I owe Mark Cousins a lot. His sprawling epic, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), launched me into the worlds of Metropolis (1927) and Seven Samurai (1954) and many others, and began my descent (or ascent?) into the world of cinema, beyond animation and the mainstream. One of the complaints I’ve seen again and again about Odyssey is “I couldn’t get into it because I didn’t like his voice!” Critics of Cousins’ voice may be relieved to hear that this film doesn’t feature his voice all that much.
Except when it does. Functionally, I Am Belfast is a monologue, with the personified Belfast given anthropomorphised form within an elderly woman, relating stories of the city’s inhabitants and its history through the Troubles to today. Yet it’s actually a duologue, with Cousins coordinating a dialogue with her. This wouldn’t be a problem, if Cousins actually had anything interesting to say. Instead, he gives empty interjections without any substance. This is the reality of conversations and conducting interviews – but it is then the role of the editor to take those interjections out. Cousins needlessly peppers the film with vintage film references (including some footage from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)), because of course, Cousins has seen every film known to man.
I Am Belfast is a poetic documentary, and touts itself as a “city symphony”, consciously placing itself among giants: Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927); Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Koyaanisqatsi (1982). I Am Belfast has big shoes to fill, yet it never really lives up to that. It merges several forms: travelogue, monologue, historical archival footage, but it never strings together in a coherent form. Of course that’s the function of the poem. But there aren’t even beautiful visuals (besides a couple of pretty shots of mountainscapes) to make it a tourism film; nor is there the invaluable record to the historian provided by Symphony and Movie Camera.
But perhaps Belfast is to be defined by its dullness. Behind these musings on the line between the line that divides Catholics and Protestants is a man photographed from the other side of the street, standing by a wall. We are to be amazed by the fact he wears blue, standing next to some street art he clearly didn’t paint. We are to wonder: did he ever consent and sign off to being part of a film shown in cinemas across the country and available to buy in HMV? We have the dullness of a couple who sit in a cafe talking to Mark Cousins about the fact they’ve been together for 50 years. In the penultimate scene, we experience the tragedy of a woman who left her shopping at the bus stop, as the bus driver asks the customers if it’s okay if they turn back. I pray that her shopping has gone missing from the bus stop, and there will be some narrative excitement as she mourns the death of a bag of groceries. There is not.
There’s one scene that works. In the most thoughtful part of the film, Cousins wonders what it would be like the day the last bigot in Ireland dies. That is of course a falsehood, as if to imply this could ever happen. At its most surreal point, we see an open coffin carried through a car park, as drag queens and protestors with placards celebrate the death of the last hater. A new, liberal age of Belfast, where we can all live in harmony. Yet it also undermines the film’s sense of reality, as if it were captured on the streets. Because this centrepiece is so clearly staged; it seems ridiculous to suggest Cousins hijacked somebody’s funeral for the one impressive sequence of his film.
I Am Belfast is not my least favourite film of the year, but it remains lifeless.