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Alessandra Celesia • Director of The Flats

“Art can be a healing force, offering a positive way to process trauma”


- The director gives us an in-depth overview of her documentary focusing on a housing estate in Belfast and its inhabitants, who are still coping with post-Troubles trauma

Alessandra Celesia • Director of The Flats
(© Jim Corr Photography)

The Flats [+see also:
film review
interview: Alessandra Celesia
film profile
, directed by Alessandra Celesia, emerged as the top film at the sixth Docs Ireland festival in June (see the news). Set on a Belfast housing estate weathered by both past glories and darker moments, the documentary delves into the enduring impact of the Catholic-Protestant conflict, which continues to linger in the architecture and the emotions of its inhabitants. Celesia shared insights into her inspiration for the documentary, the journey of healing portrayed in the film, and her hopes for the future of Belfast and its community.

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Cineuropa: Why did you choose the New Lodge estate as the central setting for your documentary?
Alessandra Celesia:
I began shooting The Bookseller of Belfast in 2011 and was drawn to the seven towers of the New Lodge estate. These 12-floor buildings intrigued me, and discovering that my husband's family originally hailed from New Lodge deepened my interest. The estate is a reflection of Belfast's turbulent history, possibly witnessing the highest number of deaths per square metre during the Troubles. The presence of the British Army on the site of the flats made it a focal point of intense trauma. The intertwined lives within these structures provided an ideal backdrop against which to place the camera and delve into the past.

Joe McNally's story is central to the documentary, and his recollection of his uncle's murder is a pivotal aspect of the film. How did you approach documenting such a personal and traumatic memory?
Documenting such profound trauma demands extreme care. With Joe, however, it felt natural. He embodies a generation profoundly affected by the Troubles, and I saw in him a potent voice for his peers. Our extended production period allowed me to spend hours with Joe, building a friendship and trust. It became evident that he wanted to participate to honour his uncle’s memory. Our approach was deliberate and respectful, ensuring a thorough understanding of his story. Rita, the psychologist whom Joe consulted, played a crucial role in creating a safe space for Joe to share his trauma and explore it artistically, aiding in his healing.

The film explores the psychological toll of the Troubles on different generations. How did you navigate the delicate balance of depicting this ongoing trauma while maintaining hope and resilience?
I knew the film needed to conclude on a hopeful note. This wasn't just a creative choice, but also a reflection of the resilience I observed in the people I met. Despite their wounds, they exhibit resilience and humour, using dark comedy as a survival mechanism. I was drawn to those who embody this light. Maintaining authenticity in their depiction was paramount. During editing, we worked diligently to strike a balance, avoiding a narrative that was purely tragic. Despite its tumultuous past, New Lodge fosters a vibrant community spirit and moments of joy. This collective resilience was a central theme I aimed to highlight.

The film employs reenactments to portray Joe's memories. How did you decide on this method, and what challenges did you face in ensuring these recreations felt authentic and respectful?
As my relationship with the characters deepened, I discovered numerous stories rooted in the past, with the flats serving as tangible repositories of these memories through old wallpaper and the lingering presence of Troubles survivors. As trust grew, I decided to experiment with reenactments. Procuring a weathered coffin, I invited Joe to revisit his memories, involving neighbours to play roles such as his grandmother and mother, and a young boy, in the process. After a week of trial runs, the scene in the film emerged organically from these experiments. Instead of imposing heavy direction, I allowed Joe to lead the reenactments, intervening minimally to support their emotional journey. This approach fostered a sense of playfulness, making the process uplifting. I believe that art can be a healing force, offering a positive way to process trauma. With Rita, the psychologist, ensuring a safe environment, we felt confident in our approach. These reenactments provided a secure space for Joe and others to explore individual and collective memories together.

The coffin is a recurring symbol in the film. Can you discuss its significance?
During my research, coffins emerged as potent symbols intertwined with memories and stories. They appeared frequently, underscoring the fragility of life among that generation. Coffins symbolise the spectre of death and the challenge of moving forward, resonating across conflicts like in Palestine. I knew from the outset that coffins would play a pivotal role in our narrative. We used a single coffin to represent all of the deaths in the film, highlighting the universal experience of loss, from Bobby Sands to Joe’s uncle. Even the sunbed, resembling a coffin, symbolises pervasive violence, particularly affecting women.

Bobby Sands' legacy is a significant theme. How do you see his story resonating with the current generation in Belfast?
Surprisingly, Bobby Sands' story is fading from the memory of younger generations in Belfast, particularly those under 40, including many in their twenties who are unfamiliar with him. This prompted us to include archival footage to reintroduce Sands to new audiences. For Joe, Sands' quote, "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children," remains poignant amid his concerns over Belfast's contemporary challenges, such as the rampant drug problem. Bobby Sands embodies a non-violent struggle for a brighter future for children in the Catholic community. In the film, Joe reflects on whether this future has truly materialised. The inclusion of nine-year-old Sean, exuding purity and joy, symbolises hope and continuity, bridging past and present in a way that profoundly resonates with Joe.

Given the deeply entrenched issues depicted in the documentary, what do you hope the future holds for the residents of New Lodge?
When I first arrived in Belfast in 1996, shortly after the peace agreement, I initially thought another film about the Troubles wasn't necessary. However, I soon realised that trauma persists among new generations, evidenced by challenges such as high rates of violence against women and youth suicide. Despite these ongoing issues, Belfast is evolving rapidly, with positive developments like new art centres and youth clubs in North Belfast. While films alone may not bring about substantial change, I hope The Flats can instil pride within the New Lodge community. Addressing the drug crisis remains crucial, especially its impact on young people, and increased access to therapy and support. If the film can raise awareness and encourage the authorities to invest more in these critical areas, it will have had a meaningful impact.

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