Director Mark Cousins Screenwriter Mark Cousins Starring: Helena Bereen Country Of Origin UK Running Time 84 mins Production Company Hopscotch Films, Canderblinks Films
The ‘rambling director’ (as we like to call him for his tendency to wander around with a tiny camera), most well-known for his 15 hour film essay THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY, paints his portrait of Belfast in the manner of a squirrel darting in and out of all the city’s nooks and crannies and gazing up at her in wonderment as his mind turns over sublime thoughts. He paints it with the brick red of buildings and dazzling iceberg white of a salt mountain. He conjures warmth with the laughter and fond cursing of Rosie and Maud, two elderly best friends we meet over a cup of tea, each sitting on either side of the biggest fence Ireland has and not caring a jot. He fills it with the dreamy tones of composer David Holmes that glide over street sounds and affect everything we see with the deepest meaning. This is not just a traditional documentation of Northern Ireland’s capital city but an immersion in its essence, in its history of violence and division, its legacy, its warmth, and above all, raw beauty.
Cousin’s film is gendered; it is a conversation between him and Belfast, his home town, who takes the form of a 10,000 year old woman (Helena Bereen, and what a dear she is) welcoming us to explore her every street and building. The narrational rapport between the two has us under in seconds. What we see as they converse are lingering clips of places in and around the city that Cousins has captured which at first glance appear unspectacular but, the longer we gaze and listen, are revealed to be rich with meaning: the old site of McGurk’s Bar which played host to the Nationalists v Unionists’ war in 1971 when a bomb blew it and 15 people to bits; colourful Irish murals that express political opinions of the people with abstract, bold visuals; a drunk man passed out in the doorway of a bank, part of the scenery as shoppers pass him by. Cousins expertly illuminates the beauty in the truth, in the simple, unassuming fact of it all, and lets us slowly wrap our own minds around this appreciative notion.
Anyone who has followed Cousins’ work (A STORY OF CHILDREN AND FILM, 6 DESIRES: DH LAWRENCE AND SARDINIA) will be familiar with his overarching simplistic style of letting the frame speak for itself and not overly dramatising what is already full of naturally occurring drama and beauty (always we return to this word). But being in awe of cinema as he is, his work often splices archive footage of the film clips that have captured for him the particular feeling or notion he is trying to convey with the documentary. Here, a girl swimming in a lake is merged with a graphically-matching scene from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, expressing his assertion that hope can unearth monsters that attempt to drag you down. And this message of defiant hopefulness is the lasting one, epitomised in an imagined funeral for The Last Bigot that marks the beginning of a new future for Ireland based on inclusion and acceptance. Despite Lady Belfast’s quietly maternal, at times melancholic demeanour (we see her with tears rolling down her face for all that has happened and all that will), she guides us with assurance into a bright future.
This film marks Mark’s strongest projection of his voice yet as a director. With the help of accomplished cinematographer Christopher Doyle (IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, HERO), I AM BELFAST looks every bit as stunning as its sentiment is.
The Final Word: Looks, sounds and feels beautiful from start to finish.
I AM BELFAST had its BFI London Film Festival premiere on Wednesday 14th October.