The Bookseller of Belfast

Alessandra Celesia's unorthodox documentary captures the weird and wonderful life of bibliophile John Clancy

The Bookseller of Belfast, broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday, June 10, was an unusual yet touching portrait of John Clancy, a man steeped in a love for books and the written word.

A 2011 French-UK co-production, the documentary is directed by Alessandra Celesia, whose husband, Belfast filmmaker and co-founder of Dumbworld Productions, John McIlduff, serves as executive producer. Having been shown in festivals throughout Europe before this premiere domestic broadcast, the film garnered audience awards at the Florence, Lisbon and La Rochelle film fairs.

An art house film focused on an admirably ordinary subject, it is less about Clancy’s vast collection of books acquired during days working as a bookseller in the Smithfield area of Belfast – and his associated encyclopedic knowledge of all things literature – than it is about him as a person.

Genial, honest and with a refreshing lack of cynicism, Clancy appears no happier than when retreating into his library and the company of an eclectic circle of friends. The audience is given an intimate snapshot of Clancy’s world, a place where he enjoys the simple pleasures of a hearty breakfast or the re-discovery of a rare first edition of Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March.

The film is enjoyable, but you are certainly made to work for it. There are no captions. There is no narration. None of the traditional signposts of documentary filmmaking exist to guide you.

The narrative is shot in close-up, which is initially disconcerting since none of the people featured are either familiar nor are they properly introduced. Instead, the characters intersecting Clancy’s daily existence appear without explanation, their own stories becoming clear as the film delves deeper.

There is something confusing at first about listening to a conversation, out of context, between people who do not themselves require any exposition. It is with that personal style, however, that the documentary finally wins us over.

Clancy’s almost deferential respect for books is somewhat quaint in a world of iPads and Kindles. Yet, when you see him delicately restoring the spine of an aged Tristram Shandy or reading aloud from Felix Salten’s Bambi, there is a sense of the wonder that dedicated readers and bibliophiles will relate to. For Clancy, that wonder prevails even in his latter years.

His working life appears to have been driven by such passion too. There was no great economic benefit in working as a bookseller. Clancy even admits that he gave most of his books away. He recalls a professional woman to whom he gave free books during her university studies. She paid him what she owed when she could.

Digging through some old correspondence, Clancy takes great pride in a letter of thanks from a Californian woman for whom he completed a WB Yeats collection. In Clancy’s estimation, the essential goodness of people is a simple equation. ‘What goes around comes around,’ he opines.

Perhaps The Bookseller of Belfast's most touching theme is community. It is remarkable the way in which Clancy's neighbours in a close, working-class north Belfast community are drawn to him.

Robert loves rollerblading and ice hockey but through Clancy’s gentle tutelage he has as much passion for classicism and ancient Rome as he does for the Detroit Red Wings. Puccini’s La bohème features prominently on his iPod, and he dreams of herding cattle on the American plains.

Jolene first appears sharing her breakfast with Clancy in the café where she works. She has designs on becoming a professional singer (her talent show set is, ironically enough, a Dolly Parton medley), like many young women her age.

In both cases, Clancy considers their aspirations to be as legitimate as anything else. He is a conduit for the fantasies of everyday people and a philosopher expounding simple truths that are often forgotten in an increasingly cutthroat world. ‘Never take away a man’s dream,’ he warns, ‘or you take away a part of his soul.’

The Bookseller of Belfast will be available to view on the BBC iPlayer in the coming days. Watch a clip on the BBC One website.