Many filmmakers have brought their hometowns to the silver screen to tell insightful stories from familiar territory. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese have Manhattan, Wong Kar-wai has Hong Kong, Alfred Hitchcock had London, and Mark Cousins will always have Belfast. Cousins’ latest dreamlike documentary I Am Belfast is a lyrical docu-travelogue about his beloved place of birth- and his return to the city he once left behind.
Thunder and lightning set against a purple sky is our introduction to Cousins' portrayal of the historic Northern Irish area. A chaotic and disorientating opening is perhaps the best introduction we could get to a place with such a rich history. The visuals soon become sombre and soften; we find ourselves in a salt stockyard with a whimsical, motherly figure wandering beside the white hills. This is Helena Bereen playing the personification of Belfast’s spirit. Cousins is with her whilst never appearing on screen himself. Together they discuss and converse about the journey they’re about to undertake. Their poetic (and sometimes kitsch) shared narration builds a portrait of the city in which they inhabit and the people who're there with them. History, art and culture play an important role as Cousins looks to bury his shame for his exodus so many years prior.
Collaborating with the maestro cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Cousins certainly shoots the mundane landscape to raise it to visual heights. The mix of low-fi digital visuals and the filmic portions of the movie (clearly shot by Doyle himself) do noticeably stand out in stark opposition at first, yet soon blend together in a rhythmical collection. Doyle is best known for his neon drenched visuals with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, but his work here is a far cry from what we have seen previously. Even on the suburban streets of Belfast his cinematic flare is known. This is a story told by three people… Bereen as Belfast, Cousins as the naïve narrator, and Doyle as the lens into the city.
Cousins knows his history, even though he may play naïve, and he certainly knows his cinematic history, as we’ve seen in his fifteen-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Archival stock footage of the old harbour, slices of news footage from the IRA attacks, and the odd clips from movies such as Abel Gance’s J’Accuse and B-movie schlock Creature from the Black Lagoon - all help build the portrait of Belfast. I Am Belfast isn’t just about its history or the archaic wall that separates its Catholic and Protestant communities; the film is truly about the characters who inhabit the city. Cousins often queries us about the passers-by in his frame. Who are they? What do they think of their city? A story about a bomb being set off in the humble McGurk pub, a drunkard passed out in the alcove of a bank, and the colourful, sweary characters Maud and Rosie help build an image of what Belfast is truly about.
Despite Belfast’s muddled history, Cousin’s remains optimistic about the future of his hometown. He posits that the last bigot is metaphorically dead, the creature from the Black Lagoon will never surface again to rear his hideous face. The future of Belfast is with its youth. The changing faces who would tear down their Berlin wall that separates their community and ideologies. Belfast’s heritage and history is a scar beside the sea where sweet water meets oceanic salt water. She lives and breathes with its colourful people. Their past can never be forgotten but the future of the city is yet unwritten.
I Am Belfast is currently playing in selected cinemas across the country and on the BFIplayer.
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