TIFF 2013: Mark Cousins Talks About ‘A Story of Children and Film’ and the Best Documentaries About Kids

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Filmmaker and historian Mark Cousins is having a great week. His acclaimed miniseries The Story of Film: An Odyssey (which played TIFF in 2011) has begun airing on Turner Classic Movies accompanied by canonical works of cinema highlighted in that comprehensive 15-part documentary. And his latest effort, a feature-length doc titled A Story of Children and Film, is currently having its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s another sampling and discussion of important films from around the world, this time concentrated on cinematic portrayals of childhood (a la E.T., The 400 Blows and The Red Balloon, The White Balloon and The Yellow Balloon).

I talked to Cousins earlier today on the phone about this new effort, which I haven’t yet seen. As a fan of The Story of Film and an earlier doc of his involving children called The First Movie, I’m really looking forward to it. And now that I’ve learned that there are some nonfiction films among the bunch he selected for this project, I’m especially excited to be introduced to some more necessary shorts and features I’m not familiar with. Find out about those below and check out the rest of our conversation about children and cinema and how Cousins has long been a champion of creative documentary — plus mention of which 2013 release is of particular notice for nonfiction fans.

Nonfics: You previously made a film involving the relationship between children and cinema (The First Movie). What is the interest there as a film scholar?

Mark Cousins: I made a film in Iraq with children and I’ve set up a few charities for children and cinema with Tilda Swinton. I think it’s a number of things… Obviously childhood is central to our lives. So that’s important. Anybody who has a child films them on their phones or something. It’s partly because we know children are so capricious. Their emotions change really fast. Like the weather in Scotland, where I live. One minute it’s stormy, next minute it’s tranquil, next minute it’s cold. When we as adults look at children and we see their speed of emotions, we’re jealous in a way. Children are quite naked in their emotions. If they want a cookie they just say, “Give me a cookie.” Whereas we adults are like, “You have it, or I’ll split it with you.” We guard and hide our emotions more. When we look at children, we look at life.

There’s another reason I wanted to look at children: because of the ways movies are changing, the new technology, etc. The old way of making films, as you well know, there was a studio and lights and equipment, and children find it very hard to be themselves in those very complex set ups. That’s why the performances of Shirley Temple and those kids in early movies look very controlled, almost like an adult. Nowadays the camera equipment is so small. In the Iranian films made with children, they’re hardly aware of the equipment. I think digital has made it a golden age for children in cinema. It’s the best time ever, from what I’ve seen.

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Nonfics: So this is more films about children rather than for children?

Cousins: It’s very much about children. I wanted to look at how filmmakers have portrayed children in the movies. Some kids have seen this, young kids like 9- or 10-year-olds. But it’s about the emotions we feel when we watch a child. If you look at a photograph of your childhood self, you’re moved and touched and think, “Was I ever that little creature?” That tells us something profound about the movies. When we look Casablanca, we know that Ingrid Bergman is dead. But she’s still luminously alive. When we look at Garbo movies from the 1920s, Garbo’s long gone but she’s luminously alive there. It’s like light from a distant star. The star might be dead, but the light is still traveling.

I think that’s exactly like when we look at pictures of our young self. When I look at pictures of me as a boy; that boy no longer exists, you can no longer go back there, but I’m still moved by it. That’s what my film is about. It’s about looking back at childhood rather than being a child.

Nonfics: Oh, I thought it was more about great children’s films. As adult viewers, we occasionally see a certain kind of movie and say things like “It made me feel like a kid,” and we have nostalgic love for films that we experienced as kids that we might not have appreciated had we first seen them now. Are either of these ideas relevant to your interests here?

