Almost Liverpool 8
01/09 – Liverpool Philharmonic
Forty years on from the Toxteth riots, Almost Liverpool 8 is a celebratory vignette of L8 through a modern interpretation of an iconic Don McCullin photograph. As the documentary seeks to redress lingering misconceptions, Matthew Berks speaks with the film’s creators Daniel Draper and Allan Melia about the documentary’s role in redefining the area’s legacy.
“What I found in Toxteth,” Don McCullin begins in Almost Liverpool 8, “was an attitude saying, ‘Don’t come up here judging us, we won’t be judged’.” It’s a sentiment that would reappear 50 years later when Shut Out The Light’s Daniel Draper visited a McCullin exhibition at Tate London. Surrounded by curious middle-class gazes that appeared to fetishise the poverty-stricken landscapes on display, Dan headed back to L8 to shine a more informed light on the area. Underneath Almost Liverpool 8’s water coloured tapestry of local celebrities and buildings is a much deeper desire to tell the story of what a modern, multicultural community looks like.
How did Almost Liverpool 8 come about?
Dan: Al and I had always wanted to work with Don McCullin. We looked at his work when approaching our first feature documentary together, so that’s always been there. I’d booked onto the show in London last year when I was down for another screening. The show was great, but I didn’t like how people were sort of judging these images. These images are like pure poverty and working-class portrayals and I got a bit protective over that. At that time, I didn’t know Don had a series of images from Toxteth, and then we came across them and I thought, who are these fuckers judging my area based on this one image and probably on the negative stuff that had come out of 1981. I got back and brought it up with Al straight away about [making Almost Liverpool 8] and we agreed.
Allan: We wanted to use that photograph as a jumping off point to explore all the things that we find interesting about Liverpool 8. Myself, Dan and Christie [editor, Almost Liverpool 8] all live in L8 and we love the area, the community, and we’re always impressed by the activism – how people just get together and make things happen, and how creativity is often at the heart of that. History has been done quite a lot in terms of L8, so we thought let’s do something different, let’s paint a contemporary parallel story to the photograph.
Is the project an opportunity to challenge misconceptions of L8?
D: I’ve always been pretty bored of depictions of Liverpool 8, because they’re all the same, and they all seem to just come about after 1981. And they always paint it as this collective identity of people downtrodden. And it’s always done from people outside the area, coming in, doing a bit of filming on the streets and leaving. It’s ripe for new perspectives in many ways. We didn’t even realise it was 40 years since the uprising – in many ways, we found out more about the community from doing it. You can know a community from looking at it, but do you really understand it and how it operates?
We were talking before about the new series, Liverpool Narcos. The first episode is set in Toxteth. Honest to God, they have about seven shots that are identical to ours, but the way they’re coloured, the way they’re framed, the way they’re soundtracked, it makes the area look like a rundown area where the only way you can get out of the mire is through selling drugs. It just shows you how outside people often look at the area; they don’t take a minute to care about what people do. We live here, and we don’t see that. People have responded to Al’s images and we do linger on them quite bit because there is beauty in this area.
How did you manage to get Don involved and what was it like working with him?
D: We’d been trying to get the interview since we come up with the ideas – we had been chasing it through for six months, probably since September 2019. And then yeah, I found out where he lived after getting multiple rejections and sent a letter, and then he was like yeah come down.
A: We were so nervous beforehand. But he’s a really nice person and just put us at ease quite quickly. There was clearly a real connection and appreciation for people in the city of Liverpool, and it’s coming from a very genuine place as well like these little anecdotes that he talked about like saving the pigeon in the Albert Dock. Stuff like that seems almost maybe a bit random in a way but I think it just shows that he’s got that connection to the place and to people and yeah, we’re really happy with what we got from the interview.
Did shooting it in lockdown offer new avenues for creativity or new perspectives on community present within the film?
A: I guess with it being filmed throughout lockdown, we had a slight luxury of being able to go out on sunny days, and, you know, it fits with the vibe of the interviews. You know, it was all upbeat, all positive, so we thought, well, we want it to look bright, we want it to look vibrant, because it fits with the things that we’re talking about. Opposite what Dan was talking about before with, you know, some of the ways that the area’s portrayed through like sound design and grading and stuff like that, I just thought, well, you know, we’re shining a light on something that we’re proud of, you know, as our community, as something that’s interesting and vibrant. So, you know, let’s do it in the best light.
The various characters within L8 play an integral role in the film. Tell us how you first got to meet them.
A: I already knew some from community projects, but really it was about getting out on the streets with the camera, you know, and talking to people, and spending time in the community. And it was amazing how many we found just from hanging around with a camera. With Delucia from Babydolls Salon on Granby Street, someone just walked past one day and said, ‘Oh, what are you filming for?’ ‘We’re doing a documentary on Liverpool 8’ ‘Go and speak to Delucia, her family go back generations here’. And we got this great interview with her in her salon.
D: I discovered Al Rahma Foodstore one day – think I was going in for milk – and I was like oh goodness look at this whole rotisserie set-up. I started asking him about it and he just lit up and was dead proud. He was right up for being in it.
Editorially, the documentary is incredibly free-flowing and it seems like you intentionally wanted the people and imagery to speak for itself.
A: Myself and Dan had conversations early on about the style that we should adopt for it. We didn’t want anything that was too laden with cutaways and coverage. We just wanted it to be more photographic because it’s a film based on photography, the art of photography, and in particular one photograph. So that’s why a lot of the frames are static; we just wanted people to view it in a slightly more observational way, like you would with a photograph.
The documentary is a response to McCullin’s iconic photograph of a young girl vaulting a puddle. What is it about his work that captivates you?
A: For me, it’s the connection that he has with people. When he was photographing war zones for example, he was always trying to capture something that felt genuine. So even if he had 20 seconds with someone, and he didn’t speak the same language, he still had to make a connection somehow. What always resonates with me is the diversity of his work but that common theme of humanity in his images, no matter where he is.
Is this what you wanted to achieve in Almost Liverpool 8?
A: Yeah, I think in terms of the approach to the film, that’s why it’s in this kind of portrait style, and we don’t make too much of an effort to ask people what they love about Liverpool 8 or you know, ask about their history. It’s more just showing what people think of life and Liverpool 8 through, you know, the beekeeper or someone who makes shawarmas on Lodge Lane.
Do you want audiences to take anything away from the film in particular?
D: It’s strange because the film itself doesn’t really say much; it’s just a tender portrait of our community. Maybe they can just come away connected with just one interpretation of a community. It raises the question of what is a true portrait of a community? It might make people think well I’ve only ever seen this footage from the uprisings. So if it does pose a little question about who owns a community, what’s a true perspective – maybe on a subconscious level maybe people think about the planet through Barry [Chang’s] bees or collectivism through Adam’s Newsagents.
A: There are many other communities around the UK that are like Liverpool 8. So, hopefully, when other people see it around the country, they might look at their communities in a bit of a different light.
Almost Liverpool 8 premieres 1st September at Liverpool Philharmonic. Tickets to attend are available here.