Mark Cousins knows more about cinema than you do. More importantly, Mark Cousins loves cinema more than you do. The concept for his latest documentary, A Story of Children and Film, is incredibly simple: he takes a home video of his niece and nephew playing in his living room as a starting point to take us on a personal journey around the globe and through time; on a journey through cinema. Like van Gogh looking through his window before painting the landscape, Cousins looks at his family before creating his essay film on children in cinema.
The approach he takes is not a historical or chronological one, but a loose, personal one. He does not attempt to construct a complete cinematic history; there is no concrete thread. It is the behaviour of his niece and nephew which reminds him of a certain aspect of childhood. This then makes him think about films whose young protagonists display similar patterns. At first, his niece is shy about being on camera, so Cousins looks at clips of shy children in movies. Thus A Story of Children and Film is roughly divided into several chapters, such as shyness, performance, framing, destruction or loneliness.
The range of films covered is incredible (a full list can be found here) and Cousins does very well to find connections between them. While sticking to live action, his selection stretches from the Hollywood blockbuster (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial) to the practically unknown work of Albanian director Xhanfize Keko, from 1921 (The Kid) to 2012 (Moonrise Kingdom), from Yorkshire (Kes) to Burkina Faso (Yaaba), and yet it somehow all fits together.
On one level the film works as a piece of cinema about cinema. Some of the choices may seem a bit erratic and some of the connections slightly far-fetched and/or underdeveloped, but Mark Cousin’s passion and intelligence make you accept this. However “intellectual” his thoughts may be, he is never talking down to the audience. He is not lecturing us, but he is sharing his ideas. Furthermore, it will give make you discover new films. You will walk away from A Story of Children and Film with curiosity, wanting to discover the films beyond the short clips you just saw.
On another level, it works as an examination of childhood itself. Cinema is arguably the art form which has explored childhood better than any other, and we can find similar (yet distinctive) thoughts and observations all over the world. Growing up ultimately poses similar pleasures and challenges to everyone, and seeing so many different perspectives on this universal theme is incredibly interesting.
I was lucky enough to attend a screening of this film in the attendance of the director, who made his way to the Duke of York’s in Brighton. Cousins took the stage to introduce his film and stayed for a lengthy Q&A session with the audience afterwards. He was, as always, a very engaging and intelligent presence, giving interesting answers and insights into the making of A Story of Children and Film. He brought along his “script,” which is basically a big, scruffy piece of paper with film titles written on it. It may sound simple, but A Story of Children and Film is an impressive achievement nonetheless and recommended viewing for all film fans.
A Story of Children and Film is also available on demand on multiple platforms here
My review of Cousin’s documentary about Albania, Here be Dragons is available here