Revered film critic Mark Cousins’ expertly handles the relationship between children and film in his latest documentary A Story of Children and Film.
Director: Mark Cousins. 106 mins.
‘Movies are like kids, kids are like movies’ are Mark Cousins’ concluding words in his latest documentary A Story of Children and Film, which premiered in the 2013 Cannes Classic section and received critical acclaim at Toronto International Film Festival last year. Until now Cousins is best known for his monumental 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), an unparalleled tour-de-force of cinema’s development from its conception. But his latest documentary leaves you as impressed with Cousins seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of film history as with his brilliance at noticing thematic and stylistic connections between films. Belfast born Cousins uses a home video of his niece and nephew playing with a marble ball ride as a springboard, proposing that they display typical tropes of children’s behaviour on celluloid.
A Story of Children of Film is passionately and crucially international, simultaneously showing and executing the capriciousness of cinema by means of 53 films from 25 countries. Covering a broad spectrum of films, Cousins identifies a variety of moods that children have embodied, from classic examples such as E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, Los Olvidados, Fanny And Alexander and Spirit Of The Beehive to lesser known treasures – giving particular prominence to Iranian, Indian and African cinema. The first category of ‘the weariness of children’ is followed by ‘showing off’, ‘stroppiness’ and ‘adventure’, which are all stimulated by the relationship of kids and class. Despite this vast variety, it is nevertheless surprising not to see the young boy Edmund from Germany Year Zero or the unforgettable performance of Bruno in The Bicycle Thieve and certainly some reference to Andrei Tarkovsky, who’s oeuvre starts with the performance of a boy behind a tree in Ivan’s Childhood and ends with a boy under a tree in his last film The Sacrifice.
Nonetheless Cousins displays great sensitivity for his subject matter in a way that is reminiscent of film essayist Chris Marker. He composes a poetic film treatise. This allows him to visually think out loud in a free associative manner with his distinct Irish accent, soothing and at times almost hypnotizing voice. In the preface to the documentary, Cousins contrasts Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting of a crop field with the view the artist had from his window, proposing that ‘People have often seen a lot in a small thing’. Cousins own approach might be best compared to that of a painter, creating an impressionistic collage of innumerable characteristics of children.
Whereas The Story of Film aspired to be as objective and informative as possible, A Story of Children and Film is intentionally antagonistic to this account. Already revealed in the title, Cousins never denies or hides his decidedly personal approach. Therefore, it is intimately close to its predecessor in style, but nonetheless rendered as a counterpart rather than a companion piece: it is simply ‘a’ story and not ‘the’ one all-encompassing story of children in cinema. But, and here comes the genius, the depicted emotions, gestures and moods are as universal as the documentary itself. The title is translated into additional 17 languages, as if aspiring to fall outside of language and right into the universality of youth, thereby portraying one child from different perspectives rather than 53 individual ones. This multiplicity of perspectives is necessary, since no one country exists, which depicts or would even be able to depict the complete scope of children’s complexity.
Classic films that have been forgotten will suddenly erupt like memories of your own childhood – bringing back nostalgic and much cherished recollections. There is an innocent beauty in his documentary that might even teach you to see the world and cinema with the eyes of a child again, or at least with child-like enthusiasm. Rather than employing a conventional approach of chronological and geographical homogeneity, Cousins is composing an untethered creation of children, thereby freezing the exquisiteness of their fleeting and frail existence. Cousins will unquestionably take you on a marble ball ride of erratic turns.