Mark Cousins: I Am Belfast

'Did we really do that? Were we that inhuman? Yes, we were.' Auteur on exploring the past, present and future of his birthplace in a special, UK-wide film programme

Mark Cousins claims, with some measure of jest, that he once tried to walk all the streets in Belfast. The filmmaker wanted to know every inch of the place before making I Am Belfast, a quietly touching chronicle of his hometown that charms and intrigues from beginning to end.

Steeping oneself in a subject to such a degree might sound like quite an undertaking, yet, as Cousins suggests, Belfast embodies that which is truly compelling. Its history and heritage, the scars of its tragic past; none of its inherent power has faded since he set off for university three decades ago. Now 49, Cousins, who lives in Edinburgh, was inspired by the fact that Belfast never left him.

‘It’s an addictive place. It kind of hypnotises you,’ he says. ‘I’ve been really lucky. I’ve filmed all around the world – Moscow, Calcutta, Tehran, Dakar, Los Angeles, everywhere. You go to all these places, yet you’re thinking of your home because Belfast has got this aliveness to it and a kind of melodrama, a kind of excess, which is just fascinating. It calls you back.’

Shot in an unashamedly abstract style that meshes a range of genres — drama, fable, music video — and scored by Cousins’s compatriot, composer David Holmes, I Am Belfast receives its UK-wide release on April 8, 2016, supported by a special series of events made possible by Film Hub NI with support from the BFI's Lottery funded Programme Development Fund.

The picture is a fitting one for a festival known to feed off the energy of its setting, and for Cousins, whose unique sensibilities have already seen him create the lengthy, brilliantly ambitious The Story of Film: An Odyssey (a documentary which runs to over 900 minutes, itself an adaptation of his own 2004 book of the same title), the opportunity to paint his birthplace in fresher shades proved irresistible. 

‘I’d been making a series of films about cities, like Mexico City and Tirana. Cities are very cinematic things and I thought I could have a go making a film about Belfast. There have been lots but maybe this could be something a bit different, why not try?’ he asks.

‘Why not throw all my creative energies into this and make something that we haven’t quite seen before? Whether people like the film or not, I think they’ll agree that they haven’t quite seen this version of Belfast before.’

Part documentary, part fond tribute, the piece feels singularly in tune with its material, a sense that Cousins worked hard to realise: ‘You sit at your desk or sit on a train, you go for a walk, and imagine a film. It starts to spool in your head and then you make it.’ To his mind, the final product represents a significant achievement, capturing, as it does, a spirit that can prove hard to pin down.

‘To be honest, I’m really proud of I Am Belfast. It’s got a kind of soul to it. I kept thinking of Van Morrison and how he wrote his songs with very specific references to the city and its street names, yet he would almost turn it into something mystical. That’s what I tried to do, make something with a lot of soul, something visually beautiful.’

‘Belfast is a city we all know well,’ he says, speaking about the particular manner in which the project was put together, its delicate communion of image and sound anchored by a familiar locale. ‘The purpose of a work of art, or a movie, is to try and make us look at something through fresh eyes. You want to say to people, “Wash out your eyes, look again and discover.”’

In Cousins’s estimation then, discovery can redefine what has gone before, and if he can help to forge a newer, modern narrative, then it is all to the good. ‘There are loads of clichés about Belfast, a lot has been said, a lot has been quoted. What you tend to get is repeated images.’

Indeed, he embraced the chance to challenge perceptions, pointing out that ‘any famous place, when you mention its name, evokes images. That’s a good place to film because what you want to do is change those images and say, “No, what you think about this place is not true, there are other ways of looking at it”. That’s the main attraction.’

Cousins also believes that Belfast’s hidden layers have much to say about mankind as a whole, calling it ‘a good place to study human nature'. Its famous friendly welcome belies something much darker, however, a contradiction at the heart of our species.

Humanity, Cousins contends, ‘is full of warmth and coldness, violence and compassion. We’ve got a mix of all of that. We haven’t even hidden it very well, it’s right there on the surface. Belfast isn’t behind the door, it isn’t shy.’

In truth, that conclusion is all too familiar in Northern Ireland, a sad reality that Cousins decided to face rather than whitewash. At the centre of I Am Belfast is its notional guide, a 10,000-year-old woman (Helena Bereen), the city in human form, who wanders its avenues, soaking in its essence. She mourns the cruelties that her citizens wrought upon each other and for the residue of such pain.

Cousins acknowledges that to have avoided addressing the past seemed futile. ‘We just need to be honest with ourselves… We really have to admit that the Troubles were so recent that it’s still in our unconscious mind, a wound that is still healing. In fact, when you stop fighting, you are amazed at how bad things got.

‘We did terrible things,’ he continues. ‘It should bubble up, in our minds, in our hearts, in our sadness. In the middle of the joy, modernity and new tolerance that we have, we have to allow a bit of space to acknowledge that creature from the Black Lagoon, that sense of, “Wow, did we really do that? Were we that inhuman?” Yes, we were.’

Tellingly, one of the film’s stronger motifs – extending beyond Belfast’s boundaries – is the death of the last bigot, whose funeral is celebrated by the denizens of a new Northern Ireland, each casting off the shackles of his glowering presence. Cousins’s message is deliberately unambiguous, and he speaks with passion about the need to ‘leech’ the poison of prejudice, hate and sectarianism from the depths of the country’s complicated subconscious.

‘We’re all in this together, we all have to solve these problems. Just as we have to be realistic about what we did, we have to really imagine a future free from bigotry. There’s a lot of it still in Northern Ireland, new as well as old. We need to keep growing up as a population, as a community and build on our best sides, because we have this brilliant side of our personalities, which is so friendly.’

Whatever his ideals, Cousins appears unafraid to gaze, without flinching, at all of the elements that converge in the city’s peculiar brew. He humbly offers a portrait, a tale of a settlement and its children. This is poetry, not prose.

‘Hopefully those who watch this film will get some idea of what it was like to have lived in that place. To love it. And hate it.’

I Am Belfast is out now in select cinemas across the UK, supported by the I Am... programme of special screenings and events at Queen's Film Theatre. The programme includes a Sunday walk inspired by locations from the film on April 10. For full detail and booking visit www.filmhubni.org.