Who better than Mark Cousins to consider cinema's relationship with the Troubles? For the last 30 years or so, his famous keening vowels have walked us through all corners of the medium's history. His epic 2011 series The Story of Film: An Odyssey – also a delicious book – belongs with great authored documentaries such as The Ascent of Man and Civilisation. He's made films on children in film and on Orson Welles. And he is from Belfast. Raised in the city during the 1960s and 1970s, he is ideally positioned to ponder how the movies dealt with and how they offered relief from the violence.
Brian Henry Martin’s 50 years of The Troubles: A Journey Through Film, which screens on Channel 4 this weekend, is a little different to the films Cousins directed. Cousins does look at cinema of the Troubles, but he also talks a lot about his own experiences during that period.
“I wasn’t directing and it was interesting to be on just one side of the camera,” he tells me. “I was surprised they wanted to go so personal. But I respected their editorial decision and went for it. I talked about what I was asked about. You could say the personal stories about the Troubles are often the most powerful ones.”
An attractive, stringy man, his limbs tattooed with the names of favoured filmmakers, Cousins talks amusingly about his parents’ love of the cinema. He remembers how home video offered a way of watching movies safely when there was aggro on the streets. Throughout the film, we are repeatedly reminded how movies offered an escape from the dire realities of the time.
“Irish people are always good at escaping their home patch,” he laughs. “If you were brought up during the Troubles the escapist element was doubly appealing. Not only did we want to escape conservative Ireland, we also wanted to escape the Troubles. There was a double reason to get on the magic carpet.”
He left Northern Ireland for university in Scotland during the early 1980s and he has remained in that country ever since, but there is no mistaking the Ulster creak in his accent. Like a lot of emigrants, he eventually came to an accommodation with the land of his childhood. You can see that in his lovely 2015 film I am Belfast and you certainly hear it in The Troubles on Film. There's a funny moment when he and musician David Holmes discuss the home video boom.
“It was our access drug to the world of cinema. Our city centre cinemas were closed down. The local video stores were mostly pirated: one of the few advantages of the Troubles was that such things weren’t policed. You could get what ever you wanted without paying anything. There was no notion of censorship or classification. So I saw all sorts of inappropriate stuff.”
Thus his talents as a film critic were honed. Cousins is typically wry when assessing mainstream cinema's unhappy history of failing to capture Northern Ireland. There's a shot of Mickey Rourke in A Prayer for the Dying, but sadly no audio of his famous "no more culling" speech (as he rendered "killing"). We get a brief bit of the little-seen 1974 Margot Kidder flick A Quiet Day in Belfast. "Well-meaning s****," Cousins says in the voiceover.
"One of the weird things about cinema is that you're always looking for signs of believability before you jump on the magic carpet," he says. "In all those films from America little things are wrong: the clothes, the accent, the weather. When I watch Gene Kelly films I think I am Gene Kelly. It's not as if I am sitting there with arms folded saying, 'Impress me.' If the clouds are wrong and the light is wrong and the accents are wrong then you are pushed away from the film."
People from Scotland say the same thing about American films set in their country. So do the Dutch, the Nigerians and the Japanese.
“Every country has the same complaint. Hollywood has done everywhere and it’s always wrong.”
If you were a bit of a lefty you supported the IRA. The reason the unionist side wasn't shown was because it was seen as uncool'
American thrillers such as Patriot Games and The Devil’s Own get so much arse-ways that it’s hardly worth detailing the errors. British directors have done better work on the North. We think of Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and – most impressively – Steve McQueen’s era-defining Hunger. But the concerns tend to remain the same. Few of those movies put the unionist community at their centres.
“As we know there is a political trendiness,” Cousins says. “When I first came to Scotland, I met a lot of people who supported the IRA and they knew f**k all about the IRA. If you were a bit of a lefty you supported the IRA. The reason the unionist side wasn’t shown was because it was seen as uncool.”
He’s getting into one of his trademark passionate monologues now.
“I am, in fact, deeply moved by stuff that represents the unionist community well,” he says. “My dad was a Protestant. My dad was in the Orange Lodge. When I went to my granny’s funeral I saw all these men who I thought were my parents’ generation. Guys on sticks. Overweight. I realised these were guys my age. They were working-class unionist guys who were the first generation that didn’t automatically get jobs in Harland and Wolff.”
The child of a mixed marriage, Cousins was raised Catholic and exhibits ecumenical passion for both communities. One of the most moving sequences in The Troubles on Film finds him strolling miserably past one of Belfast's euphemistically named peace walls. If you want to get some sense of his beliefs, glance at the recent list of Northern Irish films – a cheeky primer to Boris Johnson on the perils of Brexit – that he compiled for the Guardian (below).
Neil Jordan's Angel is in there. So is Sinéad O'Shea's documentary A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot. But the really telling piece is a 1972 interview involving Bernadette Devlin and the Conservative US pundit William F Buckley. She makes the argument for the importance of economics over raw patriotism. "Time after time, over 50 years, elections were won and lost simply by creating an emotional situation around election time and counting Catholic and Protestant heads," she says.
