In past interviews, Tilda Swinton has sung the praises of Mark Cousins, her good friend and collaborator on projects including their 8 ½ Foundation, which brings cinema to children of that age around the globe. Like Swinton, the Belfast-born Edinburgh resident is sharply intelligent and full of beans. A former director of the Edinburgh Festival, the 49-year-old is like a walking film encyclopaedia and brought his knowledge to his landmark 15-hour movie/television series, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which was widely seen around the globe. (It screened on SBS earlier in the year.)
Now in his documentary feature A Story of Children and Film, he focuses on 53 films focusing on children, showing his favourite scenes while describing them in his inimitable voice-over. Usually such extensive voice-over is off-putting yet here Cousins' lyrical sing-songy lilt somehow draws us in. He's a natural-born storyteller. Using the same $110 camera he films with every day, he frames the film around his teenage niece and nephew, using their attitudes and behaviour as a springboard into the various categories of children's cinema from 25 nations.
While Hollywood is on the outer here, Cousins includes Steven Spielberg's E.T. and says Jane Campion's An Angel at my Table is “essential, just amazing”.
We met in Cannes where Spielberg was jury head and where Swinton starred in Jim Jarmusch's competition entry Only Lovers Left Alive. At the time, Cousins was finishing off his Albanian documentary, Here Be Dragons, which premiered this week at the London Film Festival. One critic called it Cousins' strongest feature to date.
Where did you develop your distinctive way of speaking in your films?
I was influenced by Werner Herzog's voice, which is extremely unique. I didn't want to feel that I was on screen talking at you; I wanted you to imagine that I'm beside you almost talking in your ear and we're looking at it together. I wanted to move your eye around the screen so for that you need an intimate voice. We always record the voiceover in a dark room late at night.
You are eccentric like Herzog!
Ha ha, well, I walk like him. Also, I am fascinated by Albania and so is he. I believe he walked around the edge of Albania when he was a young man.
How did the idea of filming your niece and nephew come about?
I film with a Panasonic Handycam amateur camera and I use it every day. So one day my niece and nephew were in my apartment and I just started filming them. When you're working with children you have to keep the equipment really simple. The camera looks like a toy. I made a film in Iraq with children called The First Movie (2009)—I had to shoot it myself because I couldn't get a director of photography to come—and the first thing I did was throw the camera around and they tried to catch it. When they realised it wasn't scary or delicate or precious, they felt free.
That, of course, was the auspicious beginning for your shooting your own movies with your Handycam. How did you choose the films for A Story of Children and Film?
I didn't want to do a history of children's cinema so I didn't try to be comprehensive. I just wanted to show lots of moods, the colours of childhood. It was like painting a picture where you start small. I thought of Van Gogh painting beautiful paintings while being confined to the sanatorium.
You are passionate about promoting international film.
I get very angry when I look at film histories which don't have enough about African cinema or about Iranian cinema or films directed by women. Not to be politically correct but simply because these films are under-valued. In 1976, just as Scorsese was making Taxi Driver, so were the great African directors making works of art. There are quite a few films about children most people have not seen, like Albanian films.
Which films are your personal favourites in A Story of Children and Film?
MC: The Latvian film Ten Minutes Older (1978) is just extraordinary. When I was director of the Edinburgh Film Festival in the '90s, I showed it there and it's only 10 minutes, but it moved me so much. But for me the best film is Willow and Wind (2000) by Iranian director Mohammad-Ali Talebi and written by Abbas Kiarostami. It has this metaphor of carrying a sheet of glass but it has the kind of suspense of Hitchcock. Sometimes when we think of Iranian cinema we think minimalism, poetic and nothing happens, but this film is gripping.
What was your first movie as a child?
A Disney film called Herbie Rides Again (1974). (Chuckles) But a stronger feeling was cinema itself. I was brought up in Belfast where there was a war on so I was a slightly nervous little boy probably because of the war. I'd go into the cinema and it was dark and safe and I felt that cinema took me in its arms like a gentle embrace. I enjoyed that kind of safety and the ability to dream and forget who I was. Then in my teens I saw Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and although I didn't know what it was about—now I know it's about sex and borders and race—I thought this was a mysterious thing beyond my comprehension. So I was hooked.
When did you start on your path as a filmmaker cum historian?
I had become fascinated by Iranian cinema at the time of Kiarostami's 1987 film Where is the Friend's Home? But when it really happened was when I drove my campervan from Scotland to India through Turkey and Iran. When you drive like that over six months you realise that everywhere is the centre of the universe—it's not Los Angeles or London or Istanbul. So I became fascinated with trying to ignore where we think the centre of the movie world is and then finding out where the great work is being done. When you go to Burkina Faso, the monument in the centre of the capital Ouagadougou is not just some great military man, it's to cinema. I could say the centre of the movie world is the grave of YasujirÅ Ozu outside of Tokyo or the centre of the movie world is my camera. Too may people think that cinema is just Hollywood or somewhere else. Of course, it's everywhere.
Can you talk about your association with Tilda Swinton?
