The Flats


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Flats
"The Flats gives voice to people who have lived most of their lives feeling silenced, but it’s all the little details it captures in passing that speak loudest." | Photo: Dumbworld Ltd.

Gerry is sweeping the street when we first see him, cleaning up the little patch outside the shrine to the Virgin Mary where people sometimes gather in prayer or in song. Joseph says hello as he passes by, walking home with his little dog trailing after him. “Freedom!” he shouts. “Freedom, come on now!”

Welcome to New Lodge, ‘a Republican enclave in the heart of Belfast,’ as it is described at the start of Alessandra Celesia’s documentary. Unless you happened to catch this film when it opened Docs Ireland in June 2024, the chances are that by the time you see it, New Lodge will have been demolished. The film was made during its final days, just a year or so ahead of the moving vans and the wrecking balls, and it captures the community that grew up there during the Troubles and is still trying to make sense of it all. It’s a melancholy place, heavy with the weight of remembered horrors, but also a place full of solidarity and affection, neighbours looking out for one another as they learned to do when everywhere about them seemed like hostile territory.

There will have been, no doubt, some difficulty moving people’s furniture out in the few small lifts that traverse the concrete storeys. One might anticipate it whilst watching two men struggle to get a coffin into one of them. Up on the roof, Joseph watches drug dealers coming and going, filming them himself, shouting down to them that he knows what they’re doing. Outside, in a scrap of parkland, women sit and talk, discussing the things that they want out of life. All that Jolene wants is for her sister’s brain cells to come back to life so she can have a life. She shares a song. She has a fine voice, a thing of unexpected beauty in this grim place.

Talking to therapist Rita, Joseph dwells on the Bobby Sands quote “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” The people of New Lodge are still waiting to hear that sound, though there are cheers and happy faces when the television news announces that a demographic shift has occurred, that Northern Ireland is now more Catholic than Protestant. Joseph remembers the UDF coming for his beloved uncle “just because he was a Catholic.” There’s a reenactment of the funeral; a plaster on a nose where it hid a bullet hole. The hole in Joseph’s psyche is harder to conceal, and he’s just one of many people still unhealed. Later in the film he will embark on a drastic course of action which alters the tone of the whole narrative, with Celesia, as well as his friends and neighbours, deeply concerned.

Elsewhere, we spend more time with the women. Jolene and Angela discussing violent men as they plaster on tanning lotion and prepare to use a home sunbed. Angela has sadly passed away since the film was completed, but her story will make you wonder that she survived as long as she did. It speaks for the hundreds of women who experienced domestic abuse as anger overflowed in frustrated men – and yet she was no passive victim. Jolene, meanwhile, feels victimised by being taken out of the EU against her will because she’s classed as British. The others encourage her to get an Irish passport. There is discussion of birthright and identity. An Irish flag flies from the flats. Down below, at ground level, there’s a Che Guevara mural under which somebody has scrawled ‘Blood of an Irish Rebel’. And yet across the road, sentiments are very different. A pile of wood is stacked high, ready for a bonfire, a reminder of the loathing of Catholics that still exists in Belfast, unashamed.

A tribute to the place whose soul it captures, The Flats gives voice to people who have lived most of their lives feeling silenced, but it’s all the little details it captures in passing that speak loudest. There is humour, and sometimes hope, and never any shortage of spirit. There is still a belief that one day that laughter will ring out from people who have no inkling of the pain of the past.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2024
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Joe and his Belfast neighbors reenact childhood memories from the violent Troubles era in their Catholic district, exploring the collective experiences that shaped their lives and community.

Director: Alessandra Celesia

Writer: Alessandra Celesia

Starring: Jolene Burns, Joe McNally, Sean Parker, Rita Overend, Angie B Campbell, Gerard Magee

Year: 2024

Runtime: 114 minutes

Country: France, Belgium, Ireland, UK

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