Life in New Lodge

Alessandra Celesia on capturing the stories of The Flats

by Jennie Kermode

Front (L-R) Jolene Burns, Sean Parker, Joe McNally with Freedom the dog (Back L-R) Jolene's mum, Gerard Magee, Alessandria Celesia and Rita Overend pictured at the sold-out Belfast screening of The Flats at Docs Ireland 2024
Front (L-R) Jolene Burns, Sean Parker, Joe McNally with Freedom the dog (Back L-R) Jolene's mum, Gerard Magee, Alessandria Celesia and Rita Overend pictured at the sold-out Belfast screening of The Flats at Docs Ireland 2024 Photo: Docs Ireland

When I met Italian filmmaker Alessandra Celesia to talk about her new documentary, The Flats, she told me that the people of New Lodge, the Belfast housing estate which it profiles, were excited about it making its way to the screen. Not used to getting much attention from the world at large, they were suddenly preparing to walk the red carpet as it opened Docs Ireland. That night, when it came, was a big celebration, with even the film’s canine star enjoying his moment in the spotlight. There was well deserved acclaim for a film which captures the community spirit of a place about to be lost forever, a place that has seen more than its share of tragedy but much more besides.

“I always say that the first thing was just really the physical aspect of the flats,” Alessandra told me when I asked what attracted her to telling this story. “I just love them. They're so peculiar in the landscape made of small houses. All of a sudden these big blocks, all these floors. It reminds me a lot of Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Polish director. He did a film called Dekalog and part of it was set in flats like that. Then I found that was where my husband's family was originally from, on his dad's side. And so I just thought ‘Well, this is my duty, to go and dig up the stories there.’

“It was just little by little, by getting to know Joe, the main character, that I realised ‘Oh, actually these stories are so enormous, they're so beautiful that we can make something together that can be very strong.”

Film director Alessandra Celesia
Film director Alessandra Celesia Photo: Docs Ireland

How did she get people to agree to doing something so intimate?

“I think in the beginning they didn't really believe it would happen. That gave me the time to stay there. When you want to get very close to people and their souls, you just need to give lot of time before you actually start filming. The whole process was nearly seven years. Obviously I was doing other things between times, but I was back and forth very often and they got used of me. It was just a lot of conversations, a lot of time together to try to understand their story.

“I think at a certain point, they thought ‘Oh, maybe through this film, we can tell things that will die with us.' Especially for Joe. His uncle's story was really important, so he felt this was an occasion to talk about that. And he talked about so much more as well.”

I mention that I've previously seen people using therapy techniques which involve film and reconstructions of things that have happened to them. Was there that aspect to it, making the film? Did people see it as a form of therapy? Joe was already working with a therapist, Rita, Alessandra explains, and when Rita agreed to participate in the film, a lot of new opportunities opened up.

“The film gave a safe space in which people were able to reenact and dig in their memories. But I didn't dare even think in the beginning that we could go that far. So it was really built little by little. One day I said, ‘Joe, what if I found a coffin?’ They gave it to me and I said ‘Do you want to try?’ And then I just called the neighbours, and we said ‘Should we try? Let's see what happens.’

“I think when you have ideas as a filmmaker, because it's not fiction, you're dealing with real people and real trauma, it only works if they find something useful or good for them. And when we started to do this, it was clear that it was such a therapeutic process for everyone, you know? Also, it worked because they're wonderful actors, so they were able to really immerse themselves in the characters that they were playing. And they were doing it so seriously because it was for Joe and for his uncle to be alive again.

“Sometimes you want a little bit too much because you're thinking ‘This is going so well, so let's push the idea a little bit more.’ They give the rhythm. They need to decide what they can do or cannot do in the moment. That was really reassuring for me as well. They were able to set boundaries.

“There was a scene that I really loved. It was actually a memory from Rita, and we created a scene that was extremely cinematic. We had fake rain and went really, really far with it. We enjoyed it a lot, but in the end it felt like it wasn't coming completely from inside. So in the end, that's not in the film. I think that's the boundary in this film, when it is organic.”

We talk about the choices of location that she used to weave together past and present.

“I think the flats themselves appear to me to be the perfect place to set a memory, because they're so stuck in the Seventies,” she says. “The setting hasn't changed that much. The wallpaper, the old TV set. When you spend a lot of time there, you feel that the past is still in between those walls, that the ghosts are still going around. That people who have been killed are still there, not just in the memories, but actually in the places that didn't change that much.

The Flats
The Flats Photo: Dumbworld Ltd.

“I think it was something about the place itself, and that was allowing us to be in the present and in the past at the same time. And that's exactly how I feel people from New Lodge continue to live. The past is there on their shoulders.”

I tell her that to me it feels like Ireland has managed to achieve a peace where other places haven't, because a whole lot of individuals have taken it upon themselves to live with their trauma, rather than taking it out on others. To take that responsibility for the peace, you know, not to let their anger be something that affects other people. But obviously, there is ongoing anger, and here there’s what the participants say about domestic violence as well.

She nods. “I think it’s also not being able to talk sometimes about that. Especially men of Joe's generation. They carry that violence very deep inside. Sometimes they can make a joke, you know? It's very Irish, too, and I love that – to protect yourself and protect others with jokes about the most horrible things. But then it means that the pain maybe stays inside.”

