FILM REVIEW: I Am Belfast | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Mark Cousins with Helena Bereen (Belfast)

It’s almost an obligation when reviewing Mark Cousins’ remarkable new film I Am Belfast to reel off a litany of similar city-themed film-poems from directors like Marker, Petit and Vertov, and also refer to work by writers like Walter Benjamin and Iain Sinclair. It’s also important to mention Cousins’ earlier film, the lovely and ultra-low budget (less than a tenner!) What Is This Film Called Love?, which features Cousins killing time in Mexico City by walking around the city (with a laminated photo of Eisenstein for company), musing – in his soft Belfast lilt – about whatever occurs to him: art, film, politics, dancing, love.

Cousins’ voice is featured here as well, this time as a foil for the voice of Belfast herself (played by Helena Bereen), a 10,000 year old female personification of a city Cousins sees as full of love and magic and beauty. The interplay between the two feels a little awkward at first but when the film finds its rhythm, it works beautifully. Carefully framed shots of the city in the golden light of the magic hour are cut with portraits of people, like the potty-mouthed duo of Rosie and Maude, united in fuckery against the sectarian divisions that have blighted their city.

Cousins doesn’t shy away from dealing with The Troubles – there are awful accounts (and archive film) of bombings and protests and army intervention – but he’s keen to remind us that there’s more to Belfast than IRA murals and checkpoints and religious bitterness.

For a film that often feels a little unfocused, there is, after all, a momentum to it, aided by David Holmes’ unobtrusive but effective soundtrack and Christopher Doyle’s masterful camerawork, that reaches a quiet crescendo with two key scenes: first, the fictionalised account of the funeral of Belfast’s last bigot, a Jeremy Deller-esque piece of street theatre to accompany Cousin’s own poem:

“How could we not be right? My mother cried for all those things
Our language, flags and songs are like her tears, her years, her fears”

And then something more simple, a story of a lady forgetting her shopping at a bus stop and the bus returning to collect it for her. Bereen’s voiceover insists this is the real Belfast, a million kindnesses played out in a million tiny stories across the city. Cousins isn’t afraid of sentimentality – although he always stops short of mawkishness – and the use of Van Morrison’s astonishing It’s Alright to accompany this tale is a heart-rending masterstroke (not to mention a remarkable feat of licensing given Morrison’s customary reluctance about such things). Taken in tandem with the preceding funeral scene, there’s an emotional force here that left this reviewer in slightly weepy bits, mirroring the tears running down Belfast’s face at the close.

I Am Belfast is probably a divisive movie, perhaps too whimsical and uneventful for some, but if you allow the rhythm and the light and the salt-sweet storytelling to take you over, it’s a richly rewarding one.

I Am Belfast is currently screening at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle.

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