to tell profoundly and powerfully, because I knew it was happening all over the UK.”
Since appearing in A Northern Soul, Arnott has managed to turn his Beats Bus business idea into a full-time reality, making him proof of the transformative real-world potential of cinema. Even so, McAllister laments how exceptional his case is. There aren’t many working-class dreamers lucky enough to be made stars of their own documentary. The two only met by chance, when Arnott approached McAllister about the Beats Bus at a City of Culture screening of A Syrian Love Story. Otherwise, McAllister thinks Steve would still be working at the warehouse where we find him at the beginning of the film.
“The question is, with all of the ties to the factory, could he have really liberated himself to get that dream under way? Possibly not. The likelihood of funding, the economic ability to take that risk… The film gave him hope in one sense, the spotlight in another sense, and a feeling that, after the film was released, the exposure he would probably get for the bus would give him a chance.”
For the people of Hull, the film has served a different purpose. Elsewhere, A Northern Soul will enter cinemas with a 15 rating – a BBFC ruling that McAllister is critical of, expressing regret that a universal tale of hope among the ruins like his can tell “a little charming story, but if it’s peppered with the F-word it’s too much”.
Yet back home he’s been defiantly screening the film for free to all ages, where councillors have granted a 12A rating. Locals not used to seeing themselves on the big screen have been lapping it up. “They want to have a sort of cathartic understanding of what 2017 meant, and they can get it with this film.”