Mark Cousins's A Story Of Children And Film is considerably less intensive than his 15-hour documentary epic A Story Of Film: An Odyssey, but it's no less thorough, examining the representation of child actors - and the portrayal of childhood - over a century of cinema in movies made all over the world.
At the Toronto Film Festival, Cousins and I sat down at a patio table at Canteen to talk about stories, children, film and having cinema at the core of our lives.
A Story Of Children And Film exists somewhere between an assembly movie and an essay film - just a whirlwind of cutting and contextual association. How do you construct something like this? Do you lock yourself in an archive somewhere?
I don't have a very good verbal memory, so I don't write [an outline]. But I've always had a good visual memory. I seem to just remember stuff I've seen very well. I always have two or three notebooks, and I'm always making notes for a scene in my next film. Usually when I go into the edit suite to make a film, the film's already in here [taps notebook] in note form. I just love working that way.
I'm particularly fascinated by the comparison you make between the affect of Shirley Temple in Curly Top and the more naturalistic performance of Margaret O'Brien in Meet Me In St. Louis. The films were made just nine years apart, but they're radically different in the presentation their of child stars.
When you look at Shirley Temple films, they're fun - but you can see the proscenium, you can see the construction. That's partly because most films in those days, with the exception of a few Warner Bros. pictures, were very constructed. Her dress matches the set - it matches everything. And that's why I go to Meet Me In St. Louis, because it was so rare for a child to give that kind of performance in a Hollywood movie in those days - especially for a director like Vincente Minnelli, who was the ultimate controlled and precise director.
That's true. He was practically the Wes Anderson of his era.
Absolutely. That's why it's very interesting to look at children in movies now. Through that whole period of Hollywood, a film camera was this big structure with lights, so when children walk into this huge world, they freeze slightly. And therefore they have to be directed. Nowadays, of course, the digital age has allowed a degree of naturalism in a child's performance with a real degree of agency. It's so different.
Other than watching your niece and nephew goof around for your camcorder, what was the impetus for A Story Of Children And Film? Or was that it?
I made a film in Iraq called The First Movie, and it was about children who'd never seen a film before and had never been photographed before. That's very rare, you know - and that was only four years ago. They'd never been photographed. This was almost like an experiment: how are they different from other children? And the answer was, in some ways, not very. Though some of them were extremely shy, a lot of them not only weren't but wanted to be in the frame and work out where the frame was. I think children are fascinated by the concept of the frame - and what I mean by that is, when you grow up you're told by your mum and dad, "Don't play beyond that," or "Don't go beyond the garden fence," or "Don't go beyond the neighbour's drive." You've got a territory marked out for you that's safe, so it's very easy to jump from that to the frame of a movie screen. That's why my niece and nephew are in my film: they come from a very ordinary family, not much photographing. And yet they're performers. I think there's something quite natural in cinema for children, that sort of display. Obviously a child's working out who they are, how they move, where they stand in the world.
And of course as soon as you give a child a boundary, she'll want to start pushing against it.
Totally right. And there's that famous thing that Picasso said, "All children are artists." I really think that's true, and you can see as kids grow up and get to the teenage years, the curtains fall slightly and the mask begins to emerge, the mask we all have.
If a child was here, he'd be gobbling these [indicating the plate of cookies between us], and I sort of want to stuff my face with them myself.
I've been resisting them, too.
You're being an adult. [laughing] Or we would say, "Let's split it." With children, it's that naked desire - their emotions are naked, in a way that sometimes ours aren't. They change really quickly, and I love that. I live in Scotland, and in a full day we'll have stormy weather and sunshine and stormy weather. Those kind of lightning-fast changes are like children's emotions. It's almost like film editing; a child's emotions are like a cut, and I really love that. When you're making a film about kids, you're sort of making a film about life. You reveal the storm.
It's naturalism at its most basic, isn't it?
