Mark Cousins tells A Story of Children and Film

As his inspiring look at childhood on film opens across the UK and on the BFI Player, filmmaker Mark Cousins tells us about the unknown classics of children’s cinema.

2 April 2014

By Sam Wigley

Hugo and Josephine (1967)

Following huge acclaim for his impassioned 15-hour history of cinema, The Story of Film, Mark Cousins has returned with a more diminutive film essay, this time mapping the medium’s depictions of childhood. Rather than take a chronological approach, A Story of Children and Film brings together a treasure trove of extracts of children on screen in films from around the globe, teasing out visual and thematic connections between both familiar (Kes, 1969; E.T., 1982) and virtually unknown gems of children’s cinema.

The jumping off point for this richly associative approach is an 11-minute shot that Cousins filmed of his young niece and nephew playing in his front room. He uses the children’s changing moods in front of his camera to trace behaviour such as shyness, stroppiness and showing off in on-screen counterparts from every continent. 17 of these films, from 12 different countries, are screening (many for the first time ever in the UK) in a season, The Cinema of Childhood, curated by Cousins to accompany his film’s release.

Did A Story of Children and Film grow out of The Story of Film, or was it conceived quite separately?

It was almost against The Story of Film, to be honest. The Story of Film was a big piece of work and it was exhausting and quite disciplined. I was telling a history of the medium so I couldn’t wander in my head. So I wanted to make a film in which I could wander in my head. A Story of Children and Film is much more digressive and associative; there’s no timeline or chronology.

Mark Cousins

I was determined not even to make a film about cinema, but this one came out of daydreaming, out of not filming. Seamus Heaney says inspiration is a ball kicked in from nowhere, and it felt like A Story of Children and Film was just that.

Where does the shot of your niece and nephew fit into that?

I was determined not to make a film. When I want to relax I climb hills or draw or cook or shoot stuff. It seems bizarre to get away from filmmaking by shooting, but when you’re determined not to make a film there’s just the pure pleasure of observing. Doing that little shot of those two was just like people-watching. But then when I looked back, I could feel a movie coming on – in the way that hunger comes on, you can feel it building and you think “Uh-oh, here we go again”. It’s the intoxication of filmmaking and creativity.

And so all these different images of children in film began to flood in?

That’s exactly what happens. The majority of my thoughts are rubbish and they go nowhere: you get on the train and it goes one stop and then grinds to a halt. But sometimes thinking expands and it opens up a territory. In this case I realised that looking at my niece and nephew was making me think of other children in cinema and really interesting examples. As you can see in the film, it isn’t all the obvious examples, but I loved joining those dots and I couldn’t wait to get into the edit suite.

The first proper cut is between my niece Laura and Yellow Earth (1984), the Chen Kaige film – and when I noticed those two little girls with the same facial expression, I thought “I’m on to something here”. It’s not a history of cinema, it’s not a chronology of any sort; it’s about how filmmakers over many decades, over many countries, have observed the same properties in childhood.

Did you know all of the films beforehand?

I knew most of them. There are 50-something films in this and I probably knew 48 of them, but there were some key ones that I didn’t know. I didn’t know Long Live the Republic (1965), the Czech picture, which film historian Neil McGlone [the film’s researcher] suggested to me. I didn’t know the beautiful Swedish film Hugo and Josephine (1967), which I’m ashamed about because it’s so great, but a Swedish friend suggested it. I asked around people who really know their stuff in different parts of the world.

Of course there’s loads missing; it’s not trying to be comprehensive. There’s not a single Italian film in there, which is terrible! I wanted key flavours. In the edit suite I normally have a timeline stuck on the wall, but this time I stuck up a picture by Paul Cézanne – a particularly nice painting of his where he’s got a whole series of beautiful shapes and colours. I said to my editor, Timo Langer: let’s imagine we’re trying to make that painting into a movie, a series of sequences with their own shapes and colours which interact and form a picture.

