Mark Cousins on I Am Belfast
Prolific filmmaker, critic and all-round cinema hero Mark Cousins discusses the flâneur tradition, feminism and falling back in love with his hometown at a recent screening of his new film, I Am Belfast.
It’s Friday night at HOME in Manchester and Mark Cousins bounds on stage to introduce I Am Belfast, the filmmaker’s latest rhapsodic cine-essay. In a spangly Bowie t-shirt and skinny jeans, Cousins probably doesn’t look too dissimilar, save for the flecks of grey in his mop of curly hair, to the young man who abandoned a war-torn Belfast in 1983. “I kind of hated the place, in a way,” says Cousins during the post-screening Q&A. “It was so tight-arsed and conservative and religious, and all that stuff I didn’t really like. I just wanted to get elsewhere.”
Like the city itself, Cousins’ opinion has mellowed over the decades. While preparing for the film, he walked every street of his hometown, on-and-off over two years, and he found a different city. “I just kind of fell in love with the place again,” he says, although he’s quick to add: “But I hadn’t forgot the thing that repelled me.” This bittersweet flavour permeates his wonderful new movie.
During the lively Q&A, the 51-year-old filmmaker muses on myriad topics. He vividly discusses the quality he loves about cities – “I think cities are incredibly cinematic. Apart from maybe the human face, they’re the next most cinematic thing I can think of” – and explains how he likes nothing more than to saunter through these urban jungles, flâneur style. “When you walk a lot, you switch off and you start to people-watch; your unconscious mind takes over in a way. I’ve always loved that walking thing – it’s the pace of it. Cycling’s quite fast, driving is far too fast, sitting is too slow, but that walking pace, it creates a passing scene, a cinematic scene, a cyclorama, but it’s a slow cyclorama; it gives you time to think.”
Mark Cousins' new movie, I Am Belfast
He’s also insightful on the merits of archival footage, which he uses sparingly in I Am Belfast, to tell the history of a place. “Often when you look at archive film, it’s crap – it’s some lord or lady with a posh voice cutting a ribbon and opening something,” he says. The key to using archive interestingly, he explains, is to channel the material's unconscious energy. “I find that when looking at archive footage you try to switch off your rational brain, if possible, and assess it in another way. It’s a very bad account of history, so we have to reuse it and repurpose it and radicalise it in a way that it wasn’t intended to be used.”
Cousins also reveals a lovely anecdote of his first meeting with the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who shot portions of the film. “We Skyped and the first thing Chris Doyle said to me was, 'I watched the Story of Film and you watch films all the time – you must not have a sex life.’ Those were his exact words,” he laughs.
Why Cousins imagined Belfast as a woman
In the film, Cousins imagines Belfast as a centuries-old woman, who's gracefully played by veteran stage actor Helena Bereen. We follow her as she walks the city, and in voiceover she discusses its recent past. It’s a curious conceit: this is clearly one of Cousins’ most personal films, so initially you can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t lend his own distinctive voice to the narration, as he’s done so successfully on other projects. It’s when we see Bereen in close-up, and the sadness in her eyes at the pain and suffering she’s witness throughout the city’s history, that the power of the device becomes clear. Cousins recalls why he wanted his representation of Belfast to be feminine:
“I was talking to the great writer Irvine Welsh about this. He has chosen to look at Scotland through the hardman, and when you think of a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese, he decided to look at New York through the hardman, and that’s a great way because hardmen are remarkably revealing; they’re a very interesting lense. But for me that simply wouldn’t have worked. I’ve had enough of hardmen; they were the people who beat the crap out of me at school. I wanted to put a different type of human being on screen.”
The choice was also political: "Like many, I feel that there just aren’t enough women on screen, and particularly older women. And I just thought I’d like to look through a lense which was something like the opposite of a hardman. Somebody who was expressive. The people that I know growing up who were expressive, who could deal with emotions, and actually tell stories, were women.”
Throughout I Am Belfast, Cousins shows a sharp eye for detail, and is constantly alive to the magic of the everyday. Humdrum streetscapes become studies in the fantastic: he finds a Mark Rothko on a boldly painted door, scenes from Hitchcock on a street of terraced houses and an ice planet in the centre of town that’s revealed to be a hill of salt. At points our narrator seems to be conducting the footage, like John Smith in The Girl Chewing Gum, adding splashes of colour and characters to compliment the scene.
Blending documentary and fiction
One audience member calls Cousins out on his approach, which is neither documentary nor fiction. Cousins isn't having any of it, though: “I like genre bending. I also like gender bending, all sorts of bending is good. I think that when you mix categories up you often get something interesting.” As he rightly explains, this idea of the purely observational doc is a fantasy. “Documentary has always been passive-aggressive. You respond to the world in front of you, but you also control it in some way. I can’t remember who said it, but in fiction, the director is God, but in documentary, God is the director. That’s a nice little conflation there. In my work I like to do something that is purely responsive.”
Bereen’s narration sensitively guides us through the Troubles, focusing in on flashpoints, like the McGurk's bar bombing, rather than giving a potted history. The blending of timelines and the hypnotic score, courtesy of Belfast producer David Holmes, suggests we're experiencing the dreams of the city, but the film is not without its gritty, unvarnished moments. “I was thinking a lot about David Lynch,” explains Cousins. “You know, how David Lynch can switch between these Angelo Badalamenti dreamscapes and then something raw will happen. I wanted scenes that had that kind of energy. You want a kind of volcanic explosion in your film; you want to disrupt your own film in a way.”
The biggest disruption comes in the form of two foul-mouth septuagenarians named Rosie and Maude. The antithesis to our serene narrator, this rambunctious pair make Derek and Clive sound quaint. They eff and blind their way through a riotous and flirtatious chat with Cousins in a Belfast cafe. The pair ooze charisma, and give Cousins sometimes very sad film a bolt of electricity. “Some of the funders asked me to take out Rosie and Maude because they thought it was too disruptive, but they were great,” he says. And, as with the choice of Bereen as our narrator and guide, their inclusion also has a point to make. “If you care about the politics of feminism, it’s really important to show people of this age who want to swear like that and are, shall we say, sexually active, as you can see – isn’t that fantastic!.”
Another heartening aspect of I Am Belfast is seeing a loving spotlight turned on an unglamourous city that's been overshadowed by its violent history. But does Cousins, to quote Woody Allen in Manhattan, romanticised Belfast all out of proportion? If he does, he’s clearly happy to do so. “The romantic is such a great thing. One of my favourite painters is Caspar David Friedrich, and I love Jean-Jacques Rousseau, all these romantics with a capital R, I absolutely love that stuff. I’m not afraid of that at all.”
He does admit that he initially thought the ending, an act of civic compassion as a bus driver changes route to pick up a woman’s forgotten shopping, was in danger of being overly-hopeful, but on reflection he reckons this image of collaboration and cooperation represents Belfast pretty accurately. “The idea of the city as an entirely impersonal place doesn’t ring true to me,” he says. “Cities bring people together in close proximation, they’re living really close to each other, and that can bring out a kind of empathetic thing in people, and a kind of cooperation.”
I Am Belfast is on limited release now. To find out when and where it's screening, go to bfi.org.uk/whats-on/bfi-film-releases/i-am-belfast