“I Am Belfast” London Film Festival review

Review originally published here.

There’s a lady: her name is Belfast and she wants to tell her story. Festival favourite Mark Cousins writes and directs this dreamlike exploration of Belfast’s past, present and possible future.

Part documentary, part drama and part old-fashioned storytelling, Cousins’ latest film takes a gentle pace through the life of this famous – or infamous – city, with glimpses into the everyday life of its people interspersed with Cousins’ own cinematographic observations. The viewer is encouraged to take Belfast as she is: battered, wise, friendly and grim. Painterly shots are paired with lyrical descriptions that sound like a man in love. Look at the city, he tells the viewer; really look! The trees, the people, the murals, the broken-down monuments, to a greater, more industrious age: no detail escapes the camera’s loving gaze.

The film’s narration unrolls slowly in the anecdotes and observations of the personified city, who appears from time to time onscreen as a pleasant-faced older woman (Helena Bereen) wrapped comfortably in a shawl. Fixed, textured shots take in the to-and-fro of city life, sketching a larger portrait from the many smaller ones, while David Holmes’ score provides a lullaby-like background to cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s poetically prosaic dreamscapes.

The film does, eventually, touch on “The Troubles”, though the verbal dramatisation of some incidents may ring overly-lyrical to those who associate the city with the pedestrian tone of 1990s news reports. Cousins’ touch is delicate and elegiac, with an insider’s insight into the living divisions of the city’s Protestant and Catholic cold war. However, I Am Belfast does unfurl at a speed that can feel ponderous at times. While the poetry and storytelling are effective at drawing the audience into the confidence of Cousins’ personified city, they also begin to wear a little thin through overuse in the last third of the film. Near the end, an interview with two exuberant Belfast natives provides a welcome break from the film’s unhurried reverie.

I Am Belfast is a quiet, understated film which creates poetry from the mundane, and paints a unique, personal picture of hope for the city’s future.

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