In an open letter to the PM, Northern Irish film-maker Mark Cousins recommends six films, from Neil Jordan’s Angel to Bill Clinton’s eulogy to Martin McGuinness, to make him consider the consequences of no deal
23 August 2019 | Mark Cousins | The Guardian
Dear Boris Johnson,
I’m a Northern Irish film-maker, living in Scotland. I have never been great at words, but have learned a lot about life through film. As it is 50 years since the start of the Troubles and, as the backstop is so topical, I thought I would send six films to you at Downing St that clarify why all this matters. Maybe you could watch them on a flight or train journey somewhere?
A film about a gentle saxophonist who plays music in south Armagh, near the border; an elegiac world of rural ballrooms, neon lights and idealised love. He is apolitical, more into Stan Getz than guns, but he witnesses a murder and, as a result, becomes violent himself. Your father said on TV recently that if the Irish want to kill each other, they will, no matter the political framework. Neil Jordan’s Angel shows the opposite – we’re not natural-born killers. The political framework matters. You, Boris, are not the picture: you are the frame.
A TV drama written by a working-class protestant, Graham Reid, about five wild and reckless Belfast teenagers – you’ll identify with their wildness, I think. Again, this is not very political; it is more Dionysus than DUP. But if you have 84 minutes, watch it because it might help you see the north of Ireland, its similarities to Leeds or Cork or Runcorn, and also its differences. There are only 400 miles between where you live and Belfast but, be honest, the psychological distance is far further.
A lovely doc, filmed over many years. It is set in Derry, where Lyra McKee was killed, and features a lad called Kevin Barry. Listen to what he says, Boris. Surely you will see how alive he is, how bright and – like many bright people – restless. He has no work and few prospects and so (I hope you will be shocked by this) he wants the Troubles to return, their adrenaline hit and invigoration. Your planned removal of the backstop will bring the war back and excite this lad, until his mates are killed, or he is. If the border returns, the killings will too and then, if you’re still a politician, you’ll have to ask yourself: how do I stop the killing?
We showed this 58-minute interview at the Belfast film festival recently, an organisation of people of all classes, religions, politics and sexualities who love movies and want to heal the wounds of war. William Buckley was American aristocracy; Devlin was born in County Tyrone. Their conversation is an espresso hit. Look at what she says 12 minutes in about “elections fought from the back of lorries, either draped in the tricolour [the Irish flag] or the union jack”. She won’t accept that the Catholic-Protestant paradigm is what matters. She is insisting on dual identity, which is what the Good Friday agreement imagined. You do know that, in its small way, it was better than the treaty of Versailles or the Dayton Accords, don’t you? It brought more people with it. It was more inclusive and generous.
I don’t think you’ll watch this, but am putting it in, in case I have your attention. It is a film directed by Pat Murphy and John Davis. It is beautiful, modern and feminist. One of my favourite films about my bailiwick, but watch it when you are on holiday somewhere and feeling open to something new.
This last clip is 12 minutes long. It features several references to your colleague Arlene Foster. You’ve probably met Bill Clinton. I haven’t, and I don’t agree with a lot that he did, but this is moving. In his slow, southern way he kept the peace talks going. Towards the end, he says: “[McGuinness] expanded the definition of us, and shrunk the definition of them.” And, a bit earlier: “He risked the wrath of his comrades and the rejection of his adversaries.” Decent measurements of your profession, surely? Clinton also mentions how McGuinness, who was, of course, a nationalist, took pride in ensuring funding for working-class Protestant children. Clinton adds: “Taking care of the children of the people with whom you’ve been at odds [is a special] category of which you can be proud.” He’s right, isn’t he?
You probably won’t read this letter, or watch any of these films. They are sent in the hope that your mind is still open to understanding Northern Ireland. You have so far demonstrated no such understanding. You need to. In his talk, Clinton says: “Finish the work of peace.” Tonight, as you fall asleep, think of those five words. Think of the 3,000 dead.
50 Years of the Troubles: A Journey Through Film is on Channel 4 on 1 September.