Documentary maker and all round film nut Mark Cousins has created an unconventional documentary all about his hometown Belfast. This is no compilation of talking heads and GoPro drone footage though, instead he’s crafted what is essentially an 84minute poetic dialogue between himself as film-maker and inquisitor, and the city itself, portrayed here as an older woman (played by Helena Bereen) strolling through the streets. It’s artistic, smart, beautiful and borders a tiny bit on side of satirical farce.
Cousins may be best known now as a film-maker responsible for the ambitious 15-hr documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey. He’s also a columnist in “Sight & Sound” magazine and a sometime critic. He left Belfast 30 years ago when it was a very different kind of place to now. Back then the daily grind of life in a land plagued by terror would wear down even the most optimistic and creative soul. I Am Belfast sees him returning there as a more contemplative force, walking every street in the city looking for interesting sounds and pictures in the people, history and architecture.
The documentary/drama (though it’s not a docu-drama by any means) appears quite reactive and natural, but the post-screening Q&A revealed that Cousins scripts things meticulously and waits for the moment to fit the idea in his head. The composition of the observational moments with the staged 10,000-year-old “Belfast” scenes (shot by acclaimed Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle) work well and, when coupled with Cousins’ superb ability to use just the right amount of archive, make for a truly engaging work. There are countless brilliant moments to raise a smile, but personally I could have done with a wee bit less of the longer sequences like “the funeral for the last bigot” and more of the likes of old gal pals Rosie and Maud.
The big elephant in the room when you think of a film about the North is of course The Troubles. For anyone who grew up in the quarter century from the late 60s onward, mention of the city may induce a wincing grimace as recollections of parades, petrol bombs and paramilitaries dominate your thoughts. The issues are treated respectfully here, but instead of some sorry story, you really are sold a picture of a place that is much bigger and better than all that messing around about Catholics and Protestants.
A unique work and great achievement, I Am Belfast captures the sense of a place better than any more conventional travel doc could hope to. Can the EU give him a few million and get him to do one of these for some more capital cities please?