The thing I’ve quite liked about this Document film festival is how there are different ways to tell a story. Trouble is like that. It kinda has this absence at its centre, because it’s about the director’s da and he doesn’t want to be involved much, so you kinda have to get creative about how the story’s told.
It focuses on David Coleman, the estranged father of the director, and why he left Northern Ireland in the 70s. I mean, with a phrase like “why he left Northern Ireland in the 70s”, there’s not gonna be a great goddamn mystery to it. But his daughter is American, and didn’t meet her dad until adulthood, and has this need to understand him, which means understanding his background and the Troubles, and she’s largely clueless as to what this actually involves.
She has the American propaganda version of what the Troubles were about, the Captain Planet version. There are Catholics and there are Protestants and they knock lumps of shite out each other, and they need to just quit it. The nuance and complexity is not only overlooked, but that sense of Belfast as a real place, with real people, who are still living with the legacy of all that. And I think you see her going on a real journey of understanding, learning as she goes along, that it was not just a religious thing, or even just a political thing, but an economic thing, a social thing, and a real thing. Not a story, but real people dead, and maimed, and scarred.
The original plan for the film is that she would take her dad back to Northern Ireland and he would cut about his old neighbourhood pointing out all the old buildings and the history, and introduce her to his family and they would all tell stories about him and those times. By the end of the film she realises how totally naïve that was. His neighbourhood is gone, razed, and his family is scattered, a diaspora of displaced people who have no urge to relive the darkest days of their life with a complete stranger. Her father refuses to come with her. Politely but firmly. So she has to find a different way to tell this story.
She finds a news interview with her mum and dad when they met as teenagers. It was an upbeat BBC piece about love crossing the divide, her dad a Protestant, her mum a Catholic. She wants to show it in the movie, but it’s £40 a second for the rights. So she cuts and dies her hair, buys an old coat and re-enacts it with the original audio. This works so well, because she looks stunningly like her dad, she continues as his stand-in as she runs the audio of his interviews over the visuals of her outside Belfast landmarks. Doing the film she wanted with her dad in his absence.
At first it feels kinda creepy, because she does look uncannily like him as a young man. But it feels more natural as it goes on. She is literally trying to walk in his shoes.
Dislocation is a big theme in this film. Her dad now lives in Vienna, and when she first visits him, it’s awkward. They are these intimate strangers. And he speaks German fluently, while she doesn’t. And he is trying to describe these experiences of Northern Ireland to an American half a century on. She returns to Belfast, with its strong religious identity, as a queer woman, dressed as a man. Everything feels like a struggle for connection.
A really interesting film.
P.S. The Arlene Foster drag act is worth the price of the ticket alone.