Top of the Docs #52 – SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST REVIEW: Don McCullin: ‘Almost Liverpool 8’ (2021)

Image of a man holding a framed picture of an older man.
Image courtesy of Shut Out the Light Films.

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. We’re heading to Sheffield Doc/Fest 2021 to explore all of the new documentaries they have on offer, starting with Allan Melia and Daniel Draper’s Almost Liverpool 8!

When thinking about the photography of Don McCullin, surely the first images to come to mind are wartime photographs. Soldiers, fighting in the streets — these are the pictures that appear. However, McCullin did not exclusively deal in conflict photography. His images of the area in Liverpool known as Liverpool 8, or sometimes Toxteth, contain similar qualities, though they weren’t taken during a war. Dereliction, a feeling of trauma, and unwelcomeness — this is not an area where one would like to live. However, Daniel Draper and Allan Melia explore Liverpool 8 in their latest film, using McCullin’s photographs as a rough guide in order to uncover what it’s really like to live there.

Something that becomes clear almost immediately in this film is the important distinction between the area’s two names. The name Toxteth was forced upon the area, and recalls the Toxteth uprising of 1981. During this time, members of the community clashed with the Merseyside Police after their countless racially charged incitements culminated in the heavy-handed arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper. Liverpool 8 is an area that celebrates its racial diversity, but having the violence of the uprising hanging over it as its defining feature has worn it down, leading the negative connotations that, through the film’s showcasing of L8’s vibrant community, are shown to be clearly untrue.

The film is centred around three distinct sections, and cuts between them. First, there are the interviews with McCullin as he talks us through his experience in Liverpool 8. There are also interviews and performances from members of the community, sharing stories of their lives, dreams, and opinions on the city. And finally, there are plenty of candid, almost Wiseman-esque sections, taking us around the streets, the pubs, cafes and restaurants. The interviews and performances are incredible and give a voice to a community that has for so long been defined by an artificial image of itself, created by those who don’t even live there. Yet, where the film truly shines is in the candid shots around Liverpool 8. These sections — though sometimes feeling transitionary — offer us a real feeling of being in the area, as though we can breathe in the air, feel the breeze brought in by the Mersey, hear the chatter from cafes and pubs.

Every city has an area known for being run down, somewhere your parents tell you not to play. Almost Liverpool 8 is a film that gives voice to all of those areas, the preconceptions around them, and the people who live and grew up there. It is a documentary made with a real warmth, as the love and pride within the community bursts off the screen, and it is exactly the sort of documentary we all need right now.

Trailer for Almost Liverpool 8