Fifty Years of the Troubles: A Journey Through Film

first draft



In a nearly empty cinema hall on a passage leading from Vodičková off Prague's Václavské náměstí sometime around 2014, I watched Koyaanisqatsi, a more or less dialogue-less film and, since my thoughts were being led by narrative, plot, dialogue, and cinema's many devices less than more or less any other film I have seen, and since I could not be sure I would describe whatever it was I was feeling as enjoyment per se, I reflected on what I was doing and why I was doing it. As a kid I had gone to church. Autistic, introverted, logical and analytical, I became an atheist early and do not remember a time I sat through mass without that overt scepticism that would mark me as an adult. But then, if it were not for religion, what is to hold a society together? Koyaanisqatsi pictured scenes from our then industrial and still-industrialising society. The title, from the Hopi language, means life out of balance; that film, if you could bring something to it of your own, and though that something could have been some religious foundation, seemed to me to be worth more than any of the homilies I had ever heard. Had there been more people in the congregation that day, stepping outside of our civilisation and reflecting on it, it seemed to me then we might be in better shape.

Mark Cousins is as full of shit as I am. So, I figure, it would seem to most. Because most people don't want to know about any of that. They don't want cinema to be the moral equivalent of a religious experience or a mass, or to have to confront the realities of life.

I have been back in Britain, in Middle England, for over a month now. People are mowing their lawns. The state is being captured. I have been creating this web application. I have been tapping morning till night on a 1930s typewriter. I have, frankly, been despairing about the state of the world as The amazon burns and the obscenely rich enablers around the Prime Minister use their media platform to give a sixteen year-old girl a kicking for being autistic and thinking we might want to take more care of the planet we live on.

I am back in Britain living with my parents for a couple of months, getting the lay of the land. I come down from the summerhouse next to the pond my father dug some years ago, where I have been writing to watch this piece about film and The Troubles.

I have a copy of the Observer beside me. It's the second newspaper I have bought since I have been back. They have various sections of the Mail on Sunday beside them. The last week, The Observer ran an exclusive revealing that the government was planning to prorogue parliament. The government denied it. Now everybody is talking about this unfamiliar word and its consequences and people have been marching to save democracy.

My parents were born in Ireland. My father lived for the first fifteen years of his life some few miles from the border which may be reimposed as a result of ideological blindness as stark as anything seen in the Twentieth Century and diplomatic vandalism. We talk about Brexit sometimes. They voted for Thatcher back in the day - they saw the rubbish piling up in the streets and the black outs of the Winter of Discontent. They read the Mail. But they cannot get their heads around how little most English people understand the issues of Northern Ireland. Neither can I.

I knew Mark Cousin's name. I had seen his face. Knew his voice. Except for a stretch in Nottingham where we had Broadmarsh cinema, I hadn't known a decent cinema except for in Prague. Instead, I had come to film through video and then DVD rental and, before that, setting the video for the obscure films that would be shown late at night. I remember seeing Cousin's talking about Farenheit 451 one time like this years ago, had seen his face several times when he was much younger than he is now, had a sense of him, but this was all from those times I lived in Britain, which goes back six years this time, and I was without a television for most of the last ten years.

I don't tend to talk so much when I am back. I confine myself to unoccupied rooms with my books and my laptop and work. I only reliably talk about politics and occasionally engage for a while with a quiz show my parents watch. The other day, they told me there would be a documentary on Northern Ireland. And so, as they returned with the caravan today, I told them about the Troubles season on Channel 4. My mother observed that Channel 4 was the only decent channel right now. I tended to agree.

The thing was that I knew Cousins to be high-faluting. More so, by far, even than some of the more arch types on Latenight Review and Newsnight Review and all those shows I used to watch. His was a French cineaste-style lover of film.

And then I read a little about Cousins. He had recorded a well regarded history of film. And then a handful of films widely viewed as 'random' and, by the sounds of it, pretentious. Now that we were all sitting down to this specially made film with our different perspectives, I fretted that it might be the kind of highbrow fare that I might get on with - if I might find it occasionally embarrassing - but which would leave my parents cold.

There was some of that. And then Cousins, too, is heavily tattooed - he even gets a tat done in the course of the programme. I wasn't sure they would go for that. Thankfully, Cousins was held somewhat by the realities of his home town.

