The Cinema of Childhood at Queen's Film Theatre

Cinephile Mark Cousins on his odyssey through international cinema and new season at Queen's Film Theatre

He has interviewed legendary film stars such as Martin Scorcese, David Lynch and Roman Polanski. He carted a portable cinema around Scotland with the actress Tilda Swinton, bringing a peripatetic film festival to outlying districts.

And, three years ago, his 15-hour-long The Story of Film: An Odyssey was hailed as a landmark of documentary film-making: ‘a love letter to cinema, an unmissable masterclass, and a radical rewriting of movie history,’ in the words of the Daily Telegraph.

Now Mark Cousins – author, film-maker and polymath of the movies – is bringing a series of films to Belfast's Queen's Film Theatre that shed light on his journey towards an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, which began four decades ago in his native Belfast.

‘In the New Vic on Great Victoria Street I saw a lot of my formative movies,’ Cousins remembers. ‘That’s where I saw Jaws, Star Wars and Grease, films like that. And the Curzon in the 80s was owned by Indian people. I saw Gandhi there, but in the mornings they were showing Bollywood movies.

‘So there was a lot more going on than you might think. Northern Irish people have always been big consumers of cinema, and the film culture in Northern Ireland was really pretty rich.’

Cousins also remembers the formative influence of television. ‘On BBC2, when I was a kid, they did those big seasons of Hitchcock and Orson Welles, film noir and the Hollywood musicals. So from the get-go I was totally hooked.’

Hooked he remains: The Cinema of Childhood, Cousins’ latest initiative, is typically ambitious and iconoclastic, and continues to draw on his extraordinarily wide-ranging acquaintance – ‘an unhealthy obsession’, as he smilingly puts it – with the films of different cultures and nationalities.

The clutch of 17 films from 12 different countries, which Cousins has brought together in a touring package, reached Queen’s Film Theatre on June 1, in a season extending over the summer months to August 31.

The titles chosen by Cousins for inclusion in the package derive from his recent feature-length movie A Story of Children and Film, hailed by the Guardian in Cannes last year as ‘entirely distinctive, sometimes eccentric, always brilliant’, and given a five-star rating.

Cousins’ basic thesis is that films that tackle seriously the issues arising from childhood – films about children, though not necessarily for children – have been seriously neglected as a subject of study and appreciation by the writers of cinematic history.

‘I was guest programmer at what used to be called the National Film Theatre in London some years ago,’ he recalls. ‘They’d been getting people to guest-programme for 50 years, and I was the first who chose children’s films.

‘So I started to get pretty pissed off and angry at the way I thought that children’s cinema was being sequestered. I had a hunch that children were more central to cinema than that, but only through making A Story of Children and Film did I have a chance to really think that through.’

It’s no coincidence, adds Cousins, that he has cast his net widely to pull together the films which form The Cinema of Childhood programme. ‘I’m just passionately international,’ he says. ‘And I always get really annoyed when we’re talking about cinema or culture in general, and we stick to the Anglophone world or the Euro-American world.

‘I think it’s really insulting to the citizens of the rest of the planet, especially now in the global age. We have to be really stupid if we don’t acknowledge the common humanity. One of the best films we’re showing in this season, The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun, is from Senegal in West Africa.

‘I get tweets saying, “That film is astonishing, why did we not hear about it?” And the answer is complex, including our own incuriosity, and including our own assumption that Senegal won’t have made brilliant films about children, when in fact they had.’

Notably there isn’t a single mainstream, Hollywood-Bollywood movie in the The Cinema of Childhood selection. That, says Cousins, is also no accident. ‘Hollywood and Bollywood are both fantasy industries,’ he argues.

‘Neither is often asking itself what children are really like. They’re more asking themselves how do children play in our imaginations, our adult fantasies. Hence Shirley Temple, hence The Omen, hence The Exorcist, the fear of childhood, the angelic child et cetera.

‘But other cultures and other film industries are not predicated on this idea of the bauble, the fantasy, the glittering surface. If you’re not only trying to reflect the glittering, burnished view of the world back at the audience, if you’re also trying to show them some truth, then you’re likely to come up with really brilliant films.’

Cousins’ interest in the depiction of children in film dates back to the earliest period of his activities as a film-maker, a career he drifted into organically, without any serious pre-planning or explicit intention.

‘I went to uni in Scotland and studied film history and art history. But nobody in my family was ever in the arty scene at all, so I didn’t think I would ever get into films. By studying films I just thought, to be honest, I was putting off a real job for as long as possible.’

Cousins’ own creative muse, however, began twitching. ‘I started having ideas for little films, and I got into directing on TV. And the very first thing I directed was about children in Glasgow.’

Once the creative genie was out of the bottle, it grew rapidly, and by his late 30s Cousins’ mind was a teeming hive of cinema-related activity. ‘I felt as if I had a pressure-cooker of film information in my head. It was ready to explode, and I just had to get it out.’

The explosion produced a book, The Story of Film, which later spawned the documentary of the same title. ‘The writing of that book took just five months, which isn’t too long for a history of cinema,’ reflects humbly Cousins.

‘I’ve always had a good visual memory, which meant I didn’t always have to go back and check the source of a film. I could remember the scene, I could remember the camera-work et cetera. So the book splurged out, it leapt out of me like an animal.’

New projects continue to leap and splurge from Cousins’ fecund imagination. The latest brings him back to his home city, and is, he suggests, the type of film you might get ‘if you imagine David Lynch lived in Belfast for a thousand years. A kind of dream-like film, shot a little bit documentary-style. Every frame of it will be shot in Belfast.’

Meanwhile, The Cinema of Childhood offers the city’s cinema aficionados riches aplenty, with virtually all of the films QFT is showing being Northern Irish premieres. They all, says Cousins, have special lessons to teach the world of wizened, constantly belaboured adulthood.

‘Nowadays, with our emails and 3G phones,’ he argues, ‘we’re always thinking elsewhere, we’re never actually here. The single most joyful aspect of these films is the pleasure of here – mindfulness, the simple joy of the present moment. These films are all casually, effortlessly about that.’

The Cinema of Childhood runs in Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast until August, 2014.