In 2003, Hull was labeled the crappest town in the UK. In 2017, it won the UK City of Culture (a selective designation that happens every four years), which changed the perception of Hull as a city. It played host to a number of cultural events throughout the year and proved to be a big success. Documentary filmmaker Sean McAllister was assigned to be the creative director of the opening ceremony, and told the story of his home city via moving images projected on one of Hull’s historic buildings.
But something else caught his eye: Steve, a factory-worker, who uses City of Culture to provide rapping workshops for kids with disadvantaged backgrounds. He’s lent a van, which he converts into a mobile recording studio, with the dream of driving around to children on council estates who can’t afford to travel to the main city. A Northern Soul, McAllister’s sixth documentary-feature, follows this man’s struggle to maintain his work-life while following his dream to help these kids – desperate to make ends meet.
McAllister travelled around the world for his previous documentaries – Japan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria – but A Northern Soul returns to his roots. We move through Steve’s day-to-day existence as he works arduous days at the factory (at one point working 19 days in a row), keeping up the payments for his van, helping these troubled kids, finding time to see his daughter from a previous marriage, living with and looking after his often ill mother (whose house is constantly covered in building-works) – all while trying to keep a level head. It’s a grueling, eye-prising experience to witness, like watching an angel’s wings being cut to pieces.
McAllister provides a close voice to Steve’s story, which unfolds like a character-study, giving a far more personal perspective. The director, like Steve, worked in a factory for nine years and even made a cheap film about the experience. The conversations between the two of them feel like discussions among friends, like McAllister just popped ‘round to see how Steve’s doing. And since we never see McAllister, aside from the occasional reflection in a window, we’re inserted into the scene. It’s like Steve is our friend, our mate who’s struggling to make the world a bit better while working a job that’s brutally exhausting. This comes out of a deep trust between subject and filmmaker, comparable to the documentaries by Werner Herzog and Joshua Oppenheimer, which places us a few inches from the characters and intensifies the emotions they feel.
Steve’s care for the kids becomes something we care about. He travels to primary schools in his converted van to teach about rap, the city of Hull, William Wilberforce, and to boost their self-confidence. Their successes are glorious and we feel proud of them – but their moments of fragility (they are kids after all) are heart-rending, until Steve flies in and heals the situation.
A Northern Soul is a biting reality-check about issues that have wrung British filmmakers since the ‘50s. Even the visuals are simple and cheap, recorded on basic digital cameras in the poorer streets of Hull – giving an on-the-ground, truthful look to the film. There are many spirit-crushing moments as we see Steve about to break down, but the pursuit of his dreams and the strength of several supportive families build him back up again.
A Northern Soul is released in the UK on 24th August 2018