It’s always scary when you don’t have a plot: how do I keep people interested for 100 minutes? Or how does it not just feel random?

While it can’t be comprehensive, there are some very notable omissions. Are there any classic films about children that you think are overrated or that cheat about childhood?

It’s hard to generalise about movie history, but I would say this: I think that the performances of children in cinema have got better over the decades, because of technology. If you were Shirley Temple or a child in the golden age of American cinema, as it’s called, you went into the room and you were surrounded by maybe 30 guys (usually guys) and loads of equipment. So it felt very inhibited and the performances tended to be more marionette-like: very directed, puppeteered almost. But as the technology has shrunk, the balance has been redressed. If they’re working with minimalist filmmakers, like the Iranians, the equipment is almost invisible. That’s why the performances have become natural, the child has more agency. That’s why in A Story of Children and Film there’s a preponderance of films from more recent decades.

Crows (1994)

I love stylised, studio-type cinema, but very often there it feels more about the adult director than the child; that’s why I’ve focused on people like Dorota Kedzierzawska who work in a very naturalistic way. I realised that the present-tense-ness that you see in children, how great they are at just doing things in the moment, is also a quality that you see in movies.

You’re making connections across such a huge range of films – how did you plan this?

Good question. I don’t work linearly, with a script or anything like that. What I do is I get a big sheet of paper, twice the size of a movie poster, and start to scribble. In this case I scribbled a big bunch of boxes and wrote different tones or moods in the different boxes, like ‘anger’, ‘shy’, ‘performing’, ‘social class’, ‘violence’. Then in each box I scribbled the names of the films that came to mind, in which the child was being angry or shy etc.

A Story of Children and Film (2013)

So I immediately had a grid and I could look around the grid and draw lines and connections. Then the only structural question which order these themes come in: do I do anger first or shyness first? But then I realised I should stick to the integrity of what Laura and Ben do in the 11-minute shot. So they started shy, then they boot each other, then they farted and so on. I thought there’s no superstructure here, there’s no big budget, so why don’t I just go with their flow?

I was reading a review in the Hollywood Reporter which commented that there were no evil children in the film, no children in despair…

I didn’t read that review but that’s to misunderstand my film. Children like Damian in The Omen (1976) and in The Exorcist (1973) – I love those pictures, but let’s be clear that in the real world there are no children that really have the Devil in them. Though I know some parents who’d disagree with that! And that’s why those films are not in here, because this is a realist portrait of real children, not gothic childhood, not an imaginary type of childhood. So it would be completely inappropriate to put devil children in there.

A Story of Children and Film (2013) poster

And on the subject of despair, there’s lots! Little Renko in the film Moving (1993) properly despairs. The children in René Clément’s film Jeux interdits (1952) properly despair. There’s a lot of sadness, and worse. Crows (1994), the Dorota Kedzierzawska film, is terrifying because this girl is under-stimulated and she actually has the destructive impulse. We’ve all known adults about who we say “They’re killing themselves” but this little girl has got that, because she’s bored and she wants to feel alive even if it’s perhaps by killing herself and the tiny tot she steals.

Were there any films you saw growing up or since that you thought reflected your own childhood?

Yes, Ken Loach’s film Kes. Even though I had a more supportive family situation than Kes, when I look at that film I see the same class issues that I and many people from working-class backgrounds faced. What’s so brilliant about Kes is that that boy is an autodidact: he hasn’t been taught empathy, so he teaches himself.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

And I really identify with Elliott in E.T. Those night-time scenes out in the yard when it’s misty… I remember so clearly when I was young, my parents and my brother would go to bed, but I would stay up and watch the late film. It felt so transgressive. It felt like the whole world was asleep and I was the only one sitting in front of this glowing TV screen watching an Orson Welles film or an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s like the torch under the bed covers thing, and that’s the bit of Elliott I identify with a lot.

