by Ben Diamond
Belfast is a ten thousand year old woman. At least, according to Mark Cousins she is. He has recruited Helena Bereen to embody the spirit of the city and to tell its story, from its beginnings of co-mingling of sweet and salt, to its recent Troubled history, and finally looking forward to the future. The closest I can recall watching anything remotely like this was Terence Davies’s love letter to his Liverpool childhood, Of Time and the City, although the two really only bear superficial similarities – Davies’s work is constructed entirely out of archive material, whereas I Am Belfast is as much about the ‘now’ of Belfast as it is about ‘then’. Or, perhaps, looking at the ‘then’ through the frame of the ‘now’.
Cousins and Bereen engage in a dialogue, literally – the two discuss Belfast, a co-voiceover to complement Bereen’s wanderings around the city, from the textile mills (once once of Northern Ireland’s strongest exports, the success built off the back of female labour), to the docks, and to the murals. A well-chosen piece of footage from the early ’70s shows British soldiers using a water cannon unnecessarily on a group of justifiably angry women. I think I caught a smirk from one of the soldiers just as the cannon is turned on, and I felt a flicker of rage, perhaps only a thousandth of the feelings of humiliation and injustice that, in one way or another, infected all the residents of this city during the Troubles.
Mark Cousins has an admirable talent for finding beauty in a city which has sort of faded away, left to lick its wounds. Perhaps beauty is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s better than beauty, perhaps it’s simply something unique, an essence of Belfast – a combination of colours on a building that once stood tall and proud but has now been left unoccupied, the way the cranes at the dock frame what’s behind them, or simply the play of shadows on a residential street. And, to go with these visuals, which tell a story of greys and browns, (nothing is a simple chiaroscuro in Belfast), a story of murky puddles and blurry images (fogged through the filter of Bereen’s cateracts), we have the voices of Belfast, which, in their lyrical and eloquent way, tell their own story.
I Am Belfast has bite to it too. I admired the will to make things better, rather than to simply recoil in horror at the recent past. The tale of three off-duty Scottish soldiers, lured from a pub and shot in the back of the head whilst taking a piss (‘two fluids leaking out at the same time’, very graphic, very shocking), a key incident at the start of the Troubles, is counterbalanced near the end of the film with a staging of the last bigot in Belfast, celebrated by the weird and the wonderful, who form the funeral procession. A unique take on a unique city.