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I am your past and present: Meet the actress cast as a wise old woman who portrays Belfast city

Helena Bereen has an unusual role in new film I Am Belfast, in which her character embodies the changing city. She tells Una Brankin how visiting her daughter meant missing the premiere of the critically acclaimed movie, which is currently showing at the QFT.

Veteran actress Helena Bereen dominated the screen at last night's much-anticipated premiere of I Am Belfast, feted by the Hollywood Reporter as a "charmingly off-beat tribute to a big hearted city".

But the Killinchy-based actress wasn't there alongside writer-director Mark Cousins to receive the heaps of praise for her surreal role as a 10,000-year-old woman who embodies Belfast down through the centuries.

Thousands of miles away, in Dubai, Helena was on doctor's orders not to fly home until tomorrow at the earliest.

"I came to Dubai for a week in March - my daughter Siobhan lives in Qatar - but I fell and broke my ribs," she explains. "I developed a pneumothorax and wasn't allowed to travel unfortunately. I'm old - but certainly not 10,000. I'm hoping to fly back on Tuesday."

Raised in Cullybackey, Helena has appeared in many memorable roles in films such as Mo, The Hunger, starring Michael Fassbender, and Terry George's Oscar-winning short film The Shore - parts which helped land her the star-turn in I Am Belfast. The dreamlike sequences of the film were written and directed by Cousins and scored by local superstar music producer/DJ David Holmes while the movie was actually being shot in the city in 2014.

Belfast-born Cousins, former presenter of BBC2's Moviedrome and Scene By Scene, wanted to show how female Belfast is.

As he told me in an interview in 2014: "I imagined a film about Belfast told by one of the old ladies I knew when I was growing up, the ones who knew everything and could handle fire coals without tongs and wore nylon overalls all the time - women who seemed to come from the dream time."

For the writer, Helena, a grandmother-of-one, fits the role perfectly. The charismatic actress worked as a nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital during the Troubles, witnessing much horror, and the tears she sheds on screen at the McGurk's Bar bomb victims' memorial are real. The UVF killed 15 people and maimed many others in the 1971 explosion in Belfast. Among those killed were Philomena and Maria McGurk, wife and 12-year-old daughter of pub owner Patrick McGurk, who was seriously injured along with his three sons.

Shortly after the attack, McGurk appeared on television calling for no retaliation. "It doesn't matter who planted the bomb," he said. "What's done can't be undone. I've been trying to keep bitterness out of it."

Helena recalls: "Patrick McGurk's generosity of spirit after the atrocity in his bar would move mountains. I didn't need any other motivation for that scene.

"I loved and empathised with the script. Making this film was one of, if not the best, acting experiences of my career.

"Mark and myself clicked. We had the same idea as to who represents the spirit of Belfast. Incidentally, the film was named I Am Belfast way before the atrocities throughout the world, such as the attack in Paris which coined 'Je Suis Charlie'.

"And, I must say that David Holmes' musical score is also really beautiful," the actress adds.

I Am Belfast's producer Chris Martin said in a recent interview that he knew Helena was ideal for the role when she walked into the audition dressed for the part, having obviously done her homework after reading the 10-page treatment.

In preparing to shoot the film, Cousins walked every street in Belfast so that he could look at it with fresh eyes, which gave him a new appreciation of it.

He says: "When you know somewhere and you see only bits of it appearing in the media - in this case, the war aspect has been appearing in the media for 20, 30 years now - it's the other, the less easily defined, bits like the colour, the sound and the humour, the femaleness, the disjointedness, that you want to try and get into a film about it."

Cousins cites his inspirations for his approach as Soviet cinema, popular song, and the storytelling of his grandmothers, and grandmothers everywhere. I Am Belfast recalls films like Terence Davies' Of Time And The City and Patrick Keiller's London And Robinson In Space; getting deep into the heart of a place to bring something different to our understanding of it. Both political and romantic, not drama and not quite documentary, I Am Belfast offers a new and passionate portrayal of this inspirational city. It reminds us all how deeply the essence of our home towns can remain within us, even when we have left them and they continue to change in our absence.

Helena (right) lives in Co Down with her partner Derek McGimpsey but gets her unusual surname from her former husband, psychiatrist Dr Fred Bereen, the former clinical director of St Brigid's Hospital, Ardee, who died in 2009.

Her sister, Betty, still lives in Cullybackey. Another sister, Mandy, lives in Paris.

"In I Am Belfast, the city is a mother, grandmother, carer, friend and listener," says Helena. "I trained as a nurse in the Royal in the Sixties and, on reflection, my greatest role has been that as a mum. I have three children - Marc and Conor live in Dublin and run a fab restaurant called Coppinger Row.

"My daughter Siobhan, who lives in Qatar, is an art psychotherapist. She takes after her dad Freddy, who was a psychiatrist, and I have a wonderful grandchild, Leon, who lives in Brazil."

One of Helena's biggest fans, Cousins said in a recent interview that he's angered by Hollywood being only interested in women when they are young and sexy. "Older women are so absent from cinema and it is a disgrace, because they have so much to offer and share with us," he says. "Helena was the only woman I could imagine playing Belfast. Older people have wisdom and experience that is hard won and so valuable."

Watching the actress's impressive show-reel online, it's obvious what the writer-director saw in her.

One particularly dramatic clip from Hunger shows her as a zombie-like resident of a nursing home, covered in blood when a gunman bursts in and shoots her visiting son in front of her.

"Hunger was an amazing experience. Something that stands out for me is the fact that every time I didn't get it right, the nursing home walls had to be repainted (with blood)," she recalls.

"And what Mark said about me and other older actors, I treasure.

"I have played mothers and grandmothers from both sides of our community. There are no differences."

  • Helena will appear in The Immaculate Misconception, showing in the QFT on April 14, and The Devil's Doorway, which premieres in London on April 20. I Am Belfast runs in the QFT until Thursday
  • I Am Belfast is on release by the British Film Institute (BFI) in selected cinemas UK-wide, including Belfast's QFT, and on the BFI Player, followed by a DVD/Blu-ray release on June 20

A dreamlike exploration

Old and wise, serene and graceful, the 10,000-year-old character played by Helena Bereen in I Am Belfast guides the unseen director (Cousins) around the streets on an emotional journey through the rich, complex and often tragic history of Northern Ireland's capital.

The leisurely, dreamlike exploration takes in the outstanding natural beauty of the coastline, poetic observations, anecdotes and factual recollections - with shockingly detailed revelations about aspects of the Troubles.

Stunning colour cinematography by Christopher Doyle (In the Mood For Love, 2046) and archival clips from peacetime and times of violent conflict are accompanied by a powerful soundtrack by local DJ and composer David Holmes (Ocean's Eleven, '71, Hunger), who was scoring the film during shooting.

Among the real people that contribute to this very female take on the city are old friends Rosie and Maud, who steal the scene with hilarious expletive-ridden banter and outrageously flirty come-ons to the director. In a dramatised sequence, a street procession to 'the funeral of the last bigot' sets poetry in motion as the city's darker elements are put to rest.

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