The first half of the programme is very personal. Cousins relates how it was growing up in Belfast. He was, of course, a skinny intellectual child and was bullied at school, and then the Troubles began and, though the adults tried to hide it from him, he could feel the constant tension. From '69 they played more often in their backyards. He was instructed to run if he saw a man coming up to the door. Cousins would not be the first I have heard to talk in somewhat mystical terms about the power of the cinema - I remember, for example hearing the more accessible Mark Kermode talk about his own relationship with film and the years of going to see movies on his own - but if he seemed even to me in danger here and there of that suburban sin of being pretentious, the grim backdrop of his childhood made sense of it.

It was not, in any case, a case of man talking earnestly to camera. My father was taken by his car, a vintage Fiat, I think he said, though I'm no expert. Red, open top, and telegenic, he drove around the streets of Belfast in this, with the help of CGI, and it was here he talked to camera when he was not, say, inside an old cinema that was to become a Chinese supermarket, or walking along the 18 foot high "Peace Walls" which still run between neighbourhoods in the city.

The story of the cinemas of Northern Ireland came before the story of the cinema of (and on) Northern Ireland. Several of these were firebombed. Beautiful buildings, cathedrals to the stories of humanity, it might be said. And there were times it seemed the programme wasn't sure what it wanted to be. The story of Iranian film, and of Cousins escaping Northern Ireland - he wanted, he said, to turn his back on it - seemed to belong to a different programme. When he walked into a tattoo parlour to get his latest tattoo, it bore no relation to his return to his home town or to the journey he was taking us on. This is to say nothing of his naked dip in a river he tried to justify in metaphorical terms. It didn't always hang together.

That the story of film which tackled Northern Ireland came late was justified in one sense by the chronology, but it left it feeling rather rushed and since this was the beginning of a season of films about the province it did seem that more could have been done in the editing room to do it a little more justice. If it was brisk, however, by now it was contextualised and the first film to be discussed was grounded in one of its settings, an unworldly bar Cousins was fond of for its decor, which was from another time and another place, much as cinema houses always used to be. Talking of Odd Man Out, a film which clearly touched him, starring as it does in the first episode of his much-praised The Story of Film: An Oddyssey, Cousins edges on the pseudish, comparing it to Russian icon paintings and of the Jesus air of the IRA man who featured in this early Irish film noir classic. But it might have been I was overly anxious about how the man came across to my parents. Talk of ventriloquism as he went on to discuss the films that came out as The Troubles became a fashionable thing to film, was no doubt justified and perhaps it is reasonable to summarise much in terms of the age old trope of forbidden love: often, cinema has used warzones and those regions beset by untold tragedy as goldmines of drama, and it has been no different here where actors can hone their skills on a range of accents of English. If he might have been a fraction more comprehensible at times, he was making sense not only to the late night Channel 4 crowd but if I suspect there is no way to get any of this right in Britain today, I often wonder when I see such needful programmes and seasons as this if it was necessary to so fully alienate the people who will be marching for Brexit come hell or high water, the people Boris Johnson with his "Backstopectomy", Dominic Cummings, and others rely upon to cheer on the super-rich and the privileged who are taking on the system in their names. Perhaps I am too considerate to the kind of people who bullied him and who I remember sounding off at anybody who watched films with subtitles or, indeed, anything that was not in the mould of Indiana Jones or Family Guy.

Do filmakers use cameras as if they were a gun? I don't know if I was embarrassed by this question or by the way it was posed but the more I think about it having watched the first film in the series which followed this introduction, the more it seems reasonable to ask. Because there are many people - most people I knew back here - who would never watch the kind of films that deal with Northern Ireland without relying on those cinematic tropes, and the role of cinema in pushing narrative which makes conflict more, not less likely, is one of the most conspicuous features of its history. As with religion, there is a dark side, so too with cinema. It is significant that Remi Malek recently placed a condition on his accepting a role in a Bond film, saying 'We cannot identify him with any act of terrorism reflecting an ideology or a religion'. That is on the explicit side of things. Less explicitly, it is arguable that in interesting times, cinema need do little more than to push a narrative of heroism and Churchillian adventurism to make the firebombing of cinemas or sectarian violence more likely in the long run.

Yann Demange's '71, the first film in the season, was far from that. Filmed in 2014 when Northern Ireland might still be thought to be history, it is clear the film has benefitted from distance, decades of research, and the clarity that sometimes results when the news agenda moves on. There are no heroics here, just scared young men out of their depth, and a lot of anger and subterfuge.

Mark Cousins walked beside the peace walls and said they were a disgrace. There was a time such sentiments were common even in Westminster. This programme, and these films, are being shown so we do not all forget too quickly what Robert Frost seemed sure of: good fences do not make good neighbours.