I Am Belfast Review
How you respond to I Am Belfast may depend on your perception of its filmmaker, Mark Cousins. Mark has been an unassuming, yet ubiquitous presence in British film criticism and theory for many years. His Story of Film documentary series looking at the history of cinema is wonderfully detailed. His approach is one of poetic musings, perhaps even philosophically so, that nevertheless are deceptively precise despite his melodic delivery.
He now brings his inimitable method to take a look at his home city of Belfast. What he has produced is beautiful and if you subscribe to its method, utterly engrossing. Apropos the title, he imagines Belfast as a woman (Helena Breen), 10 000 years old casting a melancholy eye over her proud and fractious history. Both Mark and Helena, as Belfast, narrate. They do so openly and warmly. “You’re my kind of girl”, Mark tells Belfast at one point.
If it sounds strange, well, it is. If it seems hard to define, it’s that too, and can be seemingly inconsistent. I suppose not unlike it's subject, or indeed any city. If you have an interest in Belfast, or simply in film as an art, as an exercise in narrative, I implore you to try it. As documentaries go, it’s definitely not conventional or predictable, but Cousins can be relied upon to tell Belfast’s story honestly. Magic realism, he calls it on one of the supplemental features, and that seems as good a description as any. But does it work? That’s up to you and what you take from it. I can only comment that I believe it does, having visited Belfast once, that I came away from I Am Belfast with an optimistic, stronger and fresher sense of the place. Or indeed the woman! And a sense of the people in all their extraordinary mundanity, just like the rest of us.
The photography is both wonderful and bemusing, Mark’s languid camera settling on locations both large and imposing, or small and inconsequential. That’s not quite fair; it implies a lack of importance, but his point is that Belfast as a woman, as a place, is a mess of experience and contradiction. Everything that his gaze falls upon, be it countryside, landscapes, architecture or a bus stop, even a kerb, everything is as important as everything else in Belfast being a sum of its parts. The ending is a simple, lovely testament to a place and it’s people; perhaps Mark had a sense of reclaiming his hometown from its tarnished reputation during the Troubles. Perhaps he had no need to really, but at least he approaches it in his unique fashion, without an apparent agenda,
It makes for an elegant companion piece to Time and The City, Terence Davies’ passionate tribute to his home town of Liverpool, which he also presented in a way that only he could. Whatever you think of I Am Belfast, even if it occasionally frustrates you with seemingly obtuse eccentricity, it’s just life, given character by location. Perhaps you’ll look at your own neighbours a little different; certainly it makes you hope someone like Mark and Terrence will come along and pay a similar tribute to your own hometown. How busy is Shane Meadows these days?
The BFI present I Am Belfast with a short, but sweet set of extras. Concise and complimentary, they offer an insight into Mark Cousins' unique approach. It's an elegant release overall.
The Making of I Am Belfast (14m) This is an excellent making of supplement because it works as an extension of the main feature. Mark speaks of his intention to make it as “magic realism”. To capture the human truth.
Conversation with Mark Cousins (14m) Back-handed compliment it may be, but it works well to have someone ask precise questions to get to the heart of Mark’s intentions.
Conversation with Helena Breen (10m)
Conversation with Christopher Doyle (10m)
Cinematic Walk (18m)
Another unusual take on a sort of making of, as Mark takes a walk around Belfast with a group from Takeover film, prior to a Q&A and screening. Another enlightening piece.