Same Old Theme?: Back to Belfast | City Symphonies
“City Symphonies” is a monthly column in which film critic Victor Morozov aims to travel to several cities of the world via the films that made them famous.
A street in a residential area, whose sole visitors are four pigeons who are sitting as if they’re having a gossip. The silhouette of a carriage in the background, as if to complete the image of temporal disorientation. Another shot: a few store windows revealed in a panoramic shot – „house furnisher”, „fireplace bargain” –, all shuttered down. Then, an old man with a can walks along, and a handful of kids, flanked by a rickety wall, closing the street off. In the end, a shabby wardrobe, seemingly upright and even courageously accepting its own fate, is seen thrown onto a plot of wasteland, full of garbage, which sits in front of a line of living houses, like in a photo shot by Koudelka. This is Belfast: a grey, ghettoized town, which the greyness of the impoverished image of this short reportage – barely 30 seconds long –, accessible in the archives of the National Television, dated 1964, does nothing more than to attach it even more firmly to its resigned image.
A virtual walk through the thousands of documents in the constantly-expanding archive of the RTE is almost as interesting as well-planned trek through the real city, with its post-industrial melancholy and the estuary that seems to open up towards the ends of the world. Like it often is the case in the larger question of the audiovisual, it’s all about representation: about what is seen but also about what, in this increasing flux of visibility, is meant to remain hidden and opaque. here is a lot of coverage of Belfast, most of it reduced, however, to a restricted flourish of laitmotifs: bombings, funerals and marches. Amongst all of them, a town that is still inhabited, shyly making its way: one short programme shows the finish line of a 100-mile-long cycling race, with the riders signing autographs on T-shirts; another talks about the first cinema to open on a Saturday since World War II, entitled Abba: The Movie. The city’s streets are mutilated by barricades (see Peace Lines to Replace the Barricades, 1969) and poverty. A transition is made between the Sixties and the following decades: more than just the technical transition between black-and-white film reel, with their scratches, popcorn and delicate craftsmanship, and the sullen democracy of video casettes – but also one of the ways in which a tormented city, still haunted by the illusion of peace, gradually awakens to the new reality of conflict, which imposes its obsessive logic up until it ends up monopolizing everything else.
War is bad, in the audiovisual world, because it absconds details and it accustoms viewers to the sensational, something which is more dangerous than a drug. Tolerance to the sensational is something that filmmakers and others who understand the trouble with images have fought against; in the best of cases, their work has been somewhat of a barricade – yet another – against the normalization of the violence of the image. It is, after all, what director Pat Murphy, together with John Davies, offered us with Maeve (1981), which is perhaps the most important film ever shot in Belfast. Through the story of this protagonist who is frustrated by her Northern Irish existence, Maeve relays a much wider drama – that of the impossibility of living outside the logic of war, of being unable to exist autonomously, without having a connection to any of the warring factions – and does so with the sophisticated tools of feminist political theory. But Maeve is also interesting, in this case, for the ambivalent attitude that it cultivates towards the city. In a recent discussion, Pat Murphy insisted upon this aspect: „In those days, when filmmakers needed Belfast locations, they mostly used Ringsend in Dublin or cities in the industrial north of England, but we were committed to making Maeve in Belfast where it was set, and to working with a combination of professional and non-professional actors.”
The presence of Belfast in the film is not emphasized as such – it’s not the Rome of La Dolce Vita, not even Jacques Rivette’s Paris, a labyrinthine inventory of unknown places to wander through. Somehow, though – perhaps also because of its status as a theoretical film, in which things are said explicitly, in an almost-Brechtian fashion – the city comes to life not just as a setting, but also as an imperative: the film becomes so involved in its immediate reality – not so much in the reality of the bombings, but of the discussions in which everyone is forced to choose sides and clarify their spiraling motivations – that it comes to resemble a treatise on the perseverance of living in the city. Maeve is a sticky experience: I was annoyed by the protagonist’s superior cattiness and the sense that the ghost of Belfast will follow her at every turn, and that this is something inescapable – and confirmed the strength of the film for me. There’s a really nice sequence in the film when Maeve and her boyfriend go to the pub, where they run into annoying relatives, and the evening turns sour. A “Belfast” feeling came over me then, born of Pat Murphy’s decision to include an entire, melancholic yet wistful song in the film, as well as the fact that it all ends after sunset, when only a few rays remain, and the silhouettes of cranes on the building site can be sensed in the background.
