Mark Cousins: ‘I’ve always believed Belfast is a very female place’
I Am Belfast, a film by Cousins with a score by David Holmes, tells the story of the city as embodied by a 10,000-year-old woman. It feels, fittingly, like a long, strange dream
Director Mark Cousins with Helena Bereen, who plays the personification of the city in I Am Belfast
David Holmes: ‘Are there moments when I ask myself what the f*** am I doing living here? Of course there are. That’s just the way it is. I hate this city as much as I love it’
Helena Bereen in a scene from the film
Belfast is a city that resists easy interpretation: nothing that happens there is ever as it initially seems. Because of this, many films about the city have failed, having slipped into the usual traps of painful cliche, fetishised violence or vapid sentimentality. I Am Belfast, which recently got its premiere at the Belfast Film Festival, is radically different.
The new film, by director Mark Cousins with a score by musician and composer David Holmes, is the story of a 10,000-year-old woman who embodies the city. And true to the contradictory spirit of the place, I Am Belfast resists easy classification. It’s dramatic, but it’s not a drama. It observes, but it’s not a documentary. More than anything, it feels like a strange dream. When you wake from it, you can’t help looking at the city with new eyes.
Yes, there is darkness and bitterness and horror – how could there not be? – but Belfast, translated by Cousins, is also a beautiful place, alive with sound and colour. It’s a gold wall, a baby crying. Thunderclouds. The flickering shadows of flags. A red poppy, a red ship. And soaring over it all, the half-forgotten voice of Belfast singer Ruby Murray, Sinatra’s favourite, crooning a curious lullaby.
Belfast would be nothing without its people, and they’re here too, in all their noisy, garrulous profusion. A laughing man describes what love feels like: “It’s like jam running down your back and you can’t turn round to lick it.” Yet it’s the women who carry this film, including a pair of real-life characters called Rosie and Maud, who release a stream of obscenities so joyously exuberant that it practically elevates swearing to an art form.
And, of course, there’s Belfast herself, played with enigmatic grace by Helena Bereen. This excess of womanliness is a deliberate decision by Cousins. “I’ve always believed that Belfast is a very female place,” he says, surprisingly enough, given its historic association with guns, bombs and paramilitary machismo.
Travelling in west Africa, Cousins encountered the tradition of the griots, mythic storytellers and troubadours who preserve the collective memory of a society, going right back to the dream-time.
“I think of the stories that my granny told when I was growing up – ‘I met a woman who told me about a woman who knew another woman’, layers and layers, each one less believable – and I believe that they have that same mythic quality.”
Walking every street
If I Am Belfast appears unorthodox, it’s because it was made that way. First of all, Cousins set himself the challenge of walking every street in the city, even the obscure residential ones, taking a small hand-held camera with him. A self-described wanderer, Cousins has walked across Mexico City, Paris, Berlin and LA in the course of his film-making travels.
He knows it’s the best way to connect, or to reconnect, with a place. (He has also hauled a mobile cinema on ropes across the Scottish Highlands, alongside his friend and collaborator Tilda Swinton, but that’s a whole other story.)
“As humans, we are lazy lookers,” Cousins says, “but if you open your eyes and look carefully, you find unexpected moments of pathos or poetry. I would try different things, like walking into the city and looking only for the colour blue. Or only looking for clouds. It’s magical; it reconfigures everything.”
Then, after Cousins was finished filming for the day, he would head over to David Holmes’s house. “We would have dinner, drink red wine, maybe smoke some jazz tobacco, which made the whole experience more animated, and then we would just play with sound,” says Holmes.
“I have a huge folder of found sounds, samples of records, stuff I’d created myself, all chosen simply because I liked them. I can select as many as I want and play them at any tempo or key. So I would just close my eyes and scroll through the sounds and Mark would tell me when to select. It was music by chance.”
Cousins found it to be a remarkably liberating process. “The film world can be a bit of a straitjacket,” he says, “but here we were working in such a free way. We felt like surrealists from the 1920s. I would randomly pick samples and David would stretch and layer them. We’d sit in the room and go to and fro, call and response. I’ve never had a creative collaboration from Belfast before, my own home patch, so this was a proper bromance – it still is.”
The feeling was mutual. Holmes, a formidable talent who has worked with high- profile directors such as Steve McQueen and Steven Soderbergh, was excited by Cousins’s unique way of looking at the world. “Mark being Mark, he sees beauty in the most abstract or ugly things, things you wouldn’t give a second glance, and he turns them into poetry,” says Holmes. “Mark is in love with life, his mind is exploding with energy. It’s infectious, inspiring, it makes you look at your own work in a new way. The trivial world of celebrity, internet gossip, the nonsense people waste time on – he doesn’t get caught up with any of that.
“Last week I got a text from him saying, ‘Woke up feeling great. I’m going to a climb a mountain today.’ If he asked me to do the music for all his films, I’d say yes instantly, no matter what the budget, because you know it will be a ride you will never forget.”
Van Morrison gets involved
Holmes introduced Cousins to the great Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who brought his distinctive vision. Van Morrison was happy to get involved, too: his beautifully understated song It’s All Right brings the final sequence of the film to a simple, moving close.
Cousins lives in Edinburgh now. He has enjoyed international recognition for smart, idiosyncratic works such as The Story of Film: An Odyssey and A Story of Children and Film. What is it about Belfast that pulls him back?
“I wanted to look at a familiar place in a non-familiar way,” he says. “Other places are not as alive: people don’t drink as much, or talk as much. Polanski once spoke of life having ‘great amplitude’ and I think that’s true of Belfast. It’s a great city to study human truth: you have warmth and tragedy all in the one place. Emotions are exposed, not hidden; there’s no such thing as a stiff upper lip. We are a melodrama all to ourselves.”
Salt meets sweet, sweet meets salt – that is how Cousins imagines Belfast. The abrasive exterior that hides a melting heart or the deceptively honeyed coating on a hard, intractable centre, sometimes both at once. It conveys an ambivalence that Holmes understands all too well. “Am I proud to be from here? Of course I am, “ he says. “Are there moments when I ask myself what the f*** am I doing living here? Of course there are. That’s just the way it is. I hate this city as much as I love it.”