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Intriguing collaboration for a work defying description

By Michael Conaghan

Published 17/04/2015

In a currently gloomy arts firmament, the Belfast Film Festival promises illumination in every sense of the word, for this is an event that is increasingly focussing on local talent.

Last night's opening film, I Am Belfast, looked to be the most intriguing of the lot. A coming together of two outstanding local artists in director Marc Cousins and composer David Holmes, this is a work that often defies description, but I'll have a go anyway.

Its premise is, if anything, mythical. A 10,000-year-old woman returns to the city she personifies and acts as our historical guide. What follows is a visually stunning poetic dialogue between her and Cousins, the filmmaker essentially in conversation with his own film.

Opening with a storm and a vertiginous view of a plane coming into land, we are then invited to view the city from oblique angles. These are the kind of happenstance glimpses that can be beautiful and deceptive, like a golden wall that turns out to be part of a peace line.

Beneath these collages Holmes weaves a meditative score, with subtle, Lynchian undertows of unease, as if to prepare us for the inevitable encounter with the Troubles. In a cinematic context, those seen-a-thousand-times explosions shock anew. Some of the worst atrocities are revisited, from McGurk's bar to Bloody Friday, and in a prime example of how words can crystallise a horror better than mere images, we learn how seagulls swooped down to feed on the scattered limbs.

All through this Helena Bereen wanders with both a goddess-like detachment and a beautiful face which seems to carry the weight of all of its 10,000 years.

But hope has equal weight. The film's star turns are surely Rosie and Maude, two foul-mouthed exemplars of good community relations, and the ending turns on a typically Belfast act of kindness, where a bus driver returns to pick up a distressed woman's shopping with full consent of the passengers.

All to the soundtrack of who else, Van the Man, creating a Belfast apotheosis which makes you leave the cinema feeling just that bit better about the place.

Four stars

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