I Am Belfast


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

I Am Belfast
"In his customary style, Cousins makes a lot of points, not all of them hitting home."

"I am Belfast," says the woman on the beach. "I don't just mean that I'm from Belfast. I am Belfast."

The woman (Helena Bereen) is middle-aged, firm of feature, steely of gaze. What might at first look like kindness is more a form of studied patience. Sshe's old, she tells us. She's been here for ten thousand years, since the time before. Perhaps she's also forgetful, because there's precious little of the city's older history, or of the myths that predate it, in Mark Cousins' documentary. This is very much a portrait of the modern city, and Modernist in its execution.

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"We could be at the North Pole," we are told, watching dark blue waters lap against white shores, but this is no glacier before us, it's a mound of salt. Cousins delights in setting up illusions like this (with help from accomplished Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle), encouraging us to look beneath the surface, to look beyond the city's own portrayal of itself. Two men walk towards one another in a tunnel; in the background, there's bar. But this isn't somewhere one can pop in for a pint. It's just painted on the wall, in memory of a real bar blown up during the Troubles.

It's impossible to talk about Belfast without reference to the Troubles, but on the other hand, the Troubles are the one thing about the city with which most outsiders are already familiar. Cousins handles this by keeping his direct treatment of the matter brief. It's notable for focusing on civilian objections to violence, from the protest strikes that followed the slaying of three Scottish soldiers to the shuddering memory of seagulls feasting on human flesh the day 26 bombs exploded. If Cousins takes a side, it's the third one, of which we hear relatively little - that of those who just wanted it all to stop.

Other major topics in the film are the Titanic ("it was fine when it left here") and the wider shipbuilding history of the city, with implications for its development as a place which was constantly taking in new people or watching people leave. Though Cousins doesn't highlight it, we hear this in the language, in its many adoptions from elsewhere - never mind the two sweet old ladies in a tea shop cursing like sailors. Meanwhile, Bereen's embodied civic spirit wanders the streets pointing out curious architectural details, sometimes with histories attached, sometimes without. Brutalist ruins alternate with pretty views. The looming, life-limiting Peace Walls crowd the slums whilst outer avenues unfold as landscapes of mingled orange and green.

Is this just window dressing or is there a point to it? In his customary style, Cousins makes a lot of points, not all of them hitting home. In places his own knowledge clearly runs deep and the film feels rich and substantial. In others it's superficial, the attached philosophy flimsy and adolescent. A piece of street theatre, redolent of funerals in the not so distant past, makes a powerful impacts; poetic musing on what strangers might be thinking, less so. But Cousins' unevenness has always been part of his charm.

All in all, this is an intriguing film but you're likely to appreciate this portrait more if you're already acquainted with the model.

Reviewed on: 04 Feb 2016
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A cinematic essay about the city.
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Director: Mark Cousins

Writer: Mark Cousins

Starring: Richard Buick, Simon Millar, Shane McCaffrey, Helena Bereen, Felicity McKee

Year: 2015

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: UK

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