Any old documentary can give you the history of a city, but it takes a special kind of movie to capture its spirit, from the way the sun reflects off its walls to the smell of rain on its streets. Mark Cousins’ “I Am Belfast” transcends what is expected of such a portrait, inviting audiences on a sensory journey of the Northern Ireland capital and patiently guiding them through a deeply personal visual essay, in which a radiant copper-headed woman embodies the very essence of the city — a 10,000-year-old soul sent to welcome visitors and bless those who have crisscrossed its neighborhoods all their lives. Cousins, a free spirit who spends much of his time on the festival circuit, duly earns his latest round of world travels with this entrancing project, while his reputation has reached the point that it should ensure limited distribution in other ports as well.
In recent years, Cousins has taken to sharing his unique way of looking at the world via a series of essay films, the best-known being his 15-hour “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” which was made up 90-odd percent of clips from other movies, fairy-dusted here and there with digital-video footage he’d shot himself. Cousins flips the balance here, inserting classic film clips (including such non-obvious choices as “Creature From the Black Lagoon”) almost like dream sequences into a format driven mostly by original material, much of it starring his aforementioned muse, Helena Bereen, as Belfast herself, ancient and all-knowing.
If “The Story of Film” taught us anything, it’s that Cousins doesn’t see movies — or the world, for that matter — the same way other people do. So why should he make movies the way they do? Though “I Am Belfast” never reveals his actual methods, Cousins assembled the film in an organic and wildly unconventional way: Like a gleaner, picking up scraps life has left behind, he would observe as a painter does, looking for specific colors, and listen like a jazz musician, blending found sounds with recovered echoes from composer David Holmes’ archives to trance-encouraging effect.
An avid perambulator already predisposed to wide-eyed and open-minded wandering, the Belfast-born helmer set out to walk every street of his hometown, bringing along his lightweight digital camera to capture fleeting discoveries along the way. Those who have seen any of his previous work will likely be better suited to appreciate his sensibility, which delights in small details and finds magic in the mundane: like the way a mud puddle might reflect a scraggly tree, or his capacity to admire the iceberg-like grandeur of a great big pile of salt.
Remember the Wes Bentley character in “American Beauty,” who found bliss in the image of a plastic bag floating in wind? Well, Cousins is the grown-up version of that same spirit — which, of course, requires that his childlike wonderment never actually grow up at all. Fortunately, the film isn’t all sentimental snapshots and fawning poetry. Instead, constructed as an extended Sophoclean dialogue between his usual sing-songy self and Bereen’s Belfast, in which the actress’s maternal character patiently answers his questions and puts his concerns to rest, the beautifully written film acknowledges the city’s past Troubles.
This, of course, is the Belfast most cinema lovers know: a city divided between Catholics and Protestants, where violence erupted between Unionists (those loyal to the Queen) and nationalists who yearned for independence. Where Cousins today admires a golden wall, blood once spilled in the streets. A quiet corner where two men pass in slow-motion was previously the site of McGurk’s Bar, blown to smithereens. Another sort of director might thrill at the chance to re-create the carnage of that explosion, but Cousins relies on words alone, telling of corpses so mangled that the remains were often sent to the wrong families, while letting our imaginations do the rest.
It’s a rare film today that trusts our minds to wander, constructing an extended reverie through which we are allowed to free-associate and bring our own feelings to bear. Along the way, Cousins pauses to spend time with two old birds, Rosie and Maud, lifelong drinking buddies who swear stronger than any sailor; to interject jokes, like the one about the Belfast-built Titanic (“It was fine when it left here”); and to imagine better days ahead, documenting a symbolic funeral for the city’s last bigot.
Though less directly autobiographical than other city portraits (such as Guy Maddin’s mischievous “My Winnipeg”), this film couldn’t have been made by anyone else. Cousins examines the city the way a romantic might, studying his lover asleep in the bed beside him, its guard lowered and unaware that it’s being watched. Channeling Dziga Vertov, he serves as a more subdued, 21st-century “Man With a Movie Camera,” informed by a century of other influences — and aided enormously by the visual coaching of Christopher Doyle, whose welcome input brings the glow Cousins has always admired in others’ films, finally present in one of his own.