An Edinburgh Film Festival documentary reveals why we are in a golden age for screen depictions of children. Director Mark Cousins tells Andrew Eaton-Lewis how he became the toast of Cannes
IN THE 1944 movie Meet Me In St Louis there’s a striking scene in which Judy Garland and an eight-year-old Margaret O’Brien sing and dance together. While Garland is as note perfect as you’d expect, O’Brien is off-key and slightly clumsy. Being the age she is though, the imperfections make her performance all the more endearing.
For Mark Cousins, it’s an example of how children can “co-author” their appearances in movies. “Sometimes a filmmaker has a very strong visual style and yet the child is still allowed to do their own thing,” he says. “An adult actor would never have got away with those fluffs and little mistakes but Margaret O’Brien does and that’s why that scene is so alive today.”
Meet Me In St Louis is one of dozens of films from across the world featured in Cousins’ A Story Of Children And Film, which has its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this week after receiving rave reviews in Cannes. The film is a poetic, often hypnotic meditation on childhood by a man whose recent work has often touched on the subject – from The First Movie, his film about children in Iraq experiencing cinema for the first time, to the 8∫ Foundation, the charity he set up with Tilda Swinton to give children a “film birthday”.
Cousins says he wasn’t interested in “how children are portrayed by adults” but in “what children are like in the real world” and how cinema, when the conditions are right, can be very good at capturing this. So, ironically, obvious “children’s films” are conspicuous by their absence from A Story of Children And Film (you won’t find Harry Potter, The Wizard Of Oz, Miracle On 34th Street or The Goonies, for example, although ET does feature) on the grounds that many children’s films represent “an adult fantasy of childhood”. For the same reason, there’s none of the kind of devil children portrayed in films like The Omen or Village Of The Damned, nor any references to that much debated topic, child abuse. “The best films about child abuse in some way look at the abuser, who’s an adult, and that would have been an adult issue,” Cousins says. Instead, he wanted to make “a portrait of children through cinema rather than a portrait of cinema”.
“I don’t have any children myself, and nor have I ever wanted children, but I think when we look at kids we learn a lot about grown-ups, the way their emotions change so quickly, the way they don’t hide their emotions,” says Cousins, who is very boyish himself, physically restless (“fast nervy and anxious” as he puts it) and brimming with enthusiasm and tangentially connected ideas. As an example, he cites his niece and nephew. Laura and Ben are very much co-authors of A Story Of Children And Film in that, without them, it probably wouldn’t exist at all. Late last year they happened to visit Cousins’ Edinburgh flat – also the location for our interview, the office of his production company and, for a while, the set for his BBC movie series Scene By Scene (there’s a framed photo of Sean Connery in the flat on one of its many bookshelves). Cousins filmed Laura and Ben as they built a plastic tower together in his living room. He films every day as a habit, he says, and had no intention of doing anything with this footage until, a month later, he realised Laura and Ben were unwittingly creating a kind of microcosm of childhood – goofing around, arguing, making up – full of moments that reminded him of scenes of childhood in cinema.
By the beginning of this year, Cousins had decided the footage could work as the centrepiece of a film about that very subject. He began working on it in February. By May, A Story Of Children And Film was, he points out gleefully, the only British film in official selection at Cannes. He still can’t quite believe his good fortune. “For about 36 hours I was in the charmed circle. I think I did about 40 interviews and there was sales interest from around the world.”
It has been a rush for the film’s stars too. Ben, Cousins says, couldn’t believe it when he discovered that his choice of clothing that day, a T shirt with the logo of children’s cartoon Ben 10, had resulted in his uncle having to contact the Warner Bros studio in Hollywood to get permission to use it on screen.
The film’s enthusiastic reception in Cannes may be partly because it highlights a wider development in cinema: that modern cameras – small, portable, inconspicuous – make it easier to capture children being naturally childlike. “If you look at the history of kids in the movies, the Margaret O’Brien moment in Meet Me In St Louis is pretty much the exception, because in the old days you’d go into a studio and there’d be lights everywhere and cameras and people everywhere, but now that’s reducible to almost zero,” says Cousins. “We’re in a golden age of children’s cinema right now because the child is more able to be something like a child and not be so directed.”
He noticed this recently when serving on the jury for the Berlin Film Festival. “The Disney child, the Hollywood child, even the social realist child are constructs in a way, but in the best of these films I was seeing from Scandinavia, from Japan, and from Africa, there were children at the centre of an imaginative universe which wasn’t there to make a political point or to gratify the fantasies of adults.”
He has been particularly struck by Iranian cinema, he says, “because they don’t sentimentalise children, unlike the American films where children are heroic in some way. In Iranian culture children are often quite nasty. Iran doesn’t have that sense of determined optimism that you get in American life. You don’t get a Shirley Temple in Iranian films.”
Iranian filmmakers, he says, are also good “at keeping the production process simple, the cameras are kept well back”.
If this approach has led to more realistic screen portrayals of children, it has also gifted Cousins a new kind of screen career. Best known as a critic, documentary-maker and presenter of TV series such as Moviedrome, he is now finding his voice as an artist, with a series of very personal, essay-like films such as last year’s What Is This Film Called Love. “I knew Derek Jarman and was very inspired by the way he gave a body swerve to the conventional way of filmmaking,” he says, “and the way Lars Von Trier did it in the 1990s. The thing that always scared me about movie-making is that you have to stand there at one in the morning and there are 50 people waiting for you to make a decision, I would just freak out. Now there aren’t 50 people, it’s me and my niece and nephew, or the film that I’ve just made in Albania, where it was me on my own.”
But despite his admiration of directors like Jarman and Von Trier – and his friendship with Swinton – he has no desire to work with actors. “I don’t understand acting. I never have. The sort of movies that I get most are ones that have got strong documentary elements.” This is not to say he’s not interested in actors per se; he enthuses, for example, about the way Last Tango In Paris was made. “Marlon Brando would show up in the morning, Bertolucci would put his camera on him and see what happened. And that’s the kind of cinema I like. It’s passive aggressive, you could say, aggressive in that the framing is carefully chosen but passive in that you let the unpredictable reality flow in front of the camera and then all you have to do is edit it.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Cousins is drawn to films featuring children. As any parent knows, they ooze unpredictable reality. “I love that thing Picasso said, that all children are artists,” he says. “Something happens as we grow up and try to become cool, or think of ourselves as professionals. We start to mask a lot of that basic creative sense that we have as kids. Children are a kind of raw, less censored type of human being.”
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• The Edinburgh International Film Festival runs from Wednesday until 30 June. Full listings at www.edfilmfest.org.uk
• A Story Of Children And Film is at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Saturday and 29 June, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Mark Cousins would like audiences to bring him a photo of themselves as a child, which will form part of a future film project about childhood. www.edfilmfest.org.uk