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The Northern Irish star of the stage and silver screen Sir Kenneth Branagh presents Belfast (2021), his film on the conflict between Protestants and Catholics from the point of view of a nine-year-old child in the bosom of a working class Irish community in late 1960s. The character is inspired by Branagh himself, looking back to childhood , coming-of-age and how he discovered his love for acting and movie making. Already out in the US, the film will be out in the UK in January 2022 and Europe at the beginning of 2022.

In Belfast he explores family relationships, frictions and sacrifices in the tumultuous late 1960s in Northern Ireland. Branagh is well-known for his work his film adaptations of Shakespearean plays and this resonates in his Belfast film too. Filmed in black and white, like the monitor of his family TV, the film contrasts with the 60s technicolour big screen productions Branagh would have seen as a kid. He was the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at The Stockholm International Film Festival 2021 where he presented his new feature film – which ended up being awarded the Audience Award too. Right before the premiere screening we had the opportunity to meet up with him and attend a face-to-face interview where we got an insight into how his persona and memories are represented in the film.

Since the film is semi-autobiographical. How much do we see of you in the film?
Well, after the events of the film, eventually my family moved to England where I went at school and was in school plays that I understood. I found something that I enjoyed enormously. You'll see the kid in the movie watching films and Belfast represents the enormous journey that anybody can make to end up being a storyteller. That was certainly a very big one for me. I discovered that I loved acting. For me, it became a vocation quickly. I had teachers who said you could do this for a living, and [mentioned] those things called Drama Schools, which I had never heard of before. Once I understood that there was maybe a way to do it, I pursued it with passion and hope that at some point, I might be able to work in a theatre somewhere. I never wanted anything more than that, I would have been very happy with that. It is something that caught my heart and my soul when I was 15 or 16. In a way as the story of the events of the film proceeds, it's a kind of way for the child to try and navigate his way through life. He doesn't have much at his disposal. He's nine years old. So he knows about football. He's got a passion for a girl that is not being reciprocated. He's got religion. You'll see what I think about that. And he's got the movies. So movies were often a way of reflecting stories back to us.
Did you have had this story about Belfast in mind for a long time?
You see the events of this film and it is a moment that was really the end of childhood, you might describe it as the last day of my childhood. People who've seen that film speak about the moment “before” when maybe innocence is with a young person. For all of us, there is a moments sometimes it is peaceful sometimes it is not, where a transition is made to some sort of beginning of adulthood. The way it happened for me was very literally violent. For about 50 years, this preoccupation with that event, and what it did for my character, and what it did to me, to my parents and the sacrifices they made [has been in my mind]. I suppose it never went away from this idea, that there was a particular moment, frankly, about 20 seconds, where my life changed quite literally. I think the relationship to it has never gone away.
Then you directed this movie in the midst of the pandemic. How did that pan out?
At the beginning of the pandemic – I don't know what it was like for everyone around here, but for me what I was struck by was deep, deep silence. I have a little dog, I walked the dog all the time with no aeroplanes in the sky, with no cars on the roads. What came into my head was the sound of Belfast. We come from a very large extended family. And, so there was a sense of security […]
I think there are moments when children have to become sort of secret agents, they have to become spies in their own life, to work out what the future might be. In one way or another, it took 50 years to understand whether that story could be something of interest more that just me. I think the pandemic allowed me to understand how to tell the story. I think, in a way it could allow for moments of recognition from people, you know, in other parts of the world, and not really just a piece of personal therapy for me. The sense of all of us gathered in a crowd to watch a film is still relatively new again. I personally have always really really enjoyed it. I still go to the cinema a lot, it's a genuine hobby and passion. It doesn't feel like, as we would say, as a businessman's holiday. It's something that I carry from my childhood, because we went as a family.
Why did you decide to make this feature film in black and white?
