Each month, Good Times' resident film critic, Sarah Smyth, chooses a hotly anticipated film for our readers. For April, she picks the lyrical and poetic documentary, I am Belfast.
Spring is a strange time for film. While most associate it with renewal and rebirth, this season’s release of film tends to be a rather stale and lacklustre affair. Exhausted from all the back-patting of the Academy Awards but not quite ready for the energy of the big-budget franchises released in the summer, spring is a cinematic limbo. How refreshing, then, to be offered Mark Cousins’ beautiful documentary, I am Belfast, a love letter to the titular city and the filmmaker’s hometown.
Like the season in which his film is released, Mark Cousins occupies a strange in-between space in the industry. He is both a filmmaker and a film critic, almost unheard of nowadays. Yet his powerful prose, both on-screen and off-screen, demonstrate how much these two roles have in common. Ultimately, they are both act as a statement of love and dedication to the medium of film itself, and Cousins has this in abundance. His monthly column, ‘Dispatches', in film bible, Sight and Sound, is a constant joy, combining a deft understanding of the industry with a sheer love of the artistry and magic of cinema. Similarly, his films often act as an homage to his favourite medium. In 2009, he created a project with Tilda Swinton where they manually pulled a 33.5-tonne portable cinema through the Scottish Highlands. This featured heavily in a documentary in 2011 called Cinema is Everywhere. In 2011, Cousin’s made the hugely ambitious The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15-hour documentary on the history of film. It was adapted from Cousins’ book of the same name, further demonstrating the link between Cousins’ two roles, and was originally broadcast on television in one-hour segments. Eventually, it was shown in its entirety at the Toronto International Film Festival where The Telegraph declared it the ‘cinematic even of the year’. In 2013, Cousins followed this up with A Story of Children and Film, an examination of childhood and cinema that was inspired by footage he took of his niece and nephew.
Cousins’ latest film, I Am Belfast, switches focus from cinema to Northern Ireland’s capital city but not without losing any of the lyrical tone of his previous work. Cynics should leave their attitude at the door and immerse themselves in 90 minutes of sincere poetry towards the city. In the film, Belfast becomes personified as an old woman who (stay with me) is the living embodiment of the place and its turbulent history. She takes the viewer on a tour of the city and recounts experiences of the Troubles as she goes. The film weaves archive material of the city, showing the rich history and heritage of the people still living there, or for people, like Cousins, who once called it home. It also recounts the transformation Belfast has witnessed since the peace process began, offering hope for the future generations to come.
Why it’s worth seeing? With a masterful knowledge of cinema, and a sheer love of the medium itself, Cousin’s unique and poignant filmmaking is always worth watching. Combined with a rich and urgent subject matter, this promises to be a beautiful and important work. For these reasons, I am Belfast is not to be missed.
I am Belfast is released in the UK on the 8th April 2016.
Sarah is our regular film blogger. Learn more about her here.
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