Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

LFF 2015: I Am Belfast

by Ben Diamond

I Am Belfast (Cousins 2015, 84m)

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.

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LFF 2015: Heart of a Dog

by Ben Diamond

Heart of a Dog (Anderson 2015, 75m)

“This is me, but it’s not me.  It’s my dream body.”  So Heart of a Dog starts, with an animated Laurie Anderson in a dream sequence, narrated by the real Laurie Anderson.  Ah, bloody hell, I think.  It’s one of those.  And whilst it was one of those, I got completely behind this film.  Poor old Laurie Anderson.  She’s had a sort of triple-whammy of death – her dog, her mother, and of course, the late, great, Lou Reed, her partner.  So it’s a documentary, a very creative documentary, about death – how we deal with death, and what happens when we die.  But it’s more than that.  It’s about time, it’s about how we tell stories, and it’s about life in a world of surveillance, post-9/11.

Laurie Anderson appears to be a bit of an all-rounder.  Clearly an accomplished filmmaker, we are also treated to musical compositions, her narrative, delivered in a captivating style (it actually reminded me of the slightly sinister voiceover in Desperate Housewives) reading like a long-form poem, and her elaborate paintings which imagine her dog in the various stages of the Bardo, the Tibetan equivalent of a sort of purgatory.  There’s oodles of invention and daring concept in this film, including interludes of pure text on the screen, run out of order and flashing up very quickly, a see-what-sticks approach.  What, in the hands of some, might have ended up as a whimsical mélange of ideas, in Anderson’s, becomes an enlightening and perceptive essay.

Some of the connections she draws might sound silly, but in the film become utterly thrilling and convincing.  She takes you one way, and then steers you in completely the other direction, then draws things together that make you marvel at her skills of perception, her unique worldview.  She talks about the moment her dog, Lolabelle, was attacked by hawks when they were out for a walk – they mistook her for a rabbit.  The hawks realise their mistake and retreat – but the dog is left with a new fear – they can come from the air, too.  A whole 180 degrees of extra threat for Lolabelle, who, although territorial before the incident, now looks up at the sky constantly as well as scouting on the ground.  Anderson then swerves back to 9/11.  We, too, realised that they can come from the sky.

Some bits of this film worked for me and some didn’t.  I have to admit I got slightly lost during the extended Tibetan instructions for what to do when you die.  I think the film succeeded best when it was simply Anderson telling a story – something which she clearly has a gift for.  And she has important things to say, too, about how we tell stories, and the things we leave out.  Heart of a Dog never feels didactic.  It feels more like the musings of a wise elder, which you can take or leave.  At one point Laurie tells us that she tries to feel sad, but not to be sad.  I’m not even sure what that actually means, or how you could achieve it, but it sounds significant, and I’m going to give it a go.