Arts Feature: A Review of I Am Belfast (2016)

By Laura Conlon, Contributor

‘Listen Then Look Then Walk’

I saw I Am Belfast twice. This might have been a mistake, but I’ll explain later on.

The second time I went to see it I had an hour to kill beforehand so I walked from Queen’s to the city centre. On the way I took all the streets that have formed the journeys of my earliest memories: walking up a busy Royal Avenue in the illuminated darkness, Christmas shopping, a weird duffle coat of my mum’s choosing. I didn’t venture anywhere new, although I was tempted after hearing that in preparation for the film, director Mark Cousins walked every single street in Belfast. I looked about more, towards the history resting on top of the shop fronts for example. I read more. You’ll understand once you see the film.

And as for watching the film more than once, sure, that goes for a lot of films. With this, Cousins has made us a slow-release tutorial video. It teaches those of us, who couldn’t before, how to find an image an a euphony of the city. There isn’t much to the static snippets of Belfast that we wouldn’t be able to recreate with our own eyes, cameras, Instagram accounts. You are encouraged to find your own frames, layers, and juxtapositions, which will in turn drag you further into the city’s heart. Cousins has a remarkably astute sense of judgement of what will impact on the audience, having pored over the edit many times. As a naïve, blasé member of the post-peace process generation, the handling of the two Troubles stories, very surprisingly, got through to me. I didn’t feel detached from the archive footage, as I expected to be. I did, as I tend to do in busy screenings of films, look around at the screen-lit faces of the audience. Everyone was utterly engrossed, through subdued credits and all.

Director Mark Cousins and lead Helena Bereen. Source: http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/

‘I Only Lived Here For 20 years’

Ah, I should probably explain at this point the narration over the images of Belfast, and David Holmes’ sparse-but-warm, melting soundtrack – I had to actively make myself aware of it in the second screening. To me, that’s high praise on the consideration given to the coexistence of the City Symphony… but I’ve gotten sidetracked. Yes! The narration! It’s a conversation between Belfast (the embodiment of the city and its women, in Helena Bereen as Her) and Mark Cousins himself. If he’s only lived here two-fifths of his life, what qualifies him to rejoin us and define us? That was the stance I took initially. As the ‘walk’ continues, clearly something does qualify him, and I think it is that partially-removed status he now has. He is able to point the camera at us without realisation, not an act of voyeurism (as I’m fully it aware it sounds) but instead a candid series of people’s actions, putting congruous thoughts to images. He deftly employs memory, effort, diction.

There’s one particular moment that I caught on the second viewing. Belfast stands proud before its golden wall. A car passes and seamlessly there’s an cut to a mid-shot of the character Her. When I was sixteen I was on work experience, talking to Queen’s alum about how to achieve the very same edit for my own film. We were working in a relatively young television company in a repurposed tobacco factory just off Great Victoria Street. Queen’s, television industry, tobacco industry, Belfast, even me. This film is inclusive beyond its own knowing capability.

‘Softer Than Satin Was The Light’

The garish beauty of Belfast gets screen time for once in its hard-toiled life. Alas in grainy footage. That’s my biggest issue with this art piece: the street footage isn’t just as pristine as I would have liked for the size it will be projected to on cinema screens nationwide. Although thanks to the meditation in colour with which we are eased into the film, local audiences will see newness within the already accessible iconography of Belfast. For all the films and television being made here right now, it’s rare to actually see these streets playing themselves, with no dark, serial-killer undertones in the periphery. It deals with national identity in a positive way, with the exception of one or two jarring, unwelcome allusions to the Titanic.

“Crime Could Happen Here. Love Might Happen Here.”

The duality of consciousness, as Belfast and as a filmmaker, and the walking epic is very – and please don’t stop reading at this point -Wordsworthian. Everyone is struggling how to define this film. Documentary? Experimental? Eclectic Narrative Hoo-Haa? It might be best described as Romanticism. What it demonstrates isn’t necessarily ‘love’ or ‘endearment’ for the city – we’re far more nuanced than that as a people. Perhaps it’s merely an appreciation and celebration in our ways – Rosie and Maud are a prime example of that. An indulgence in the highfalutin for a change (I am the second to raise my hand as being entirely guilty of this).

Given that so much consideration is put into exploring Belfast’s relationship with itself, we are left wondering how the rest of the UK has watched this film. Is it lost in translation? Do they know how teary-eyed our screenings were? Can they appreciate that? Cousins’ self-awareness, a theme of contemporary Northern Ireland, seems to say ‘I know my place’ and yet humbly knows itself to be important in the grand scheme of things. Even if the Belfast depicted, the true Belfast, doesn’t appeal to audiences overseas and across borders, we don’t mind. In fact we understand. We should be proud that this film hasn’t been given the glossy Discover NI Propaganda sheen – not one mention of Game of Thrones I’ll have you know! It doesn’t dwell longer than necessary on common knowledge, giving it more time to praise its people in a portrait of anonymity, with a Translink bus as a setting, of all places.

The film hasn’t overtly changed my opinion of Belfast, having become a sentimentalist towards it in recent years. It has made me realise that it’s a good hometown. I do feel that those tourists who book mini-breaks will get massively let down because there’s really not much to do. But it is worthy of study. It’s the slightly-removed, sense of community we have here. The shared hardships too. It is, and always will be, the rapport we all have with each other and everyone else that ‘is’ Belfast.

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