It is, it is. That's why I love doing it - that's why as filmmakers we can learn from children. The best films about children have some kind of documentary impulse to them, like the great Iranian films. They sort of let something happen, let the child go through it, and out of that comes something great. I think one of the key trends in modern cinema as far as I can see is the blurring of drama and documentary - just as reality and the internet are sort of blurring what life is, so in cinema there's this kind of blurring as well. And the best films about children are coming out of that, like the work of the great Iranian directors, and Japanese directors.
You mention Iranian directors, and I think of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami. Kiarostami's Where Is The Friend's Home?, in particular, is an amazing work of naturalism involving children.
I'm delighted that you know it, because it's not a well-known film.
There's almost a straight line from that to the way Ken Loach handles David Bradley in Kes, nearly 20 years earlier.
What were the films you most responded to as a child? Did you feel you saw yourself represented on the screen?
Almost never. It's a really interesting question. I was brought up in Belfast in Northern Ireland, with a low-temperature war on, and it was a rather famous part of the world. So you're seeing imagery of Belfast all the time; even as a child I was seeing it. And none of it had anything to do with me. It wasn't until I was 18 that I saw Neil Jordan's film Angel [released internationally as Danny Boy], and suddenly here was a Northern Ireland that I could recognize. I loved that it was about the placeness of Northern Ireland - not the problem, but the place.
The first film I saw in the cinema was Herbie Rides Again, and I remember seeing Steve Martin in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid alone in the cinema, because people were afraid to go to the movies. I was sort of nervous and there was a war [on], but at the movies I felt oddly safe. We'd feel the darkness, the lights going down. There was a real sense of sitting in winter, looking at summer. Sitting in the darkness, looking at the light. I loved that. And then when I grew up, I was the director of the Edinburgh Film Festival and I was asked to go to Sarajevo during the siege. I was over there during the war, when 10,000 people were killed in that city in a short period of time, and they put on movies underground. Because movies are a part of life; they make you feel good, they let you escape for a little bit. Even in a war zone, even in that awful, awful time, movies mattered. It was very clear to me that movies weren't just something that I just went to on Friday night at the end of a long week's work. Movies were really part of my life. They weren't like icing on the cake - they were the cake, you know?
Steven Spielberg once said the cinema is a temple. We go to give ourselves over to the experience in the same way the devout give themselves over to their gods.
My grandfather owned a movie theatre when I was a kid, and I grew up with that sense of worshipping the cinema - it's literally always been there for me.
Oh, you lucky thing. So did you get into the projection box and stuff?
Yeah, all the time.
That's fantastic. And I completely agree about your point with "to worship." I do a lot of projects with Tilda Swinton - the first thing we did was called the Ballerina Ballroom. I had just been in Moscow, and I looked at the old icon paintings - you know, they cover them until the last minute, and then they open up and reveal them for a sense of the sacred nature. So I said to Tilda, "Why don't we hold a flag in front of the screen, and then when the lights go down we'll reveal the screen as if it's sacred?" And our screen was basically a white sheet clipped around, but in the audience's eyes it was something magical because of that. So you can learn a lot from how religion creates a sense of awe. The next thing Tilda and I did was this pilgrimage where we pulled a cinema on wheels across Scotland, a 37-ton truck. I was brought up very Catholic, but we had to do pilgrimage when we were kids, and I thought, "Why don't we take the apparatus, the process of the pilgrimage and apply it to our religion, the cinema?"
In Judaism, the scrolls of the Torah are kept in the ark most of the time, only brought out at key points in the service with a great deal of ceremony.
Exactly the same! Exactly the same! And again, to jump to another religion, in Islam there's the mosque, and that's like our multiplex, and also the prayer mat that you have at your home, and that's like our TV or DVD player. I think as human beings, we're all interested in something slightly abstract, slightly metaphysical, something slightly beyond our surroundings so we don't feel locked into our own heads, and cinema finally gives us that - what Joseph Campbell called "the rapture of self-loss." That beautiful feeling.
We're almost out of time, so what's next for you?
I've made another film called Here Be Dragons. It's just played at Telluride. It's a record of a trip to Albania, in a sort of Chris Marker-y way. I'd been reading a lot of Virginia Woolf, and her essays are wonderful. So it's about going to a place you know nothing about and having the first images of a place in your head. Big fun.