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The Northern Irish filmmaker and writer speaks to SBS about his epic new series on cinema history.
28 Sep 2012 - 3:47 PM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2015 - 4:40 PM


“At the end of the 1800s a new artform flickered into life. It looked like our dreams.”

With those two sentences, and their succinct promise of wonder and transformation, begins each episode of The Story of Film, a mammoth, fascinating compendium of the moving image's development, history, hidden currents and unrealised truths by the Northern Irish filmmaker and writer Mark Cousins. The project – 15-hour long parts that eschew nostalgia for lively reconsideration – is a work of cinema about the cinema, existing alongside the hundreds of titles, old and new, that Cousins weaves together.

The Story of Film, which expands upon a 2004 book of the same name by Cousins, premiered in Australia at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image following seasons at the Toronto International Film Festival and New York's Museum of Modern Art. At ACMI the viewing options were three hours a night for five nights, or an immersive weekend. In either format, the documentary enlightens and challenges. You might not agree with everything Cousins posits, but you can't help but appreciate what he's undertaken.

“I'm very surprised that so many people want to see it and talk about it,” notes the 47-year-old, who now resides in Glasgow. “At the same time, my hunch is that now is the time to do something like this, because we're in the era of DVD and the internet when so many films are experiencing a Lazarus-like moment. So much is available, but we're bewildered by what to watch.”

“Sitting in the dark it's images and ideas that excite us,” explains Cousins the excitable narrator early on, speaking the words of Cousins the writer, above images shot or chosen by Cousins the director. The filmmaker has an invigorating energy, and it must have been necessary to attempt such a daunting task. To literally tell the story of film, to gather together approximately 120 years of screen history, is seemingly a task beyond rational planning. Cousins' documentary pays attention to the dreamers and the iconoclasts, and he must also hail from their ranks.

“The main doubt about the work, especially when you're sitting exhausted on a long haul long flight somewhere, is that you might make something banal, something that might bore people,” he says. “My main concern was making something worthy but dull. I didn't doubt that the cinema had this story to tell, but I doubted whether I could tell it.”

The cinema carries great rafts of historical investigation and academic study in its wake, but the broader the focus, the less there is: individual films are dissected and rebuilt, movements are analysed, and eras are brought into focus. Few works, however, attempt what Cousins has. You could include David Thompson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film, or suggest Jean-Luc Godard idiosyncratic, eight-part video work Histoire(s) du Cinema (pictured), but it's a rarefied circle of synthesis.

The reason is not that film's breadth is growing, year by year and country by country, but that in the past, much of what existed in the world cinema was literally unavailable. It's only now, 117 years after Louis Lumiere shot the 46 seconds of Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon, that it's possible to find a workable proportion of movie history. Cousins, who happily admits to a youth spent scouring dank basements looking for rare video cassettes in his twenties, says that you couldn't have made The Story of Film 20 years ago, but that it's now possible in the online digital age.

“When I was writing the book I was desperate to see this one Ethiopian film, [Haile Gerima's] Harvest 3000 Years (pictured) an incredible film, and it took me months to get it and it cost me something like US$170 for an old VHS and now it's just a click away,” Cousins explains. “People say to me, 'How do you see this stuff?' and I say, 'click on YouTube'. It's there and we don't know it's there, particularly African cinema. Part of my job now is to alert people to this and give them an appetite for watching them. In a way, I'm in the appetite-generation business.”

Cousins sees himself as an historian as opposed to a critic. While he's as intrigued by James Cameron as he is by Kenji Mizoguchi, he's written only a handful of reviews to a deadline. Through earlier works, such as the television series where he interviewed leading directors, Scene by Scene, he looks to reappraise the conventional take and find new links. The leaps he makes can be profound but vertiginous, using the recurring image of bubbles in a drink to link Carol Reed (1947's Odd Man Out, pictured), Godard (1967's Two or Three Things I Know About Her) and Martin Scorsese (1976's Taxi Driver), or showing how the earliest rules of editing carry forth to this day.

He challenges the convention that puts Hollywood at the centre of the cinema, instead spanning the world, and shows how women were integral to the development of film, but have since been eased out despite the wonderful films of latter generations.

“That's crucial for me. One of my favourite living filmmakers is Kira Muratova and she often doesn't even get mentioned by people. I think most critics know that Claire Denis is great, for example, or can talk about Samira Makhmalbaf or Jane Campion, but I think of Naomi Kawase in Japan, Safi Faye in Senegal, Lucrecia Martel in Argentina and I'm particularly passionate about those directors,” notes Cousins. “My own style of filmmaking is quite feminine in some ways, so therefore I identify with them and I'm furious on behalf of them because the playing field is not level. I'm not trying to overstate their importance, just give them their dues.” 

Even while studying key names and major turning points, the narrative readily takes an incisive turn. John Ford's Stagecoach (pictured), for example, gives us not just John Wayne, but a use of deep focus photography whose influence reached to the heart of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (pictured). Cousins shot sequences in small parts, as the money for another return flight and a few night's accommodation became available, and he assembled the work in a similar manner, moving readily between episodes as he found his way.

“From the start I knew I was making something more cinematic rather than televisual. The standard framing on TV is a medium close-up, whereas film is framed rather wide for movement or very tight. Crucially, because I was shooting and interviewing and directing, I had to be confident of the framing and then leave it,” Cousins points out. “All along I refused most of the techniques of television. There isn't a single shot of a still in 15 hours, there aren't actually that many interviews in the whole thing – 43, I think. I wanted to get away from the grabby talking heads style and do something more than that.”

In the early episodes, Cousins literally shows how the first cuts were composed, and charts the advances that laid the foundation for film and excited audiences, and by the end he is examining the digital effects age and trying to catch glimpses of the cinema's future. But the one thing he's not is unduly worried. The Story of Film is not an obituary.

“People ask me a lot about the digital era and how cinema has changed, but the properties of the medium that are dream-like remain. That's what excites me,” enthuses Cousins. “All these technical revolutions can come and go, but the reason why cinema is so fascinating is because it retains this ambiguity. I think of it as a young medium that is just getting going.”