“A Game on Both Sides”

Documentary Maker and Subject in conversation with Jack Kibble-White

First published February 2001

In September 2000 OTT published a review of the United Kingdom! documentary “Working for the Enemy”. The documentary followed the progress of Kev (a “dole-ite” and proud of it) in his struggles against an establishment that viewed “his kind” as reprehensible and morally deficient. It painted an honest portrait of an amusing and likeable character, providing a much-needed human dimension to the debate on Dole Culture.

In mid November 2000, Kev contacted OTT regarding the piece and put us in touch with the documentary’s director Sean McAllister. Both agreed to answer questions on “Working for the Enemy”. The following, then, looks at the process of making and starring in a network television documentary, demonstrating that the experience is not always as exploitative as we often hear; and indicating that there is life after transmission for the film, the director and the subject.

OTT: What’s the background to “Working for the Enemy”?

SEAN: “Working for the Enemy” was my first “broadcast” film (which means a lot in “the industry”). Ironically when I do festivals people refer to it as my “first” film. Even I start to refer to it as my “first” film. But my “first” community centre based documentary was in 1988 during my seven years of unemployment. I then made a few community centre documentaries until 1990, mainly about social/political issues with a clear screaming message. I then went off to film school in Bournemouth and rejected the “professionalism” they tried to instil. [I believe] working with crews etc kills the film – and the experience. Instead I made my own video 8 documentary about my summer job at Bird’s Eye factory. Although Bournemouth would not acknowledge the film, the National Film School did, and so I went there for the next four years.

It was there I learned the most about documentary making and discovered my voice and my interests (really just by making mistakes, which I think is the only way we learn). I left and went back on the dole for a year, then got an offer from a company making a series called United Kingdom!

KEV: Thinking back now I’m not really sure why I agreed to do it, I think I was just annoyed at the nastiness that was in the air in those days. The poor seemed to be getting the blame for everything. It took me a few weeks before I decided to take part because I knew it had to be honest and that could have caused a lot of problems.

SEAN: ["Working for the Enemy"] was commissioned as a film about the scheme “project work” (which was in itself boring). The production company gave me a camera and some pocket money to survive and let me do whatever really. I became interested in Kev, because I guess I’d been there myself. I find it very difficult finding people “worthy of being filmed”. It becomes my life so I need to enjoy being with them and to be able to get something from them. I see working class representations on the telly that are constantly insulting – the makers do not relate or have the empathy to understand. Kev was a voice in the wilderness that I had great pleasure in helping being heard. His opinion is not unusual among people I know. I knew Kev’s mates and he knew mine. I’d been in his world in my past and I identified with him.

OTT: All of the people featured seem very natural in front of the camera. How was this achieved?

SEAN: My technique and style is “truthful” filmmaking – which is the skill of getting continuous action and behaviour unfolding in front of the camera in real time. Kev and Robbie are very private people and really were tough nuts to crack. A number of skills and drugs were required.

OTT: It has to be said though that Kev’s mate came across as a bit of a letch …

SEAN: He is a good friend of both Kev’s and mine and in a way he was “cast”, and would ham up a little.

KEV: Nick (the slimeball) is still around, I got drunk at his house last night, but don’t think badly of him, its just the way he is: a good man with a mad brain.

SEAN: He always fancied Robbie and actually snogged her on camera that night. But it was too much to include really.

OTT: The Job Club scenes were particularly memorable. Was there a lot of good stuff cut out, or did we get most of it? How do you feel about The League of Gentlemen ripping it off (complete with Mr Waddilove)?

SEAN: I was in and out of the job club for months looking for potential characters. But it was my familiarity with the staff that allowed the stuff with Kev to happen. There was loads of great stuff – in fact a film in itself.

KEV: I did see Mr Waddilove a couple of times afterwards. He told me that he was actually thrown out for smoking in class. I was told soon after that I would be thrown out too if I said anything negative. We were going to ask the folk from League of Gentlemen for some freebies but bottled out.

OTT: How did you feel about the final version of the documentary? Did it remain true to your original intentions? What reaction did you get from the public?

SEAN: The only major compromise I had to make with “Working for the Enemy” was allowing the production company control over the final edit of the film. However, after one year of doing nothing it seemed an opportunity and I had nothing else. There were loads of problems concerning money and control but I guess the film is what it is through my utter desperation. Nevertheless, the beauty of the series was that they would cut the film to run to its best length. Fortunately the editor was really moved by the material and would call me and invite me to the cutting room for advice on how the film was looking and eventually we came up with something we all liked. I ended up with a one-hour documentary as a first film. This meant I could move onto better slots immediately: like Modern Times. Plus the editor now works with me on all my films and no longer with this company.

KEV: [After the documentary was broadcast] little old ladies used to come into Scope [the charity shop were I was sent on a work placement] to see me. Radio Humberside had a go at me in their phone-in (the presenter was spluttering with rage). I rang in demanding to have my say, and I was allowed to explain the whole situation. It didn’t take long before all the callers were supportive.

OTT: And what’s been happening to you since “Working for the Enemy”?

KEV: After the film, I got asked to do some large paintings – which I said I could do (I had never painted before) purely to see if I could. The guy who commissioned me wanted 10, four foot by three and a half foot paintings done in a month. I said I could do it: the confidence of ignorance. Anyway I did them, got paid two thousand English pounds and left for Hong Kong for three months to avoid wasting loot on drugs, beer and fancy women. I came back, stayed up for a year and went mad.

SEAN: I went on to make “Minders” – a film for Modern Times. It was filmed in Iraq at the time of the bombardment and was an insight into the plight of ordinary Iraqi’s as depicted through my friendship with my Minder. I also made “Settlers”: a film made in Jerusalem over the last year that follows a Palestinian who spent 17 years in prison for planting a bomb and now works as a tour guide; and a right wing Jewish Settler from New York.

KEV: I went to Portugal, Denmark, Germany, Holland, and America with Sean to do Q and A after screenings of the documentary at film festivals. It has been shown at festivals in England, Germany, Portugal, Holland, Israel, and America. It’s also been on telly in Israel and Finland. It’s been shown in Denmark (teaching Danish TV how to do it), and Cuba (teaching students how to do it). The company who made the film were always a bit funny about letting us know when and where it was on so Sean sort of took over and entered it for festivals himself. In Paris in 1998, the film got a spontaneous standing ovation on both nights it was shown.

SEAN: At the moment I’m working back in Hull on a film about people that work in a de-unionized Britain with men who work round the clock on a shipyard repairing ships. The hardest and most horrible work; inhabited by some of the hardest people, conditions and lifestyles. Something I don’t see on the telly anymore. I don’t really view the current crop (Living With the Enemy/Trouble at the Top/Back to the Floor) as documentaries – although they do entertain on a very superficial level. My fear is that real ballsy films are not being made any more – audience ratings have become the concern of telly. The stuff I do is being forced further and further from the mainstream 9pm slots to 11pm’s. Documentaries about dot com millionaires are the thing now and I don’t know what the answer is. The only way to survive though is to somehow not think about what it is that “they” want and constantly pursue what it is you care about.

KEV: I’m now living with my 16-year-old son (I didn’t mention him in the film, as I didn’t think it was fair to involve him in any rubbish that may have occurred after I was on telly). His mother died last year from a mysterious illness, and his grandfather who moved in with him died last year. So now I am here washing and shopping and cooking and messing around on the computer.

Robbie left me for a DHSS fraud squad investigator shortly after the film was aired. And – no – I haven’t got a job. The Social are still on my back, but it’s just a game on both sides I think.