Mairéad is 20 years old and has grown up in a Catholic enclave.
She stands looking out over her home, seeing all the walls around her. Childhood memories of brutal arrests of her father at night and a constant fear for her life mix with wonderings what the “other side” looks like. She has never gotten to know a Protestant in her entire life – until the day her flatmate starts a new relationship. Suddenly “the other side” has moved into her house.
Christine is Protestant and walks on the other side of the walls with her pram and young daughter. She is 18 years old and wishes most of all that her baby will have more choices when she grows up.
Christine dreams about a house of her own and a boy to love. When she finally finds him - he’s a Catholic.
Swedish director Malin Andersson follows the lives of these young women. Barbed wire and sandbags from the early days of the war in Northern Ireland have long since become permanent walls. The “peacewalls” keep the two communities apart creating divisions as brutal as ever, nearly a decade into the peace process. The legacy to the young generation is clear. You don’t mix.
On her first visit to Northern Ireland, Malin Andersson was shocked to find two communities at war. Her debut film is the story of two young women – one from either side of the walls.
VIOLIN IN HAND, like so many other young people in Europe, the 20 year-old Malin Andersson went in search of the true spirit of Ireland. It was the early 90s, and Malin travelled the length and breadth of the island, ending up in Belfast. There in Northern Ireland she found two communities at war. “It was really disturbing. But I was so taken with the place that I couldn’t let it go.” Malin returned to Northern Ireland year after year. Her first love, she confesses, was photography. Her portfolio of images of Belfast grew, eventually helping her to gain admission to a full-time photography course in Sweden.
But by that time, another love, of documentary fi lms, had already been awakened. She couldn’t understand why the Swedish media never reported the dreadful stories she encountered time and time again in Belfast. And she began to realise that if nobody else in Sweden would tell them, then she’d just have to do it herself. “They were shocking stories about the injustices committed when the troubles were at their height. I made friends with a number of young guys who’d been wrongfully imprisoned and even tortured.” It was only several years later, when she moved back to Malmö, that everything fell into place. Malin came into contact with the producer Fredrik Gertten at WG Film, who was immediately taken with her idea for Belfast Girls: to tell the stories of two 18 year-old girls, one a Catholic, the other a Protestant. But it took some time before Malin found her main characters: Christine (Protestant) and Mairéad (Catholic). “I hadn’t had much contact with girls in Belfast, most of the people I knew there were guys. A lot of them wanted to appear in the fi lm, but that wasn’t what I wanted. And many of the girls I approached simply thought: why should I want to be in a fi lm?” Most thinking people in Sweden come down on the side of the Catholic republicans, though they fall short of expressing support for the IRA. But in Belfast Girls, Malin Andersson made a conscious decision not to take sides. “I wanted to show the reality, so I had to listen to the Protestants too. I wanted two very ordinary girls. And basically, I don’t think it’s a film about a divided Ireland, but rather about what it’s like to be an 18 year-old living in Belfast. Belfast Girls strikes a chord for the new Northern Ireland, for the new generation that’s slowly moving away from almost a century of segregation. Just ten years ago, for example, every workplace was so split on community lines that it would have been virtually impossible for the Protestant Christine, as she does in the fi m, to meet her Catholic boyfriend at her place of work. A slow process of political change is now under way, a process that began with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. As Malin sees it, it marked the start of a period of hope, especially for the Catholics:
“They’ve always had something to fight for, and now they’ve achieved their aims in some respects. They have a sort of cautious optimism right now. You can feel it on the Falls Road. But for the Protestants, those feelings are reversed.” As such, it’s a complicated time to make a fi lm about Northern Ireland. But Malin Andersson is undeterred:
“It’s important to show the complications. The people I’ve met on the Protestant side feel virtually abandoned. They were born secure in the knowledge that they had the upper hand: you’ll always have a job, always have somewhere to live. Now they’re suddenly thinking: “what’s going on here?” But change takes time. The film shows that even now, Mairéad (whose grandfather, incidentally, was one of the Birmingham Six), still doesn’t dare to walk along certain streets. And neither of the girls dares to go on a bus. It’s something that sits deep, as Malin explains. People simply didn’t do those things for so many years. In the film we follow the 18 year-olds in their everyday lives. Christine is a teenage mother who’s recently met a new boyfriend, Terry, who happens to be a Catholic. Eventually, Mairéad also fi nds a boyfriend, Paddy, and the film ends on something of a high note
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