The movies I watched as a child felt very immersive. My, the Belfast I lived in was, if you like, quite a sort of monochrome world. It rained a lot. I'm sure it doesn't rain, it sweeps (laughs). I suppose I saw that world in black and white. But the movies that I saw were these big widescreen Technicolour, immersive experiences. And so they took me to places that I'd never heard of. It was an escape, it was magical. We often went to the cinema to see big colour films, but at home on television, which was black and white, with just three channels, that’s where I saw old, black and white movies. Sometimes a colour movie broadcasted often broadcast in Westerns.
The film is set in a tumultuous period in the late 1960s.
What happened in Belfast in the summer of 1969. That was the beginning of three very very dark decades of the troubles there was a sense at least through the eyes of a nine year old, that the world could be a little light or Western. Certainly, they certainly seemed like there are a lot of cowboys in Belfast, and some bad guys. Like the cinema. I think bizarrely the first time I went to the cinema was to see a Beatles film you may recall called Yellow Submarine which is a very tricky movie, I think. I believe that movie was made with the aid of substances that were not strictly available to children. But I think it lends to the very bizarre, unusual motivation to tap in colours. It is also quite funny, dark, surreal and very engaging. In fact, these films were part of what made us aware of the sort of cultural sizzle. I mean, I couldn't at nine years old dignify it with any sort of great understanding, but I knew the people spoke about it and we could see on the news a cultural phenomenon. The Beatles and British music was exploding all over the place in San Francisco there was the summer of love. In 1968, the year before the Paris riots, students were writing in Paris, the very day on which this film began for real. On the 15th of August 1969, was also the weekend on which the Woodstock Festival, famous Pop Festival of Legends took place in New York. So there was something there that was a lot of fun, it felt like the world was being shaken up. And I was very aware of that in, in the films that I saw, and in the culture, such as I was able to take in as a young person.
What's the biggest challenge being both screenwriter and director?
Very interesting question. I think the big challenge is being rigorous and honest. I was in this film, I played an older version of the young man that you'll see throughout and in the homecoming. Directing actors, I am decisive. But passing over that rigor and honesty to yourself [is harder]. When you look at yourself in performance, in an editing suite, you have to be very rigorous. I also work with a lot of very honest people, who edited this film and have done two or three pictures. They have no problem letting me know if they don't think the work I've done is up to standards. So if you're smart, you'll listen to people who are more talented than you. And you'll take the human advice as they hand it over.
You joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. How did this idea come about?
Well, it was actually through movies. I saw a film, you may know Julius Caesar  – [Paterson] Joseph made a version – Marlon Brando played Marc Anthony very brilliantly in it, James Mason, was in it also, we saw that with the school. I found it very real. I could not understand it fully, but I was very engaged. But what was more, sort of immediately, we went into a packed house to see Romeo and Juliet. The first thing in the theatre we saw was a sword fight. We saw sparks coming off the blades. And it caused a near riot, I was watching with a theatre full of thirteen year olds, so you know the boys, testosterone was flying all over the place. And then Juliet came on and it was absolutely gorgeous. We got very silly about all of that. But also, because I had come from Belfast, I was very aware of this world of tribalism, of polarising things that alas, the world has much experience of right now. Anyway, one way or another the visceral impact of Romeo and Juliet and the knowledge of that kind of situation, a religious one in Belfast [inspired me]. But in this case, a Family Feud was immensely engaging. And one of the things that drew me to it was that I felt it, but I didn't understand it. So I wanted to understand it. So I studied it. Then I wanted to be able to take it back. Once again, being from Belfast will perhaps explain a bit about the way I've approached Shakespeare, for what it's worth, which is trying to find a way to be direct and let it speak to people as it spoke to me, very directly. And as I suppose I would hope it might speak to my family, who otherwise like many people would feel that there was a divide between them and Shakespeare or between them and so called Great art.
How does Shakespeare resonate in your new film?
I think my experience growing up was that need to be and that I preferred it not to be. One of the things I admire about the Irish [people] is that they can have conversations about philosophy and football. It's the sort of people who talk about a lot of things. They're engaged, they're open and subjects are not excluded. So for me, that's how I wanted to work with Shakespeare. I wanted to make it as available as it seemed to me and so the experiences of it being very passionate in the theatre were important to me.

Words and Portrait
Víctor Moreno

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