Keen to differentiate his latest work from recent academic film essays such as The Story of Film: An Odyssey and A Story of Children and Film, Mark Cousins switches his own telltale narration for that of a woman, Helen Bereen, who he has rather unusually cast as Belfast itself.
Encouraging the city to speak for herself, he proceeds to tease out a number of microcosmic stories to serve as his ode to the city he grew up in: starting at Stranmallis, where salt meets sweet, and eventually arriving at present day, in a cafe where a lively Protestant woman and her Catholic friend regularly meet for coffee.
It’s a strange premise, but one which immediately distinguishes I Am Belfast from other such documentaries; after all, Simon Reeve’s recent two-part series for BBC Two contained a whole host of insightful interviews with Belfast citizens but couldn’t count a direct dialogue with the city incarnate among them. Not beholden to a historical, religious or political perspective, Cousins is free to pick and choose the subjects that interest him, as a Northern Irish national and an international filmmaker.
This plays to his strengths, and as with his film commentary I Am Belfast relies heavily on Cousins’ own musings and analysis to give it a personal tilt. He’s even reconstructed one of his own mother’s anecdotes, about a shopping trip gone awry and the bus driver who saved the day.
So what do an amphibious fish-man and an army of undead French soldiers have to tell us about Belfast, you might reasonably ask? Well, it’s difficult to say; while Cousins’ free-associative questioning might have a lucid quality his dreamlike reasoning has little to do with logic.
Other apparently quintessential symbols of Belfast include colourful walls, theatrical buildings and homeless people, apparently, though it’s hard to see how any of these exhibits might be considered unique to a single city. Cousins is attempting to read Belfast’s peace lines the way a palmist might a life line (he walked every one of its streets in preparation for the project), but as with divination his insights are only likely to interest those with a vested interest or shared history. To lose a certain Northern Irish colloquialism, he throws an awful lot jam on his back but only some of it actually sticks.
It is inevitable, then, that the most successful aspect of I Am Belfast is that devoted to the Troubles, the era of Northern Irish history viewers are most likely to be familiar with. The subject is sensitively handled, with both Cousins and Bereen showing a reluctance to revisit the trauma but a determination that to do it justice nonetheless. Cousins, raised a Catholic, avoids obvious bias by taking an impartial perspective, that of seagulls floating above the chaos and indiscriminately feeding on human flesh. Equally affecting is his curiosity as to whether three Scottish soldiers lured from a pub by the IRA and executed atop Squire’s Hill might have followed the same route as Charles Dickens on one of his visits to Belfast over a hundred years before. But again, these asides tell us little about the city itself or the people who live there.
A curiosity rather than a comprehensive study, I Am Belfast is pleasant company throughout thanks to a strong central performance by Bereen, stunning cinematography from Christopher Doyle and a scintillating soundtrack tied together by David Holmes’ score. You won’t learn an awful lot about Belfast, past or present, but you’ll see just how much the city means to someone who now lives in Edinburgh.