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CPH:DOX 2024

Review: The Flats

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- Alessandra Celesia’s documentary follows an ageing man who looks back on his youth on a Belfast estate amidst the Troubles

Review: The Flats

Aided by a friend, a man struggles to carry a hefty coffin into a tower-block flat. The man with said coffin is New Lodge native Joe McNally, and the funerary box is the eerie centrepiece of cinematic reenactments in Alessandra Celesia’s new documentary The Flats, which has world-premiered in the main competition at CPH:DOX.

Singling out Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue as a particular cinematic reference, Celesia became drawn to New Lodge, dominated by several tower blocks, as a central setting for her film. This high-rise building in a Catholic enclave on the edge of Belfast’s centre does not seem an accidental choice, serving as the intriguing stage for a man’s story to play out. He’s a person who is haunted – akin to other members of his community – by the spectre of violence decades after the Troubles, a nearly 30-year sectarian conflict between loyalists (mostly Protestants) and republicans (mostly Catholics), which officially came to an end in 1998.

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The main protagonist is Joe, a worn-out republican living on the New Lodge estate, who still suffers from the unresolved trauma of his uncle’s death, who was fatally shot at age 17 by loyalists during the Troubles. Leaning into the familiar practice of reenactments as a way to breathe visual life into past events, Celesia gets Joe to reenact his uncle’s wake, transporting himself – and viewers – to the year 1975. Standing over the open coffin, the adult Joe sticks a plaster over the nose of a young man laid out in the box, playing his dead uncle. His uncle Cocke got shot in the back of the head, and the bullet came out of his nose, Joe notes, and that plaster is the only thing he remembers from his wake.

Further anguished memories transpire in Joe’s sessions with Rita Overend, a counsellor who works in an association for suicide prevention, which form the backbone of the film. “I am still seeing it through nine-year-old eyes; I am still seeing it the same way,” he confides to the counsellor. Joe’s painful past grows ever more immediate when he – through a series of reenactments – returns to his childhood and observes a boy, playing his nine-year-old self, consoling his grief-stricken grandmother. In another scene, Joe recalls his grandma purchasing a caravan with the £3,500 compensation and taking him on holiday, a brief respite from “the murder mile” that was New Lodge. Gradually, as the reenactments unfold, from beneath the man’s life-weary face emerges a wide-eyed boy who came to know loss and violence far too early. 

Whether the character’s acting out of past events is an effective form of psychotherapy is a question to ponder, but as a filmic device, these reenactments seem productive in crafting a cinematic space that seamlessly blends the past and the present, which is further achieved by the clever use of archival material and live-action scenes of the protagonist’s daily life. Personal and collective memories continue to coalesce in The Flats when Rita joins Joe on a trip down memory lane, with the coffin now used for reenacting a scene from the funeral of Bobby Sands, an IRA leader whose 66-day hunger strike and death marked a watershed moment in Northern Ireland’s struggle.

The Flats is replete with stirring depictions of the small, private moments that occurred during the Troubles. Echoes of this time still reverberate in New Lodge, closely co-existing with substance abuse and domestic violence. The community’s lasting agonies are conveyed effectively through the certain look of the archival material, dominated by blue hues, and the use of cool tones in the present-day footage. But The Flats offers more than a story about a man’s restaged memories of the Troubles; ultimately, it evidences how memories keep arising, and so does life itself. The film closes with a cathartic musical flourish, featuring Jolene Burns singing a verse, dedicated to New Lodge: “It is just the way we are.”

The Flats is a production by Films de Force Majeure (France), Thank You & Good Night Productions (Belgium), Planet Korda Pictures (Ireland) and Dumbworld (UK). Its international sales are handled by The Party Film Sales.

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