“Brick then iron then mesh”
Don’t spend too long deciphering the title to Mark Cousins‘ latest essay film on his hometown I Am Belfast because it’s meant to be taken at face value. The film itself is this Northern Ireland city and the narrator (Helena Bereen) is as well. Don’t try to project metaphors or spiritual possession on top either because Cousins wants us to embrace this woman as Belfast without irony, comedy, or fantasy. She’s 10,000 years old and remembers everything. She knows what we all think—that we remember the wars and the Troubles and the IRA and little else. But she doesn’t shy from it. She doesn’t even try to make us forget it. Instead the journey through time and space she guides us along seeks to give it context.
So don’t get frustrated at the start despite it being easy to do. Besides the gorgeous cinematography by Christopher Doyle of static clouds in the sky outside an airplane window or iceberg-like mountains of salt, the film’s beginning is a bit esoteric. Belfast (the woman and therefore the city) tells us about architecture and colors. She flips through green spaces and jokingly plays Van Gogh by talking about new hues to add into the frame before they arrive via a stranger walking by. It’s pretty and fun yet also somewhat trapped atop its surfaces. Is this the journey we’ve embarked upon? Slight, quaint images conjured by a bubbly, smiling woman enjoying the opportunity to show her lighter side? Not quite. This is all meant to ease us in.
These ideas of color and opposites lay the groundwork for the reality of Belfast’s intense past. A description of a river’s name meaning the combination of sweet and salt sets up the struggle between Catholic and Protestant, a war pitting man against man as though they didn’t know better. This juxtaposition begins harmlessly with buildings painted orange and white, continues in practice as two men are seen passing each other in the street (the camera pausing them to anticipate what they may do once they converge), and takes on a whole new meaning when the story of a pub in the background illuminates just how bad things were. This bar no longer exists except as a memorial—the memory of a nightmare its innocent victims hoped would end.
Suddenly the bombs arrive—the pain, the horror. We look beneath this surface that initially seemed safe and serene to witness archival footage of the chaos. We see the aftermath with its myriad walls separating religious quadrants with red paint and metal barriers. Everything innocuous earns deeper meaning and the voices of both Belfast and Cousins lament while never refusing to ensure the truth gets told. You can’t blame the city itself, though. Belfast has been alive so long that it was bound to have hardship at some point. Most places don’t have such a volatile example to wear as a mark of regret, but at least she isn’t running away to hide. Instead she actually finds two women to portray the present’s hope and joy.
Rosie and Maude are forces of nature. Old, vulgar, and unabashedly original, they’ve only been best friends for maybe seven years but it’s as though they’ve known each other their whole lives. They are salt and sweet—although they’re both quite salty. They finish the other’s sentence, interrupt for laughter and joke, and hit on Cousins because why not? Mere decades ago a Catholic and Protestant would possibly only harbor rage intrinsically when pitted against the opposite. The line between them was so unshakeable that the city lost a third of its population (including the director) as a result of the fallout. And yet Rosie and Maude are two peas in a pod. How we could ever let such things get between us I’ll never know.
The simple fact Cousins has returned to conduct this self-stylized “city symphony” is because of this hope that now resides there. The chance to survive because of the past rather than prove beholden to it isn’t something easy to recognize, but Belfast appears to have found it. All the majesty of the city captured by Doyle’s static compositions can once more be gazed upon without the filter of war. Street corners are populated fearlessly; strangers are helped and never left alone. This isn’t simply a romantic ideal either. Belfast has been reborn in the memory of what was. Remnants of the past remain but will eventually fade into the background or get torn down altogether. Another city may have buckled before reclaiming its smile. Belfast somehow got stronger.