Cousins: Totally. When I introduced the film this morning, I said, “I always watch a film like a child.” I always feel like a kid looking up at the big screen. I even brought a picture of my 6-year-old self and held it up and said, “This will be the person who will be watching the film this morning.” That’s what’s great about cinema. It does something to you. It changes you as you watch. It’s like sitting in winter and looking at summer on the big screen. That’s definitely the way I watch, and the last line in my film is “Kids are like cinema; cinema is like childhood.” There’s a real affinity between the two. Cinema is an extremely young art form in the scheme of things. It’s still getting going and still learning.

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Nonfics: It’s also interesting how today children are possibly the primary consumers of cinema in movie theaters.

Cousins: Which is a profound reason why we need to make sure that they see loads of different types of movies from lots and lots of different parts of the world. In my film there are 53 films. I think there are about five or six from North America and then quite a few from Iran and Japan and Senegal and Scandinavia and Russia and Czechoslovakia. You want our kids to take that magic carpet ride that is the movies to different lands. You want them to have all sorts of adventures in the movie theater. I love Pixar, for example. But we have to keep making sure our movie theaters show a broader range. The best films that I’ve seen in the world about kids are being made in Iran. We need to see as many of those as possible.

Nonfics: As a film scholar and historian and critic, how important is it for you to make brilliant films yourself?

Cousins: I was a filmmaker long before I wrote about cinema. I started making films in the late ’80s, and then I took a break and started writing about movies and running film festivals and that sort of thing. People think of me as a scholar guy, you know, but when I was growing up I had dyslexia so I was never good at words. But I was really good at imagery, painting and drawing. Paul Cezanne for me was like a rock star.

When I’m making films I keep the sense of I’m making poetry not prose, so the imagery and the filmmaking comes first for me before any sense of film history. We’re talking about a film I’ve made about film history, but I just made a film in Albania. The last film I made was in Mexico City and it was about walking. The language of the movie, the absolute joy of shooting… I always shoot my own films. I edit. It’s such a joy, and that’s why I’m in it. It just so happens that a lot of my topics are movie-related. The reason that is is exactly the same as for Truffaut and Godard and Agnes Varda — all those people who said when they make films of course there will be cinema in the films because cinema is part of life. And it’s the same for me.

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Nonfics: A lot of people don’t think about how documentary can and should be really cinematic.

Cousins: Absolutely. That’s completely true. In the mid-90s I did a book with Kevin MacDonald called Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary, and it was a history of creativity in documentary, and we argued passionately and have argued ever since…

You know, it’s polygenic. There’s the poetic documentary, there’s the observational documentary, there’s the constructive documentary, there’s the archive documentary, there’s the whole Chris Marker world and what he did with commentaries. Documentary was a ne’er-do-well art form that was always very specialist, but then in the 1990s and then with 9/11 it suddenly found its place on the big screen, and it’s been an extraordinary period. Look at Leviathan, which plants a bomb under John Grierson’s ideas of what documentary is. It’s a brilliant moment. I’m making three feature-length documentaries a year at the moment because of the digital technology.

Nonfics: Since I haven’t seen the new film yet I’m not sure if you feature any documentaries. Whether they’re included there or not, what do you think are the best nonfiction films about children?

There’s a fantastic film called The Unseen, about blind kids in Czechoslovakia who take photographs. One of the greatest films that I know on any subject anywhere in the world is Herz Frank’s Ten Minutes Older, which is a close-up shot of a boy watching a puppet show. It’s a documentary, ten minutes, made in the 1960s in Latvia, and it’s right at the center of my film because it’s the greatest film I know. Obviously Nicolas Philibert’s Etre et avoir (To Be and to Have). It’s so lovely, about that beautiful relationship between children and their teacher.

The great Iranian films, I call them para-documentaries. I don’t know if anybody uses that phrase, but that’s what I call them. Films like Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House?, which was shot like a documentary. The boy felt like he was in a documentary. So the documentary impulse has been the most nourishing aspect of filmmaking for children, even if the resulting film isn’t a documentary. In other words, giving a child his freedom to do what it wants, that is what has rejuvenated children’s cinema in particular.

A Story of Children and Film will screen once more at TIFF on September 15.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.