By George Haigh
You’ve probably come across Belfast in the cinema before. My first real memory of it was a film which still shocks me to this day: Jim Sheridan’s brilliant In The Name of the Father. More recently, it was 71, the story of a young soldier on the streets of Belfast in the riots of 1971. As terrific as these two films are in their own ways, what’s so refreshing to see in Mark Cousins’ I am Belfast is the shift of focus from the threats and troubles the city is known for. Instead, Cousins decides to explore the foundations of the city which is embodied through Helena Bereen, portraying a woman that personifies the rich history of Belfast.
As expected with a documentary essay such as this, Cousins incorporates archival footage of some of the key moments in the city’s history, from the development of the Titanic to the IRA bombings. However, he does this very carefully, and instead of dwelling on moments such as these, he takes the time to invigorate new life into the city, finding beauty in the often urban landscapes through Christopher Doyle’s stunning cinematography. The visuals feel somewhat poetic at times, and transcendent in the framing of the vibrant colours that are often hidden in plain sight. It isn’t too much of an image overload though, as Cousins is equally concerned with where the beating heart of the city lies. This happens to be Bereen, who Cousins finds much significance in.
The two discuss how the city is constantly developing. Cousins, an acclaimed cinephile, comments on how cinema and Belfast have previously engaged with each other. There is more of this here in a brilliant article he recently wrote. The Titanic, an icon in itself famously brought to the big screen in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, changed the way it is exposed in the city. Whilst once nearly too heartbreaking to discuss, it’s nearly impossible to escape from now to people such as Cousins who grew up in Belfast. A cornerstone to the various tourist attractions rooted in the city, it’s impossible not to at least briefly linger on, and Cousins identifies that a popular saying in Belfast is that, ”it was fine when it left here”.
As Bereen wanders around gazing upon the streets of Belfast, Cousins employs her as a sort of spiritual guide, exploring the community that live there. Instead of traditionally interviewing various people, the people we stumble across seem to have emerged from the various values the city is famous, or sometimes infamous, for. Not all of it works- the death of the last bigot feels tonally incongruous, but a cafe scene with two potty-mouthed old ladies seems to exemplify what Cousins is aiming for here in terms of a new insight. The two women may be from different sides of the religious divide that separates much of the city, but the human connection they share invigorates a breath of fresh air into what is strongly associated with the city’s history.
At one point, a man describes love as like “jam running down your back.” The rich, metaphorical language Cousins incorporates into the film is reminiscent of someone like Terence Malick – a director Cousins will be very much familiar with. Both film-makers share a knack for finding intimate moments that allow the audience to truly engage with what’s on the screen. However, what we share with Bereen is the time to reflect on how the city is changing as the film draws to a close. A Van Morrison song plays out to a lovely scene with an old lady on a bus in what is the film’s most emotional focal point.
The emotional resonance that is in this film’s roots mostly works as the mechanism for maintaining the film’s pace, which, in truth, becomes a little stretched out at times. Despite being occasionally slow, Belfast’s story is told with an everlasting sense of passion that truly is a delight to see.
Anybody who wants to see a film completely fascinated with documenting the history of Belfast might not appreciate what Cousins has on offer here. Instead, Cousins is much more focused with bringing something new to the table, even if it means incorporating sometimes less accessible elements into the picture. I am Belfast might not necessarily excite newcomers to the city, but if you embrace Cousins’ ambitions, it intrigues you in a refreshingly unique way, and sits with you afterwards.
The last showing of I am Belfast at HOME is today at 3.25, but if you want to know more about the impact of the events in Belfast, there is an event which responds to this, called 100 Testimonies: Listening to the Voices of Manchester, which you can find more about here.
You can also find out more about other films and film seasons coming soon on the HOME website.
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