Thursday, April 07, 2016

I Am Belfast - an insider's reflection on his birth city (QFT 8-14 April)

I missed the screening of I Am Belfast at last year’s Belfast Film Festival (and was unusually disappointed by 6 Desires, the other Mark Cousins film that was showing) so I’ve been keen to see the filmmaker’s guide to the city.

What if Belfast was a woman, a woman as old as the city?
“Listen first, then look, then walk”

Belfast city is epitomised on-screen as a ten thousand year old woman – played by a much younger Helena Bereen – dressed in a long dark purple coat wrapped in a purple shawl, wearing ankle boots with bleached hair tied back in a tight bun. Along with the dulcet tones of the director, she narrates the film.

I Am Belfast has the classic Cousins look and feel, though credit for the imagery must go to cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Reflections, clouds, watching scenes through objects held in front of the camera lens, feet walking up streets, seeing the world upside down as if being carried or dragged along by someone, mixing shaky handheld footage with static shots of action observed from a distance and archive material. The moody visuals are matched by David Holmes’ ethereal ambient soundtrack which overlays the erratic conversation between Cousins and Ms Belfast.

The film is a quasi-self portrait of Cousins’ birth city. It’s much more personal and broody that my favourite film from his back catalogue, Here Be Dragons (which explores the political, cultural and cinematic landscape of Albania).

The visual poetry celebrates a working class and industrial Belfast and over 84 minutes it journeys through run-down city centre streets, interface areas and the greener outskirts. “We're quite good at parades” quips the filmmaker in one aside.

The Titanic and conflict collide as the narration suggests that an “iceberg hit” as the Troubles erupted and “we fought each other”. The film’s journey halts to remember some of the detail from the McGurk’s Bar bombing and Bloody Friday.

Half way through the film, the ceasefires are in place and sunshine is allowed to reach into the cityscape. Local “diamonds” – Rosie and Maud – share a cup of cross community coffee and profanities in a scene that leaves us not much wiser about hope or history.

Ultimately, I Am Belfast is a film full of longing and imagining, a film that wonders whether this generation will see the last vestiges of unacceptable behaviour and thinking wiped from its streets. The final scene – after the last bigot is buried – finds optimism, albeit in an incident that could have as easily happened any time in the last fifty or sixty years as now.

Both an insider and an outside, Cousins has the insight and the distance to comment on local affairs and shine a light on some of the challenges still facing Northern Ireland society. The city of “salt and sweet” is recognisable, yet full of previously unnoticed details. He ignores politics – perhaps an unnecessary sideshow – and focuses on people. It’s an unusual film, neither drama nor documentary, but one that left me wondering how, if left to me, I would portray the city with all its warts and wonders.

I Am Belfast is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 8 to Thursday 14 April. Mark Cousins will take part in a Q&A after the 6pm screening on Sunday 10 April.

There is a special afternoon screening on Sunday 10 April at 1pm in The Black Box (£4). Unfortunately the post-screening walk around the Belfast locations with Mark Cousins has sold out, but you can can complete the tour on your own without the director between noon and 6pm by following the map posted on the I Am Belfast tumblr site. You can even stop off in Rosie and Maud's favourite coffee shop. And there are still tickets for the the after party in The Black Box from 8pm-11pm (£5) on Sunday night with soundtrack composer David Holmes and Stuart Watson.

Film Hub NI are curating a mini-season of feature films that - like I Am Belfast - use colour to spellbinding effect.

You can see The Wizard of Oz, martial arts epic Hero and Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers at the QFT on Saturday 9 April.

The BFI are also running a programme of I Am ... events in other cities like Manchester, Edinburgh and Newcastle which are screening the film.

I Am Belfast is also available to watch online through the BFI Player (£££).

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