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In Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated ‘Belfast,’ displaced people see their own stories

“I just saw that and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is me when I was a child,’” Aida Silvestri, an Eritrean artist who experienced war in her native country, said.
Caitriona Balfe stars as "Ma" and Jamie Dornan stars as "Pa" in "Belfast."
Caitriona Balfe stars as "Ma" and Jamie Dornan stars as "Pa" in "Belfast."Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Warning: This article includes some spoilers.

At the end of Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated movie “Belfast,” words appear over a lingering shot of the city’s legendary shipyards: “For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.”

The poignant epithet sums up the conflicting emotions that Branagh said he grappled with in making the movie, a nostalgia-filled reflection on his childhood in the working-class north Belfast, Northern Ireland, of the 1960s. It tells the story of his own family, who lived happily alongside their neighbors until sectarian rioting transformed their peaceful street into a scene of menace and despair, eventually forcing them to flee.

In addition to being nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture and best director, “Belfast” has been celebrated by people around the world for exploring the emotional complexities of displacement and what it means to see one’s home, with all its familiarity and warmth, violently disrupted and turned into something unrecognizable.

People who have been displaced by war or political repression told NBC News they recognized chapters of their own lives in the scenes depicted in “Belfast.” These conversations have taken on additional significance as millions of Ukrainians flee their homes in the face of the Russian invasion.

In promoting the movie, Branagh spoke about the sense of dislocation he felt after his family left Belfast for England in 1969. That was the year a 30-year conflict known as “The Troubles” began in Northern Ireland. It pitted mainly Catholic nationalists who wanted to become part of the Republic of Ireland against mainly Protestant unionists who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. 

The opening scene of the movie lovingly re-creates the city of Branagh’s youth: On a cheerful street of terraced houses, children play together before their mothers call them in for dinner, while men gather and tell oft-repeated jokes. The scene is animated by the music of Belfast native Van Morrison, and one can almost smell the grease of a traditional fried Irish breakfast wafting through kitchen windows.

But 9-year-old Buddy, representing Branagh himself, watches uncomprehendingly as a sectarian riot crashes into this merry image, torching cars, destroying houses and even ripping up the very paving stones people walked on. Branagh said he found the destruction of his street profoundly disorientating. 

Jude Hill stars as "Buddy" in "Belfast."
Jude Hill stars as "Buddy" in "Belfast."Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Sana Murrani, an architect who escaped Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, knows the feeling well. 

She pointed to a U.S. missile attack on the Amiriyah air raid shelter in Baghdad during the first Gulf War that killed hundreds of civilians. The bombing “flipped everything for Iraqis,” Murrani said. Shelters went from being a place of protection to “an aggressive place, a violent place, not a place that you would want to go to.”

Similarly, she said the violent disruption of home can transform it from a space of protection into something far more sinister, as the materials that were used to provide safety instead become deadly weapons.

“We kind of take for granted bricks and mortar to be supporting you, to be protecting you,” said Murrani, who is an associate professor of spatial practice at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. and founder of the Displacement Studies Research Network. “All of those meanings broke down with that.”

Aida Silvestri is an Eritrean artist who moved to the U.K. in the 1990s. She said watching parts of “Belfast” immediately prompted memories of her own childhood during the Eritrean War of Independence.

“I just saw that and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is me when I was a child,’” she said.

Among the scenes she recognized were those in which Buddy and his family escaped the unrest in their street by going to the cinema. A child’s imagination can provide a powerful sense of relief during conflict.

“I never watched ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek,’” she said, “but I would imagine that there were shields in each town. There were little bubbles or shields that would protect us, so nobody could come in and only people in the town would have access.”

In the scene where Buddy’s mother and father argue over whether or not they should leave Belfast, Silvestri also recognized the mother’s concern about how their accent would be received in England. 

“When Buddy said, ‘If I cross the sea, will they understand me?’ that was another major barrier for me,” she said. “When I first came, everyone was saying ‘innit.’ I was thinking, what on Earth is ‘innit’?”

In “Belfast,” every episode of violence gets progressively closer to Buddy and his family, finally culminating in Buddy himself being roped into a riot and looting. Unsure what he’s meant to do as the mob ransacks a grocery store, Buddy gingerly grabs a box of washing detergent to take home to his mother.

Majid Adin, an Iranian animator and illustrator who left his home country in 2015 after his blogging drew the attention of the regime, laughed as he remembered a very similar experience growing up in Mashhad.

“The economy of Iran was so broken, in the downtown of my city there were big protests and looting,” he said. “The poor people in the country got so angry, they broke into the shops. There were no police. I was a child, about 11 years old, and I got into the shop and wanted to keep something. I came back home with two boxes of shoes, but when I came back home after four hours, my bicycle was stolen.”

Both Adin and Murrani echoed the sense of dislocation that Branagh has spoken of in being forced to leave one’s home.

For Murrani, that took the form of guilt at having escaped the violence of her home city.

“I felt guilty that I am managing to sleep without worrying about my safety,” she said. “I used to absolutely hate being able to see nice things.”

Reflecting on Branagh’s loving depiction of Belfast, Adin said it reflects a sentiment common among displaced people.

“You’ve lost something: your home, your roots,” he said. “All the time in your mind, you think, I can never come back to my country, my land. Maybe until the end of my life, I can never see that home, that house, that atmosphere.”