- Belfast Girls
Although dividing her time between the two countries, perhaps it is because Malin Andersson is Swedish rather than Irish that her 2006 film, Belfast Girls, can engross its audience with such stark poignancy and, at the same time, persistent normality. Though the short documentary begins with tensions and trauma set against the backdrop of the annual Protestant marches – images familiar to those in the UK who have watched the unfolding troubles over forty year – the film’s central conceit is in fact the relentless ordinariness of life for two girls, either side of the “peace walls” that still separate Belfast between its religious communities, and the futures they are trying to build for themselves.
Andersson’s film is notable for an ability to let its two protagonists act, speak, and live almost though a camera is never in the vicinity. Even when Christine and Mairéad are musing on their life and experiences, it is almost as if they’re communicating with their own inner selves rather than some open confession to camera. While it’s a trick that many documentary makers attempt to pull off, Andersson seems wholly comfortable letting the conversation take whatever turn and then having the viewer see the film relive the importance, humor and considerable pathos of the girl’s comments outside the confines of these personal moments.
In fact that normality which shapes the film is not quite as detached from the history surrounding the two young people as it might at first presume. Mairéad McIlkenny, the Catholic girl we follow is in fact the granddaughter of Richard McIlkenny, one of the so-called ‘Birmingham Six’ falsely accused of the pub bombings in that city in 1974 that killed twenty-one people. The Six were jailed for a crime they never committed and only released in 1991.
Not surprisingly, such an overwhelming experience and the weight of such momentous historical events inform much of Mairéad’s thinking and conversation. One fantastically revealing moment halfway through the film [End Page 85] has her confront her own experience and intuition about modern day Belfast. She stands on a corner of Old Park Road explaining how Catholics and Protestants walk up and down different sides of the road because it acts in effect as a dividing line between the communities. Just as she’s explaining this seemingly intractable separation, two ordinary members of the public sidle by the camera and head off down the road going about their business. “When did this start happening?” she asks, literally dumbfounded by the prospect of residents who might be mixing across sectarian lines. It’s a startling scene that has Mairéad reflecting on a life that one sees increasingly trapped by her own history; wanting to change, to embrace the city and its people whole, but all the while feeling somewhat disloyal to a community she senses is disavowed and let down, even in modern-day Northern Ireland where a peace process is supposedly in full-swing, and Republicans have power-sharing at Stormont. Although full of humanity and dignity, Mairéad’s moment of realization on Old Park Road is also a section in the film that confronts that history, and the politics of society, in an all too real form; how do people change their lives when instincts and belief seem so ingrained?
Andersson’s answer to this rhetorical question is to use a cinematic tactic of interjecting brief images between key scenes that involve stark medium shot pictures of children playing in front of the walls that divide their community. Innocent games of football, boys riding bikes, girls chattering away to each other, all against the backdrop of a depressing edifice that keeps the city separate. The images say more than any words could convey, and reinforce the dilemma facing Mairéad and Christine in the film.
Further on, Mairéad has to also confront the clearly uneasy revelation that the friend she lives with, Sarah, has a boyfriend who is Protestant. “I was wary of him, because he could have...