Mark Cousins, filmmaker, artist and writer, has leapt from the expansive, sprawling Gombrichian scale of The Story of Film to the personal and intimate I Am Belfast. It is a recognizable cityscape, shot with the gaze of a painter.
Belfast, and all its foibles, is hoisted up onto a reluctant podium. A strange grey area, between drama and documentary, Cousins latest film soaks you into Belfast’s water. From the salt mountains to the fearsome raindrops and storms, I Am Belfast refuses to insult or resent. After his upbringing in Northern Ireland, Cousins moved from the city when he was twenty years old. Clearly, as he notes, the Troubles pushed him out; one of over 100,000 who left in this period.
I Am Belfast is his return. He speaks to 10,000-year-old Belfast herself. Played by Helena Bereen, her history and observations are candid and colourful. Her outlook is astute and optimistic. She’s seen it through its ups and downs, and remains standing proud. Mark Cousins uses his versatile, cinematic language to describe and celebrate the city. Marlene Dietrich’s eyes on the founder of Belfast, and Gene Kelly musicals upon a bleak council estate. Footage from Abel Gance’s J’acuse and Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon fill in metaphors and dreams. Indeed, I Am Belfast at times feels like a dream. Old, decaying buildings illuminated with facts and tales of the past. Static shots capture trees gently swaying and cars trundling along. A shabby wall and painted utilities box becomes Rothko and a high street transforms into a Van Gogh. “You know me” says Belfast, and I recognize her. In Leeds; in Manchester; in Birmingham; in the town of my teenage years, Telford. I‘ve never visited Belfast, but I’ve seen the years of a city growing weary. Cousins makes the smoky hustle and bustle become beautiful. Every shot, suddenly elevated by the role it plays in I Am Belfast.
Northern Ireland is more than cities and aging families of course. Belfast was the stage for bombings and murder. The bomb at McGurks, throwing humans into turmoil. Families decimated and opposing factions celebrating their loss. It is an ugly side of the story, something Cousins refuses to shy away from. Belfast asks whether she should talk about it. Cousins doesn’t want to hear, but knows he has to hear every grim detail. Buses as skeletons, burning in the middle of streets. “Salt and sweet” is the euphemism Belfast uses to describe these warring sides. How powerful words can be when written as poetry, as I Am Belfast is. Christopher Doyle’s expert cinematography smoothly transitions dated footage with the new seamlessly. The soundtrack, by David Holmes (’71, Hunger), equally sets the scene perfectly. We’re swimming in this sea of troubles; it’s uncertain and it envelopes us. But we know the lifeguard will take us home.
We are saved. I Am Belfast, using extreme close-ups on Bereen’s face, forces us to see every wrinkle. Details, buried within the cracks of the pavement. Each graffiti splash and word means something. It meant something passionate yet becomes a scar on the cityscape. At one point, as if to home in on a close-up, we meet Rosie and Maud, two locals of Belfast who curse, flirt and laugh with the director. The narration toys with us, pre-empting a chance use of colour as a lone person wanders past camera. People make the city and Cousins doesn’t shy away from the everyday and ends on a, perhaps flippant, event that speaks profoundly to him. To the tune of Van Morrison, I Am Belfast ends and we’re left to reflect. Community and society are inextricably linked in Belfast and this intimate connection is celebrated here. A unique film perhaps, and not everyone’s cup of tea, but embrace it; open your heart to this history and it resonates deeply.