Mark Cousins is something of a figurehead in contemporary film criticism. He is an insightful interviewer and commentator on all things related to film. The Story Of Film, is an exhaustive look at the first century of film which debuted in 2011 is a must see for anyone who is interested in the subject. As well as the critical side he has also developed as a film maker in his own right. His latest is the documentary film I Am Belfast.
The film is a love letter to the city in which Cousins was born and bred. Having lived there for twenty years, he is able to use these memories to form the basis for a retelling of Belfast’s History. The story is told as conversation between Cousins and the city as voiced by Helena Bereen. The film takes in the surroundings of the city, the changing face of the political landscape over the last century and the lifeblood of the city, it’s inhabitants.
Through the voice of the city, we are taken on a lyrical journey through its past. Emphasis is placed on both the good and the bad as they both inform the present. We are first presented with the landscapes. What this does is to cleanse the palate in a way. There is a preconception, especially in my generation, as to what Belfast looks like. High walls, barbed wire and political murals. This is obviously a misconception based on media reports of the troubles, but it still sticks in the mind. What is provided is a thing of beauty. Sweeping landscapes and almost other worldly scenes reset our ideas of what this place seems like. When the heart of the city is then presented it is seen as being a place of history, tradition and industry.
The conversation that flows through the film is complemented by the visuals. The film was shot by the masterful cinematographer Christopher Doyle. In collaboration with Cousins local knowledge, he has produced some superb imagery. Full use is made of light and shade in highlighting aspects of the environment including an out of place gold wall. Belfast has the same sort of weather as the west of Scotland so there is plenty of rain and water. The film makers use this a number of times as a mirroring technique. This is utilized to good effect in the opening minutes of the film at the salt hill. The reflected hill in the water and the positioning of the camera give a totally different perspective, which doesn’t feel like it can possibly be in the middle of a city.
What the film doesn’t do is to gloss over the recent history of the troubles. It is necessary to acknowledge them even though it is obviously painful. What really hit home was that over two hundred thousand people left the city during the troubles and it is only in the last decade that this has started to increase. The film does not take a side or offer opinions. It merely states facts and what this meant to the city and its inhabitants. The effects continue to be seen today in the way parts of the city are blocked off by high walls and metal fences.
The main part of any place is the people who live there. The film highlights the variation in the populace and what it means to the city. It is true to say that they make Belfast what it is. The film ends with a tale that really brings it all together. Who knew that a story about a woman forgetting her shopping could be so interesting and relevant?
Overall, an insightful journey in to the personal history of a city from a great film maker.