What a thing – a deeply immersive effect brought on by the act of living and thinking –, something that a minute and ridiculous film like Kenneth Branagh’s unfortunately-titled Belfast (2021) can never ever hope to obtain, not even when it uses drone shots of a construction site at sundown. As a matter of fact, there’s no other film where I’ve ever felt the sensation of an opressive urbanity, sweetened if only by the laughter of small life, more acutely than in Maeve, maybe alse because many of the decisive scenes are set in a place that is hidden away from the heavly-patrolled streets, in a highly photogenic cemetary that is overrun by nature, and lies somewhere on a hill (here, Pat Murphy does a 360 degree panoramic shot that reveals the factory furnaces, the town in the valley, the Sea of Ireland), or even Giant’s Causeway, the phenomenal site that has since become a prime destination for Paddywaggon tour groups. Pat Murphy doesn’t offer these images because they’re beautiful – a beauty that, such as it is, is constantly contradicted by the increasingly vicious shadow of conflict, when a troubled man starts to shout a patriotic poem at the top of his lungs: Maeve can’t find any peace of mind, not even on the edge of the shore.
Let us go back to where we started from: here is a svelte senior citizen, dressed in a long coat and wearing a scarf, holding a microphone in his hands clad with warm mittens, and talking in front of a snowy (slushy) landscape of houses (huts), in 1963, about “Changing the Face of Belfast” (the title of the reportage). A long, static, almost inanimate shot – something which modern television never proposes anymore – presents the destination of those who were evicted from their squalid dwellings: two socialist-modernist apartment blocks that are looming, ominous and black, over an alley with inhabitations that are rarely, if ever, taller than a floor.
Much is known about the precarity of Ireland, maintained with the tacit complicity of the British Crown up until the very day before the 1997 peace accord. A much lesser-known fact is that a high-budget film, born from the studio economy, was one of the first that exposed the state of desolation and fear that had gripped the town of Belfast, during the heat of the war. In Odd Man Out (1947), a republican insurgent has to save himself on the streets of the city, after a failed attempt at a bank robbery. In an impressive, trademark Carol Reed sequence, James Mason (in the role of IRA partisan Johnny) stands up, holding his abdomen – he’s just been shot around there – and starts to run, limping, on the backstreets of Belfast. Transiting from the central area of the bank towards this undercover space, the drama is all the more pressing given that it takes place in the unknown milieu of the lumpenproletarians. Just look at this aerial shot in which Johnny runs through bombarded gardens and backyards, only to be followed by a domestic dog. Carol Reed delivers both fiction and documentary here, in which the tortured flesh of this port city, bombarded by the Luftwaffe and still unrecovered, like its more famous brothers: the wound was still very much open, gaping, in the urban tissue.
I’m less concerned here with Johnny’s story, which John Ford had already sighted in the earlier The Informer (1932, set in Dublin), a story which would endure, under various forms, all the way up to Neil Jordan’s somewhat transgressive narratives from the eighties. I’m more interested in what’s playing out on the sidelines: a suspenseful incident that makes the entire population of the city holds its breath, imagined as a small settlement where – unlike Rossellini’s Berlin – everyone knows everyone, and everyone is willing to help one another with a glass of water, a carriage ride, a gossip, a tip-off. But for me, the most moving episodes are those in which, paradoxically, following a patented recipe of Hollywood westerns, kids with torn clothes and red cheeks prove their allegiance to Johnny and his partners. A somewhat more contradictory meaning develops from this point onwards – one that renders Reed’s role ambiguous, since she, as a British studio worker, both romanticizes and conceals the common motivations of these insurgents, reducing them to a one-on-one confrontation with the authorities. These children seem to carry a cruel truth: they make a hero out of a gunman who defies the rule of law in the name of the oppressed nation.
Reed’s expressionism proves the measure of its talent in this town packed with shadows and rumors, which slowly begins to be covered by a soft snowfall, as if in a fluffy sort of nightmare. Johnny ends his journey facing the port which remains inaccessible to him: a phantasmatic port, from which the Titanic once departed, rehabilitated by Mark Cousins in his cheesy documentary, I Am Belfast. Under one shape or another, his subsequent films will take cues from these two representations – the town as a reservoir of paranoia and craziness (like in Four Days in July de Mike Leigh, 1985, for example), or the town as a setting for intrigue (Hidden Agenda, de Ken Loach, 1990), even for an outright call for arms (The Patriot Game, Arthur MacCaig, 1978). With the slowness of a life that has (temporarily?) returned to normal, Belfast still watches over this troubled history, hoping that some lessons can be learned from it.