This blog post is written ahead of introducing A Story of Children and Film at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 27 May 2014.
A Story of Children and Film explores the way in which cinema has dealt with children over the course of its florid history. Mark Cousins, most famously responsible for The Story of Film (UK, 2011), makes a movie that involves clips from some 50 plus movies from all periods of film history and from all over the world.
Analysing clips from films as diverse as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1982), Beed-o baad/Willow and Wind (Mohammed-Ali Talebi, Iran/Japan, 2000) and La petite vendeuse de soleil/The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal/France/Switzerland/Germany, 1999), Cousins suggests that children bring to cinema an energy, a vitality and perhaps even an innocence that is not always present in mainstream, adult-centred fictional cinema.
Indeed, remarkably Cousins brings into the film his own niece and nephew, who themselves are by turns timid and performative as he trains his camera on them.
It is an entirely everyday scene, with Cousins and his young wards dressed in pyjamas playing with toys on his living room floor. Nonetheless, there are several things to highlight here.
Firstly, the very everydayness of the situation is important. For, in presenting to us a scene of everyday life, rather than a specific and rehearsed performance of children singing, for example, Cousins brings to his film precisely what he admires in those of other filmmakers, namely life.
This is in part Cousins’ documentary spirit at work, but with the child, it ties in with the sense of energy that children can and do bring to a film, and which Cousins describes in an interview. For, even when acting in a fiction film, there is a sense in which the child is not acting (even if they are acting up), but rather are performing themselves, performing as themselves, and thus revealing to us something more genuine than a studied performance.
In effect, in not being an adult, the child brings to cinema something unadulterated – and this sense of the genuine, of the unadulterated, is perhaps the most exciting thing that cinema can offer – not a projection of our fantasies, but a mirror that shows back to us our world, replete as it is with fantasies of being or becoming cinematic (kids can be and often are, after all, very aware of the camera).
As their moods range from timid to performative, we see in Cousins’ nephew and niece another of cinema’s chief powers, namely its ability to capture change. Cinema is perhaps unique among artforms in this sense, since it alone allows change to be made visible. Where painting and sculpture can show us the static, cinema shows change – and children help to bring both change itself and the possibility for change to the fore, since children are always on the cusp of change, always changing from day to the next, changing from minute to minute. Children are perhaps, then, inherently cinematic – and this is something that Cousins draws out in spades.
The ability for cinema to depict time means that cinema is also not just about depicting things and objects, but the relations between them. What I mean by this is that cinema is not necessarily about one moment and then the next – even if most mainstream films are structured in such a way as to suggest that cinema is precisely this.
Instead, cinema can and often does show us how we get from one minute to the next – the in-between moments that painting perhaps can never depict (although there is a whole history of painters that do try to do this). In showing us how we get from one moment to the next, cinema is interested in the relations between one moment and the next.
This ties in with what I am calling Cousins’ documentary spirit, or instinct: for, as children make clear to us a sense of the unadulterated, a sense of change and a sense therefore of relations, then cinema at its most powerful for Cousins is a cinema that shows a child struggling against elements in transporting a sheet of glass to his school (as happens in Willow and Wind).
That is, even if this is a scripted scene, it is a scene that takes place in the real world, and which takes time – or which is ‘slow’ from the perspective of mainstream cinema – because mainstream cinema often shows to us what needs to be done and then the thing done, with no sense of the work gone into it.
Cinema with more of an eye for documentary, cinema with more of an eye for what cinema, as a time-based medium can do, thus embraces the slow, it embraces work, it embraces effort, it embraces change, it embraces relations and how we fit into the world. Perhaps it is only apt that Cousins (no pun intended) would include his own relations in the film.
And perhaps it is only apt that he, too, should be such a prominent figure in the film – not least as a result of his voiceover – because he is not an abstracted observer of the world, but, too, is participant in, in relation to, the world – just as films exist in relation to us, influencing and changing us as we change in and with the world ourselves.
So cinema is about relations. And the breadth of Cousins’ choices, from America to Senegal to Iran, helps to demonstrate that all films, just like all humans, themselves exist in relation. Thinking of both cinema and the world ecologically, we come to the conclusion that Senegal is as important as America, even if from the commercial and/or economic perspective it is easy to overlook.
In effect, Cousins adopts a child’s perspective on the world – and finds fascination and takes delight in the so-called ‘small’ film as much as in the big-budget expensive film, because he, like a child, has not yet been trained to take notice only of what is big and loud, but he can be fascinated, too, by the small and the quiet.
In effect, Cousins is, like a child, undiscriminating in his tastes; he takes his cinema pure, unadulterated, not filtered for him by the mechanisms that typically make us view only the fast and the furious (which being full of sound and fury surely signifies little to nothing), but open-eyed and whole.
Cousins says in another interview that his films are all about the richness of looking. This is indeed true. His films are not about the solipsistic world in which, as we grow up, we are encouraged only to look out for ourselves, to think only of Number One, but in looking we also realise that we are in relation to other humans.
In private correspondence, Cousins has told me that he works on budgets for his films that are very similar in size to the budgets that I use to work on mine (which puts me to shame given how good his films are).
This, too, is important: he has made a small film here, about small humans. It encourages us not to look over that which is small, and he encourages not to be fooled by surface appearances. Like a child, we can instead look for and find joy in internal richness
We can find joy in the world as cinema presents it to us: perhaps a bit slow, but unadulterated and full of energy and life.