“It’s really great and I think she was right,” Cousins says. “People were blind to the real issues. The melody to the Northern Irish Troubles was a social problem. The harmony was a religious or a sectarian thing. I think that’s why Bernie cut through and continues to cut through. Your discontent comes from the fact that you don’t have jobs. She was right and she still is. She is still the greatest thinker about the North that I have heard.”
Cousins now heads for the Toronto International Film Festival with his enormous series Women Make Film. Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Thandie Newton, Kerry Fox, and Debra Winger are among those joining Cousins for a rediscovery of overlooked women film-makers.
Cousins never sleeps. He is everywhere that cinema needs a voice. As he travels, The Troubles on Film will unspool before lucky audiences in these islands. There’s more love than anger in here, but he does end in slightly disappointed mode. Cousins stands on Royal Avenue, once Belfast’s grandest street, looking askance at the same branded stores you’d find anywhere else in Ireland or England. What became of our great boulevards?
“So many of the city centres have been evacuated,” he says. “The difference between Belfast and those other places is that we have a particular need for a centre where people can find neutral space. Those places have a class problem, but we have an extra reason to require a demilitarised zone. I call Royal Avenue our Champs-Élysées and that has to be our DMZ.”
He hits upon a faraway tone.
“My mum and dad, from the Shankill and the Falls, met in a dance hall in the centre of Belfast. They fell in love and they had me and my brother.”
One can think of no better argument for the value of popular entertainment.
50 years of The Troubles: A Journey Through Film is on Channel 4 at 10.20pm on Sunday, September 1st
Dear Boris Johnson,
I’m a Northern Irish film-maker, living in Scotland. I have never been great at words, but have learned a lot about life through film. As it is 50 years since the start of the Troubles and, as the backstop is so topical, I thought I would send six films to you at Downing Street that clarify why all this matters. Maybe you could watch them on a flight or train journey somewhere?
A film about a gentle saxophonist who plays music in south Armagh, near the Border; an elegiac world of rural ballrooms, neon lights and idealised love. He is apolitical, more into Stan Getz than guns, but he witnesses a murder and, as a result, becomes violent himself. Your father said on TV recently that if the Irish want to kill each other, they will, no matter the political framework. Neil Jordan’s Angel shows the opposite – we’re not natural-born killers. The political framework matters. You, Boris, are not the picture: you are the frame.
You, Me and Marley (1992)
A TV drama written by a working-class Protestant, Graham Reid, about five wild and reckless Belfast teenagers – you’ll identify with their wildness, I think. Again, this is not very political; it is more Dionysus than DUP. But if you have 84 minutes, watch it because it might help you see the north of Ireland, its similarities to Leeds or Cork or Runcorn, and also its differences. There are only 400 miles between where you live and Belfast but, be honest, the psychological distance is far further.
A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot (2017)
A lovely documentary, filmed over many years. It is set in Derry, where Lyra McKee was killed, and features a lad called Kevin Barry. Listen to what he says, Boris. Surely you will see how alive he is, how bright and – like many bright people – restless. He has no work and few prospects and so (I hope you will be shocked by this) he wants the Troubles to return, their adrenaline hit and invigoration. Your planned removal of the backstop will bring the war back and excite this lad, until his mates are killed, or he is. If the border returns, the killings will too and then, if you’re still a politician, you’ll have to ask yourself: how do I stop the killing?
Firing Line With William F Buckley: Bernadette Devlin (1972)
We showed this 58-minute interview at the Belfast Film Festival recently, an organisation of people of all classes, religions, politics and sexualities who love movies and want to heal the wounds of war. William Buckley was American aristocracy; Devlin was born in Co Tyrone. Their conversation is an espresso hit. Look at what she says 12 minutes in about “elections fought from the back of lorries, either draped in the Tricolouror the union jack”. She won’t accept that the Catholic-Protestant paradigm is what matters. She is insisting on dual identity, which is what the Belfast Agreement imagined. You do know that, in its small way, it was better than the Treaty of Versailles or the Dayton accords (on peace in Bosnia), don’t you? It brought more people with it. It was more inclusive and generous.
I don’t think you’ll watch this, but am putting it in, in case I have your attention. It is a film directed by Pat Murphy and John Davis. It is beautiful, modern and feminist. One of my favourite films about my bailiwick, but watch it when you are on holiday somewhere and feeling open to something new.
This last clip is 12 minutes long. It features several references to your colleague Arlene Foster. You’ve probably met Bill Clinton. I haven’t, and I don’t agree with a lot that he did, but this is moving. In his slow, southern way he kept the peace talks going. Towards the end, he says: “[McGuinness] expanded the definition of us, and shrunk the definition of them.” And, a bit earlier: “He risked the wrath of his comrades and the rejection of his adversaries.” Decent measurements of your profession, surely? Clinton also mentions how McGuinness, who was, of course, a nationalist, took pride in ensuring funding for working-class Protestant children. Clinton adds: “Taking care of the children of the people with whom you’ve been at odds [is a special] category of which you can be proud.” He’s right, isn’t he?
You probably won’t read this letter, or watch any of these films. They are sent in the hope that your mind is still open to understanding Northern Ireland. You have so far demonstrated no such understanding. You need to. In his talk, Clinton says: “Finish the work of peace.” Tonight, as you fall asleep, think of those five words. Think of the 3,000 dead.