DIR/WRI: Mark Cousins • PRO: John Archer, Chris Martin • DOP: Christopher Doyle • ED: Timo Langer • DES: Shane Bunting • MUS: David Holmes • CAST: Richard Buick, Simon Millar, Shane McCaffrey, Helena Bereen
Personifying places and indeed the entire island of Ireland as a woman has been a recurring trope in Irish literature and culture for many centuries, including seminal texts such as W.B. Yeat’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Pearse’s Mise Éire. Mark Cousins’ I am Belfast provides an innovative updating of this trope in the figure of a 10,000 year old woman (Helena Bereen) who claims to be the city itself and takes the filmmaker on a journey through time and space, recounting its historical development while travelling through its distinctive streets and landscape. In the process, Cousins offers one of the most innovative studies of an Irish city; his film is partly a paean to its people, language and culture, partly an impressive rendering of the distinctive colours and shapes one finds while walking the streets of Belfast, and partly a hopeful song to a future without bigotry and division.
Cousins is fortunate to have collaborators such as acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle and composer David Holmes who visually and aurally complement Cousins’ own refreshing and engaging dialogue with the elderly woman as he travels across the city and into its past. Few previous films have managed to render the distinctive architecture and colours of Belfast as effectively; there is also a patience to the film’s pacing that allows for the viewer to fully appreciate the film’s aesthetic achievement. Cousins even manages to find a peculiar beauty in the play of light and colour on the ‘peace walls’ that continue to divide communities across the city – more now even than during the height of the Troubles.
Belfast is unfortunately still primarily associated in film and television with recurring generic depictions of the Troubles and its aftermath; and Cousins, despite his own stated reluctance, does not shy away from confronting the legacy of Belfast’s traumatic and violent past. Indeed, he engages directly with some of the most disturbing events, including the horrific bombing of McGurk’s Bar in 1971 in which 15 civilians were killed and a further 17 seriously injured.
I am Belfast includes archive footage to incorporate events during the Troubles into its narrative; however, the film’s principal focus is on Belfast today and the hope that may lie in the future. Cousins films the mock-up of McGurk’s bar created under a Belfast underpass in 2011 and ponders the possibility of a different encounter between ‘salt and sweet’, Protestant and Catholic, beyond the traumatic legacies of the past. He personifies this evocatively in the imagined funeral of the ‘last bigot in Belfast’, and an upbeat funeral procession is featured towards the film’s close.
At a time when filmmakers have been hesitant to engage with the difficult legacies of Belfast’s past, Cousins provides a timely intervention while pointing to a future where all the city’s inhabitants could take pride in the spaces and places they inhabit.
I Am Belfast will screen at the IFI on Wednesday, 20th April 2016
This review was originally written for the film’s screening at the Galway Film Fleadh.
Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema(Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland(Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS)