Is a working class background a barrier for aspiring filmmakers? Hull born filmmaker Sean McAllister calls for more accessible pathways into the screen industry

“One of the most brave and powerful filmmakers around.” Michael Moore

Upon leaving school in his hometown of Hull, Sean McAllister worked in factory jobs before discovering his talent behind the camera. After graduating from the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in 1996, Sean went on to make films for the BBC and Channel 4, both in the UK and internationally. Candid, frank and intimate, Sean’s films focus on the lives of ordinary people struggling to survive, often under political oppression and hardship. The Liberace Of Baghdad, Sean’s film about Iraqi pianist Samir Peter, won the Special Jury Prize (World Documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. In 2018, Sean directed A Northern Soul, a film based in his home city of Hull, following the opening ceremony of the City of Culture, for which he was director/curator, and the story of Steve Arnott, Founder of Hull Beats Bus.

Sean’s experiences highlight the class divide in the screen industry. He’s seen life on both sides of the fence, although he feels that workers’ rights are better protected on a factory floor than they are on a studio floor. He highlights the poverty of ambition experienced by people in working class environments and draws a stark contrast with the ‘built-in’ confidence of public school students at film school. There is clearly much work to be done in ensuring pathways into the industry are much more widely accessible.

Despite his success, Sean has never felt part of the industry furniture because of his roots, although he views his position as an ‘outsider’ as being invaluable in helping him to build his career. Far from being made to feel welcome, he discovered that people in the industry were very quick to attach labels to him because of his accent and where he came from. Given how few working class people are making films, it’s easy to see how these attitudes and behaviours are a real barrier to aspiring filmmakers with non-standard industry backgrounds.

Class issues extend to programming too. Coverage of working class people is often one-dimensional and lacks authenticity. Why? Because it is largely built on the perceptions of middle class executives rather than on the experiences of working class people. Sean offers practical advice on how to address the class divide in the industry; whilst accessible training and scholarships will help with skills development, there also has to be a shift in the industry’s attitudes and mindset for equal opportunities to exist.

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