Do you think many of the films featured in A Story of Children and Film work for children?

I didn’t try to think to myself “Is this for children or about children?” That’s something we’ve considered more closely with this season of children and cinema because we’re actually asking people to come and see the films. So we had to identify whether the films were for an adult or a child or a teenager etc. Most of the films are very watchable by children; all of them are watchable by teenagers. What’s interesting about teenage audiences is that they have just been in childhood. It’s almost like they’ve visited France and they’ve left and it’s still very clear in their memory. Teenagers have a particular closeness to that world, they’re just beginning to miss their younger selves.

Have Laura and Ben seen the film?

Yes, they saw it in my edit suite and their jaws just dropped. Ben farts at one point and I kept that in and when they saw that I think they missed the next five minutes of the film because they were laughing so much. And there’s a brief scene where we see their grandmother’s legs and then we cut to Tom and Jerry and they laughed their heads off, and filmed that on their phone so that they could show it to their granny when they got home.

A Story of Children and Film (2013)

They’ve seen it on the big screen too and I warned them it was going to be a shock to see themselves on the big screen. These are children that are never silent, but when it finished they were silent because they couldn’t quite believe they were up there on the big screen where the Transformers are or The Lego Movie is.

It’s great you’re doing this season, as one comes out of A Story of Children and Film with a long shopping list of titles to track down.

That’s great. That’s one of the things I tried to do. There’s about 50 films in the film and I’m hoping that up to half of them aren’t very well known. I think it would be enjoyable for a movie buff to go and see a film like this and have their taste confirmed: “Yes, I know all these pictures.” But there’s another pleasure to having your taste stretched like mozzarella cheese; the pleasure of discovery is one of the things that keeps us going.

Is there any particular film that you think is going to blow minds for people who hadn’t been aware of it before?

I think Willow and Wind (1999), the Mohammad-Ali Talebi film. All of Talebi’s work is extraordinary – he’s one of the greats but virtually unknown in the UK. He’s coming here this month and we’re touring with him. I think that film will blow people’s minds – the simplicity of means, that he can move us with so little.

The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999)

I think that Long Live the Republic! will surprise people because of the almost Wellesian quality of the filmmaking. And for those who haven’t seen Djibril Diop Mambéty’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, it’s a shorter film but it’s delightful. In a lot of these films you find yourself watching an ordinary child and suddenly the film had some kind of uplift or unexpected poetics. I think that’s what happens in that film. With some of the films, we’ve made DCPs from the original film prints and you should see the difference in that film between what you see on DVD and the DCP we’ve made – just gorgeous!

There’s a real recovery going on. With the Cinema of Childhood season, not only are we showing people new films but we’re showing them better than they’ve probably ever been seen on the big screen before.

The film is made in solidarity with Jafar Panahi (the Iranian director banned from making films and currently under house arrest). Why is that?

Because The White Balloon (1995) is so special. For me, it’s got many of the things that great children’s cinema has: lack of sentimentality, a formal complexity – its form isn’t what you’d expect. It’s one of the bedrock films in children’s cinema. I’m lucky enough to have met Panahi and been to his apartment so I feel a personal connection with him. Also, the third reason is that any public opportunity we have to draw attention to the limits put on a filmmaker like Panahi we should take.

The White Balloon (1995)

Will we be seeing more A Story of something and Film projects?

I’ve had lots of offers. I’m really interested in old age but also other things like architecture and the body and landscape and the close up. But I’m not determined to keep making films about films to be honest. I’m as interested in painting. I’ve been looking at renaissance portraiture and I’d love to make a 90-minute film just of renaissance portraits, of the eye-lines and looks and glances. I think my work will continue to be about looking because that’s the central excitement for me: the richness of looking.

The Cinema of Childhood season launched 11 April 2014 at BFI Southbank, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse and other key venues across the UK. The season, which toured the UK for a year, included 17 films from 12 countries, spanning seven decades.

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