A film portrait of Belfast (following on from my earlier work NLR) in which the city itself is almost entirely absent.
Shots from eleven different cemeteries and graveyards are edited together to suggest that we are looking at one continuous, single space. Long, static takes and slow pans reveal the spaces to us, and montages composed of slow dissolves and overlays are used to combine them. We track down the long avenues between grave plots and linger on natural features: flowers, bare branches, lichen on stone. Some shots appear to be framed more as abstract compositions — silhouettes of headstones crowded around the bottom of a grey sky, branches and man-made structures intermingling. The shots combine views from different seasons and different times of day, but nonetheless we are compelled to believe that this is one space, opening out to us in all its variety.
The necropolis (the invented space that the film constructs from various cemeteries and burial grounds) is an active, teeming place, even though we push it to the margins physically and mentally; it is our own city, the city where we live and work and love, which is moribund, filled with buildings that are the decaying monuments of a dying social order.
The voiceover mixes original material with excerpts from existing texts (historical and theoretical pieces on architecture, landscape and art, as well as discussion of our changing attitudes to death and the dead), all spoken in the first person. The texts are run together, so that the viewer is not immediately made aware that they come from different sources: rather, they appear to be the spontaneous thoughts of the two (male and female) narrators. Some elements of the voiceover are recorded in studio, while others blend with the location sound (either off camera or directly to camera). A personal dimension enters. The death of the city is the death of a love affair.
As the scene unfolds, characters start to appear in the locations, almost incidentally, at the very end of a pan or in the corner, or far distance, of a shot. These figures (portrayed by dancers and specialists in physical theatre) ‘inhabit’ the spaces filmed, performing simple, everyday actions. Gradually, as the film progresses, the combination of the voiceover material, the extent of the suggestive ‘location’ constructed in the edit, and the presence of these everyday figures normalises the spaces: it is no longer a morbid or melancholy site we watch, but one that is revealed as complex, living, and differentiated. Someone sits over a cup of coffee, elsewhere someone uses a laptop, a child combs her hair. A woman breastfeeds a baby. Conversations take place between characters who are inhabiting different shots.
Throughout the film, occasional views back to the city centre, in the distance, intrude: the same buildings are seen from different angles and vantage points, but without completely disrupting the scenic, spatial unity that the montage has constructed. Rather, the ‘living’, everyday city seems continually to reorient itself in relation to the city of the dead that has been built at its edges. Similarly, the voiceover gradually makes references to the city; the city is described, in loving detail, while we are looking at the cemetery.
A view from a painting: one of the first views of Belfast, a picturesque image of the city cradled beneath the hills that surround it, painted from the site of one of its graveyards. The painting is owned by the city’s richest property developer.
A topography shaped by piles of corpses.
I realise that I was seeing everything in opposites. All my life I have been trying to get away from these opposites, to navigate a space in between, and then I found that my mind was still trying to think in opposites. The city and the cemetery. The living world and the dead. The living world dying, and the dead world flourishing, growing. Simplistic paradoxes. But then I worked backwards to try and unpick this, to introduce some subtlety. What was it about the dead, about death and the city of the dead, about the parasitic undead city of everyday instrumentalisations and exploitations and degradations, what was it that was captivating me all this time?
Men in hi-vis and workboots stumble over the uneven ground with a builder's level, tripod and graduated staff.
A long shot, with the characters moving at a distance from the camera. Close-ups of hands and machinery. Warm-toned close-ups of skin. The distant view of the city repeatedly seen against the foreground of the graduations on the staff. The cemetery as cemetery is almost incidental in these sequences: the site is just a site, like others.
The cemetery is the excess of the city, it’s literally the double of the city; and it’s the guarantee of its death.
© Daniel Jewesbury