We both live in Scotland. The first thing we did together was called the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams. We took over an old building which was very smelly, hung it with little lights, made it like a children's party and showed films there. Then we went to China and we took over the China Film Archive. We made a forest in the archive, made it snow with feathers and then projected films through the snow. The third thing we did was called The Pilgrimage, where we pulled a 37-tonne truck, which was a cinema, across Scotland.
Who is 'we'?
Tilda and me and whoever would show up. We had no idea, we didn't even know if we could move the truck. You cannot test this out. Each thing that we do is about cinema and each thing we do is quite childlike. We learn a lot from children's parties. I was brought up very Catholic and we had to do pilgrimages. I have no religion now, my religion is cinema, so we try to steal ideas. Why don't we have a pilgrimage for the movies?
What is it about Tilda that you find so fascinating?
She's incredibly creative. It's that thing that Picasso said, that all children are creative and are artists. Tilda is a very, very creative person and very uninhibited in her sense of play. Tilda and I we don't do business cards, we don't do the professionalism. We both say we are amateurs, always learning, never professional, we have never made it! That's why I use cheap cameras because I actually don't know how the fancy ones work!
So the main goal is to make film more accessible to people around the world and then create different amazing projects around it?
Yes, absolutely, and cinema is such an accessible art form. You don't need to be able to read books in order to enjoy cinema. My Albanian film cost £5000 for a completed film. The one before I made in Mexico City I shot it for less than $10. A completed feature-length film.
This is inspiring for kids or anybody wanting to make films.
Yes, but for 100 years cinema was an autocratic art form, it was done from on high. To get into the industry, you probably had to know somebody or have money but now it's more open than ever before to anybody. As we know, talent doesn't only come from fancy places. Talent is born anywhere and everywhere.
Spielberg was able to portray things in a way that children could relate to but that's not happening so much anymore. Do you agree?
It depends. But in a lot of films the director has a strong vision and the child is more like a projection of adult concerns. The sort of children's films that I like most are the ones that I have used in my film, the ones that feel almost as if they are co-directed by the children, where the children are allowed to flick between emotions. Children recognise that in other children where they can go from crying to laughing, almost like editing in a movie. But I have to say that an awful lot of films with child protagonists are art cinema, they are quite slow and children today do fast stuff. So it's true that there is a lot of stuff that kids can't relate to. But Cowboy, a film I've got a little bit of in my festival, I saw it in Berlin with a children's audience and it's a complex film and the kids loved it. I don't think we trust children enough with cinema.
With the 8 ½ Foundation, which is for 8½ year-old children, we show films from around the world that are usually subtitled. Not once in two years did the children mention that the films were subtitled.
They can probably relate visually better than adults.
Yeah, we show them the 1957 German film The Singing Ringing Tree, and they love it. We show them Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (1995) and we show them movies by Jacques Tati and we show them a brilliant Chinese 1997 film called The King of Masks about a little boy who turns out to be a little girl pretending to be a boy.
Did you have to get the rights to all these movies?
No, we used the Fair Use, Fair Dealing law, that allows us a scholar to use an extract for critical and review purposes. You are allowed to use a small bit. It's really, really important for me, especially in The Story of Film, as I need to be able to demonstrate the point I am making about a film. So we need to use it in that way and also it has to be said that filmmakers, especially in Hollywood, spend a lot of time advertising to try and get their films inside our heads. That's what their marketing is about. So they should then allow some people to try and make films that show how they work.
Could you name some of your favourite child characters?
Most of them will be in The Story of Children and Film. Razieh in the White Balloon, she has that doggedness, that determination (claps hands) “I want! I want! I want!” That is the quintessence for me. I have to say Elliot in E.T. is great. I think that sense that he looks at E.T. and he doesn't see a creature from another world, he sees a young creature like himself and we don't know if E.T. is young. I love Palle Alone in The World (1949), the fact that he wakes up one day and there is nobody else in the world. It's a famous film from a book and was the first children's film made in Denmark. In fact, so many of the great children's films are made by women, like Palle's Astrid Henning-Jensen or Lynne Ramsey, who is here at the festival, and many, many more.
Tell me about your Albanian film Here Be Dragons.
Two summers ago the coolant system in the Albanian film archive failed and the whole history of Albanian cinema started to smell of vinegar and get mildew. So they asked me to try to make something out of it and with my little camera and I made a 75-minute film about what film archives are. If you live in a country like Albania where the history is toxic and there are bits that you maybe want to rub out, what do you do? Do you keep all the films or do you only restore the films that you approve of politically? So it's about memory and movies. It was a lot of fun.
What happened to the films from the archive?
It's a fascinating story. The Communists built 750,000 bunkers in this small country of Albania and one of the bunkers is huge. It's in the hills and it's going to be the new film archive. So talk about taking something for one purpose, which was to hide from a nuclear war, and turn it into something positive, to keep the memory of cinema alive! I love it when the meaning changes and the dictators cannot enforce a meaning on something.
A Story of Children and Film is the closing night movie of the 2013 Adelaide Film Festival. It will also screen at the upcoming Brisbane International Film Festival.