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My Own Cinephila: Identity and Belfast (2021)

My Own Cinephila: Identity and Belfast (2021)

While studying film at university, instead of being grateful for my Eastern/Central European perspective, I often worried that my cinephilia felt different, looked different, and even sounded different from my peers. I struggled with what cinephilia was to me and what it should be according to how I saw it represented by others.

While my peers would quote their favourite films and name directors, actors, and cinematographers, growing up in Slovakia not only meant limited exposure to Anglo-American film culture, but exposure that was pretty much limited to Pretty Woman (Marshal, 1990), Notting Hill (Michell, 1999), and the James Bond series. The rest of my film exposure consisted of the German western film series Winettou (1962 – 1998), based on the novels by Karl May; a handful of Czech comedies; and a Russian Christmas fairytale called Jack Frost (Morozko, 1964), the Russian counterpart to Santa Claus. My cultural background also meant that my cinephilia is very much related to my own experience as a Slovak expatriate, and so it is no accident my favourite films share themes of displacement and of cultural and personal identity. Cosy Dens (Pelíšky, Hřebejk, 1999), White Oleander (Kosminsky, 2002), Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika, Link, 2001), Brooklyn (Crowley, 2015), are all depictions of families and individuals who were displaced — due: to the strengthening of the Soviet socialist regime in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, to revenge crime, to World War II, and to the prospect of a better life post-World War II respectively. Not only do these films share the renegotiation of the self in a new environment, but they also highlight the grief and loss of the familiar: family members, friends, and community.


This renegotiation of the self, both in terms of a foreign cinephile and a foreigner, was brought back into my mind with Kenneth Branagh’s recent film Belfast (2021). Interestingly, the reconciliation between a new identity and the loss of the familiar is often depicted through children and the acceleration of their coming-of-age. In Belfast, the young protagonist Buddy (Jude Hill) finds his world turned upside down, as armed troops storm the street where his Protestant family lived peacefully next to Catholics. As a sudden awakening, triggered by the removal of the pavement tiles on his street, Buddy becomes aware of barricades at each side of the street (using those very same tiles); of tension between his parents, exacerbated by the heightened sense of alert; and of the pressure on his Pa (Jamie Dornan) from a local criminal who tries to recruit Pa for Protestant purposes. Branagh builds the inevitable tragedy of the film by strongly characterising Belfast; from its unique characters and distinctive Northern Irish accent to the love for community and the overwhelming feeling of home. Buddy’s all-too-common fate is made all the more bitter — to “go and don’t look back.” Indeed, Buddy’s resistance to leave Belfast is eventually overcome – while he wants to stay for his grandparents, his new love interest, and for what Belfast is to him, it is his grandparents that help him overcome his fear of the new environment. When Buddy expresses his worries of not being understood over the water because of his accent, his Pop (Ciarán Hinds) tells him a story of how he would put on a different accent each day when working in Leicester, just to annoy his co-workers. Then, in a powerful monologue, Pop says to Buddy:

‘You’re Buddy, from Belfast 15, where everybody knows ya, an’ yer Pop looks out for yer, an yer Mammy looks out for ye, yer Daddy looks out for ya, yer Granny looks out for ya, yer Brother looks out for yer an’ yer whole family looks out for yer, an wherever you go, and whatever you become, that will always be the truth. An’ that thought’ll keep yer safe, an’ it’ll keep yer happy. Will yer remember that for me?’

What Pop does in this scene is prepare Buddy for the inevitable hardship that comes from being an outsider in those moments of not belonging at a time of cultural transition. He is also hinting at one of the key messages of the film (also highlighted by Branagh in promotional interviews for the film), which is that you can take your home with you as you adapt to your new environment by remembering your unerasable truths: your family, culture, and memories. As Branagh said, “you can take the boy out of Belfast, but you can’t take Belfast out of the boy”.

As exemplified in Branagh’s film, our background can define our interests in a way that represents a unique advantage and adds, especially in Branagh’s case, a layer of authenticity that resonates across cultures. Similarly, cinephiles can feel like they don’t belong if we uphold the idea that cinephilia looks a certain way, but cinephilia should not be prescriptive or pre-defined. As much as Buddy is encouraged to be authentic after his move to his new home, so should cinephiles embrace their individual, unique points of view and recognise that cinephilia will be personal to each of us.

With years of film studies education, my cinephilia has grown and developed, and, while I still struggle to name directors, actors, and cinematographers, I understand now that it’s probably due more to my poor memory than a lack of enthusiasm. On the one hand, my cinephilia manifests itself as an outlet for intellectual stimulation – this includes making the Edinburgh Film Podcast, reading Sight & Sound magazine, immersing myself in Classical Hollywood on BFI Player, and sampling world cinema on MUBI. On the other, it’s reading fan theories about the direction of the next generation of the Marvel Universe, watching actor roundtables and interviews, and anxiously anticipating the first trailer for the Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022) TV series. Cinephilia is what is true to us — it is all-inclusive; individual; and, as Pop might say, it’ll keep you safe, and it’ll keep you happy.

Written for The Film Dispatch by Kat Zabecka. 


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