Title: I Am Belfast
Director: Mark Cousins
Out Of Five: 3.5
Belfast’s most individual film-making son, Mark Cousins, describes his documentary as a city symphony. It’s on the poster. But that’s only part of what he said. “We wanted to make a city symphony. Cities are noisy, messy, but teeming with life. Our story tries to capture this.” That’s a lot closer to capturing the essence of I Am Belfast although, of course, he’s chosen his own home city and it’s one that has had more of its fair share in recent times of conflict and turbulence.
Towards the end of the film there’s a small, but most telling, story of the whole film. One that, according to the mature lady called Belfast who guides us through the film, only happened a few days ago. A lady catches a bus – we’ve seen her on it earlier in the film but didn’t understand why – and, some minutes after settling down in her seat, she realises she’s left her shopping behind and alerts the driver. He asks the other passengers if they mind the bus going back to retrieve it and, as they all agree, back they go to the stop. And the lady has her shopping. Could you imagine that happening where you live? In a big city, probably not. Belfast is a city, but it happened there. People who live there describe is as being a big village, because everybody seems to know or be connected to everybody else.
Belfast the woman watches it all happen and, as the camera lingers on her, her eyes well up with tears which slowly trickle down her face. Is she moved by a small but thoughtful gesture? Or is it because that gesture shows exactly what her beloved city is capable of and yet, for some perverse reason, finds it hard to do with any consistency? Or is it a combination of the two? Or is it something else entirely? Don’t expect Cousins to give you the answer. That’s not his stock in trade, but he wants to make you think, to challenge your perceptions of the Northern Ireland capital and its people.
Belfast’s view of her city picks out things you would probably just walk past and ignore. The colours of derelict buildings, the carvings on them, yet they’re set alongside some of the images of the city that you expect. Samson and Goliath, the two massive Harland and Wolff cranes on the docks. A sign directing you to Good Vibrations, the record shop famously set up by Terri Hooley in the mid-70s. The city started as a port at the merging of the river and the sea: she calls it the land of the salt and the sweet. And it’s a description that reflects so many facets of the city, especially when she covers the troubles in the second half of the twentieth century. No wonder she cries later on.
There are some local characters. Few of them speak but one pair who do are Rosie and Maud, who Cousins chats to in one of the city’s burgeoning coffee shops. They’re a Belfast Thelma and Louise – or would have been in their younger days – feisty, foul mouthed and funny. They’ve only been friends for a few years but you’d think they’d known each other for ever, such is the instinctive understanding between them. Not that it matters to them, but one is Protestant and the other Catholic and the film does make that point. I can’t help wondering it whether it needed to. Isn’t the point that they’re just two people who get on?
The film is made with much affection, but also sadness and a realisation that this is one very complex city, perhaps more than most. It’s Cousins’ view of his home city, which he left in his early 20s. It’s not always a rosy one, but it certainly challenges all the our preconceptions we probably have if we’re old enough to remember the media coverage of The Troubles. It’s also at pains not to show too much of the new developments in the city, apart from demolition sites, but instead shows the remaining scars on the city – the derelict buildings, the Peace Line, the roads that used to go somewhere and are now dead ends, the sectarian murals and the fading painted kerb stones denoting the divide.
It’s not always a smooth ride stylistically. The funeral procession for the last bigot is, given the delicacy and thoughtfulness of some of the other images and the narration, clumsy and heavy handed. And there are times when the conversation between the two narrators sounds awkward and contrived, especially on the part of Belfast herself. Yet, on the other hand, there’s some lovely lines as well, wry observations, like Cousins on the subject of marching. “We’re good at that.”
It’s not objective, nor can it be. But carefully treads a middle path, not allowing itself to get bogged down in too much sentiment. For anybody who knows little of Belfast and/or has never been there, it’s intriguing and full of visual and verbal nuggets. But its self-conscious style and occasional lumpiness can be off-putting and prevents you from fully immersing yourself in the film.
I Am Belfast is on limited release from Friday, 8 April and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 7 April