Growing up in the UK, it’s always seemed perfectly normal to me that Belfast is split by high barbed-wire “peacewalls”. Malin Andersson’s Swedish eye has allowed me to look at my own country with new eyes: Belfast, I have to admit, can be a pretty bizarre city.
Andersson attacks all the themes you’d expect-sectarianism, violence, the prospects for peace-but sneaks up on them all in a refreshingly oblique and intelligent way. As Northern Ireland’s peace process approaches its adolescence, the film follows two Belfast adolescents for an entire year. They’re working-class teenage girls obsessed with the usual teenage things – make-up, boyfriends, arguments with their mums. Mairéad is Catholic, Christine is Protestant. It’s tellingly clear that Christine and Mairéad have so much more in common than they have differences, but the point is never laboured.
Cutting between their stories on either side of the barbed wire, “Belfast Girls” teases out its themes with delicacy. You can hear the effort in the girls’ voices as they struggle to explain to a foreigner the rules of Belfast life, the meaning to them of traditions handed down by their grandparents. It’s particularly poignant in the case of Mairéad, when we learn that her granddad was locked up by the Brits for decades, in a notorious miscarriage of justice. Mairéad’s eyes shine when she talks about how much fun she had in a riot against British troops, as if she was talking about a wild night out at a club.
Andersson achieves a startling intimacy with the characters, who seem to treat the camera like a sort of family pet. We’re invited not only into the girls’ homes but even into their beds. I can’t tell you the twist in the story without ruining it for you, if you get a chance to watch the film yourself. (Fortunately there is no cheesy storyline of the two girls meeting; this is genuine observational documentary.) But I can tell you that by the end of the year, both Belfast girls end up in a place they’d never expected; and you’ll feel more optimistic about sectarianism than you did when the film started.