The film Belfast opens with a scene of pure joy. Young children playing on the street. Catholics and Protestant children playing with no thought of such distinctions. At least not to the children. After all they were “coming down to joy” as Van Morrison’s exuberant song plays in the background song. The only way you can tell the Catholics from the Protestants is by their names, and even that is a far from perfect tool.
It is was August 15, 1969 when this idyll was disrupted suddenly by a gang of belligerent Protest rioters walking together ominously in a group towards Buddy, the nine-year old protagonist. He is clearly mystified and has no idea what is going on. Suddenly torches are flung at houses by some of the mob. A rag is inserted into the gas tank of a vehicle, lit, and the car pushed down the street until it explodes in flames. Bricks are thrown thrown through some windows. Kids screaming in terrors having no idea what is going on. Buddy begs his mother to tell him what is happening. She does not have time to explain, even if she knew. obscene calls are heard demanding that Catholics get off the street. Buddy’s mum gasps : “Holy God.” It turns out peaceful Catholics were targeted by the mob. Why? What was going on?
The film is entirely shot in black and white. Perhaps because the issues seemed so black and white, when they were much more complex than that.
There are many snippets of films or news shows interspersed through the film. Some of those are in colour. They paint an alternate reality to the homes and the streets of Belfast.
Buddy’s family is Protestant, but Buddy’s mother and grandmother don’t understand what is happening. After all they get along well with their Catholic neighbours. Why is she supposed to hate them? They are “the same, except they kick with their left leg.” Why would Protestant neighbours attack them?
Buddy’s sister asks “how the hell are we supposed to know (who is Catholic and who is Protestant)? What a great question. and if you can’t tell the difference why would you hate them?
Buddy wants to know if that was “our side” or “their side on the street.” His father explains that “there is no our side or their side on their street. At least there never used to be.” Buddy says “I’ve had too much God for one day.” But his mother tells him, “your granny says you can never have too much God.” His father says, “I’ve got nothing against Catholics but it is a religion of fear.” The next scene is of the Protestant church with a hell fire and brim stone sermon guaranteed to put the fear of God into a 9-year old child with eyes wide open. Then he asks for money.
One of the Protestants in the gang says, “We’re looking to cleanse the community.” The he asks his father, “will it be cash or commitment?” Pa offers neither. He says, “We’re living in a civil war.” Billy Clanton the resentful leader of the Protestant gang says to Pa, “You think you’re better than the rest of us.” Pa replies, “The problem is you know you’re not.”
In the film scenes from the classic American western High Noon are shown. The hero, played by Gary Cooper, feels duty demands he stay to confront the gang of killers though his wife wants him to leave the town with her. The song rings out: “I must face the man who hates me.” Pa is in the same position. So is his family.
Buddy’s grandfather tries to help Buddy do better in math so he can sit with the girl he prizes. He suggests that he fudge the answers so that if he is wrong the alternative might be right and his teacher might not know which one he meant. Buddy asks if that is cheating and then says, “but there’s only one answer.” To that Grandfather offers a wise response: “If that were true people wouldn’t be blowing themselves up all the time.”
Buddy’s dad wants the family to move to London where he has a better job with a house. His mother wants to stay. “This is our home,” she says. After all, “we can’t all leave, there’d be nothing left but nutters.” She also tells Buddy, “Remember you’re Buddy from Belfast 15, where everybody looks after you.”
One lovely summer day, kids are playing with their fathers as Buddy’s mum and a friend are talking as they watch the play. Her friend says, “The bloody Irish are born for leaving. Otherwise, the rest of the world would have no pubs. It just needs half of us to stay so the other half can get sentimental about the ones that left. All the Irish need to survive is a Guinness, and a phone and the sheet music to ‘Danny Boy.’ ”
Buddy’s granny and grandfather share a wee drink at their window that nicely frames them. She says “they have to move on,’ presumably referring to her son and family. He replies with an Irish quote: ‘Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Who said that? She asks “what is it?” He replies, “Yeah well you don’t usually buy your wisdom with a walk in the park. Your heart has to explode.” “Mr. philosopher,” she says to him. “When did your heart ever explode?” “That time I saw you in those brown stockings,” he says. She replies, “Holy God, I remember that.” And he, “Aye, I remember that. They both chuckle. He says, “When you’re old people think your heart never skipped.” “Did yours ever skip?” “Aye. I danced a bloody jig every time you walked in the room. She says, “you were full of it then, you’re full of it now.” Neither has lost any love for the other, even though both are getting old. He is going to the hospital tomorrow. She insists she will walk him there and out again. But she is wrong.
Another day a riot broke out in Belfast and a mob broke into a store. Buddy joined in. He grabbed a box of detergent and the reason he gave his mother was, “it was biologic.” He thought that meant it was good and he should take it as others took other things. Why do protests so often spill over into looting? It happened in Minneapolis after people protested the death of George Floyd when a white police officer kneeled on his neck until he suffocated. His mother was wildly upset when she saw what her son had done. She dragged him back to the store, right into the danger where the riot was ongoing and tried to make him give it back, but was interrupted by Billy Clanton, the Protestant gang leader who said, “We don’t give things back.” You don’t give anything back when you are consumed by hate.
After Buddy’s Grandfather dies Buddy and his father share memories of him. Buddy says he used to help him with his math. He taught him how to cheat. Buddy says a lot of people came to see him at the funeral. Yeah, says, Pa, “he was very popular and he owed half of them money. He was a very deep thinker.” Full of blarney I guess.
Buddy asks his father. about his young girl friend “Pa do you think me and that wee girl have a future?” “Why the heck not,” his father asks. “Do you know she’s Catholic.” His father squats down low, looks Buddy in the eyes and quietly and calmly replies, “That we girl can be a practicing Hindu, or a Southern Baptist, or a vegetarian antichrist, but if she’s kind and she’s fair, and you two respect each other, she and her people are welcome in our house any day of the week.” Then he asks Buddy if this means they have to go to confession. Buddy says, “probably.” “Then we two are in trouble,” his father says.
I loved this film. I think you will too.