Her husband told her that she had helped by going in there with her Italian culture, where emotion is expressed in a different way, she says, and it’s clear that this means a lot to her. We talk about the way that she brought the voices of the New Lodge women into the film.

“It's like collateral damage,” she says, referring to what some of them have experienced. “Sometimes it's domestic violence. It was so clear with Angie because of her stories and the weapon that she was hiding for the IRA – the weapon that helped her to end the circle of violence. And then I realised, ‘Oh, Jolene, she's one generation after. It's like if those bruises are passed to the next generation, that's in the women and then in the men. It's what Rita says at some point, you know: a lot of young men committing suicide in the area. North Belfast has the highest suicide rate, especially in young males, in all the UK. That means that this violence keeps going to the next generation. It’s a spiral of violence in which nearly everyone is caught.”

The drug dealing that goes on by the flats – a particular worry to Joe – is part of that, she says.

“That's why I gave such a big space in the film for that. The situation of drugs in Belfast is quite traumatic. Joe's generation, they were fighting for a better world for kids, and there's nothing really coming out of that better world that they were expecting, yet. And this flood of drugs, all of a sudden, is stopping a whole generation from achieving the dreams that they want to achieve.

“When you are there, you touch so many families, so many people. I think that's why we were able to film Jolene's sister [who is severely brain damaged]. At the beginning, I was myself asking ‘Can I film someone like that?’ Because she doesn't know that I'm filming, and she can't say no. So it was the craziest experience I've ever had as a filmmaker. I really didn't want to do it for a long time, and then it was really Jolene who said ‘But you have to. You're talking so much about drugs, but we don't see the effects. You have to show this.’

“Themselves, they were very determined that this part of the reality got through in the film, because it is a big part. It's probably true – at least that's what I've been told – that during the Troubles, it was more under control, and then it went out of control.”

The Flats
The Flats

It’s an issue of such importance to Joe that partway through the film he decided to go on hunger strike until something was done about it. It must have been scary filming around that and not knowing what was going to happen to him.

“Yes,” she says. “I mean, the hunger strike wasn't filmed in the same time frame, but it was the most true thing that happened. I didn't look for it. All of a sudden, Joe was on hunger strike and I was like, ‘I'm not going to let him die, so I’ve got to be there, and maybe it's going to last one day.’ That's what I thought. ‘It's going to last one day, and then it's going to stop.’ But it kept going. We were there, filming, but a certain point wasn't funny anymore.”

A doctor was summoned to treat him, but the film crew stayed close.

“Because I knew Joe for so long, it was a way to keep him company and make sure he didn't hurt himself in this struggle somehow.”

Contrasting with all that darkness is the discovery of Jolene’s amazing singing voice. Alessandra explains that it was important to have positive moments in the film.

“I knew that if I was going to film that place and I wanted to transmit the love that I had for that place, because there is a lot of light. A lot of light. And the light is more in people, I would say. They have that warmth. And Jolene, for me, is the typical new young woman. She's a fighter. She never gives up. I knew her for a long time. She's always been working and doing. She had a child very young, and she was a great mum. So it was just like, ‘how can I make her shine? How can I make it bigger than social realism and use the singing to transform it in a musical?

“Jolene sings and talks, and she loves to write her own songs. During the film I was able to help her to write her songs about matters that came along, and the composer was working with us while were filming. We would stop and go down and make some music together. The idea was that the music could be born inside the film and not just put on top of the film. That it would creep out of the film like a flower, like a weed. Because that song talks about the weeds that you can never destroy, and in New Lodge there's a lot of weeds in the concrete. They withstand everything. And so it became the end song, because it's about resilience and how people shine despite everything. “

What does she think that the future will hold for the people of New Lodge? She’s excited, she says, about the kids who have managed to go on to university from there, and about the artistic talents coming out of it.

“It’s all taking more time than it should, because if there was more employment and if there was more attention, it would be done in a second. I think you can see that in other areas of Belfast where people have more money. And I never felt as strongly before how much money can change things. Where they have money, the war is gone because you don't want to make a war anymore, because you're happy, because you enjoy your life. It's where you don't have the jobs, that's where you get stuck.

Freedom the dog
Freedom the dog Photo: Docs Ireland

“Rita feels the government doesn't inject enough money to rehabilitate this area, so maybe that's why it's taking longer. But the flats will be destroyed soon, because they are too old. Something else will come. The people will be scattered in other areas, and it's a good thing and it's a bad thing at the same time. It’s a good thing that it will all change and they will have new houses, but of course it will break up that sense of community that they have there. I think the positive is that everyone wants peace and wants it to be better. That's what I felt there.”

Not only did she capture a lasting memory of the flats, but the film has become something of a memorial to Angie, who died recently.

“She is the incarnation of that generation of women who held the family together,” Alessandra recalls.

Her ambition now is to move into fiction filmmaking, she says, but it’s a big step. After a career spent helping real people to perform, she feels she needs to learn how to work in the opposite way.

“How do you take actors and bring them to be more than actors, make them real? I don't know. So I'm in that zone of thinking. Maybe Italian neorealism would be my perfect, ideal way to go towards fiction. You're still working with real people, but maybe you do one step more. Maybe in this film there is that step more, and maybe there's not.”

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