Skip to main content

A scene from the 1953 British film The Yellow Balloon.

Mark Cousins is a cinematic multiple personality – director, festival programmer, television interviewer and, perhaps most prominently, a terrific popular film historian. In 2011, Cousins brought his 15-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey to the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was shown, for free, in five three-hour segments (it's also available on DVD). The Story of Film's charm owes much to Cousins's personality: his enthusiasm, his free-association approach to film history, his promotion of women and developing world filmmakers – even his Belfast accent, which makes it sound like history is a series of questions rather than assertions.

This year he's back with another cinematic essay, A Story of Children and Film, which proves as captivating as the earlier work, and in a much more digestible, 100-minute running time. Think of it as the child's-size portion of the original work, which has become a much-lauded milestone: It was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year, and is carried in its entirety this month on Turner Classic Movies as part of the U.S. cable channel's 20th-anniversary celebrations.

Though he had recently turned 48 when I interviewed him in Cannes last May, Cousins seemed improbably boyish, with his T-shirt, mop of curly dark hair, energy and flair for the dramatic. When asked, for example, what inspired him to make the original The Story of Film, he answered this way:

"A love of cinema and a way to thank cinema for what a companion it has been in my life. And also hatred – for the way so many film histories underestimate African films and Japanese silent cinema, films and Iranian and Indian cinema. These were the impulses and the reasons it was made."

There were a couple of further reasons for pursuing a separate, shorter film on the subject of children: "Picasso said all children are artists," he says. "If you're interested in emotions, children are great to study. They're unembarrassed by sudden shifts of emotions or showing their ego. Adults hide their egos. A child will yell, 'Look at me!'"

The idea of a companion film focusing only on children hailed back to some of his earlier work. In 2009, Cousins took a camera crew to the town of Goptapa in Kurdish Iraq, and after introducing children to their first movies (E.T. The Extraterrestrial, The Red Balloon), he gave them small digital video cameras to make their own short films. The result was his "magic-realist documentary," The First Movie.

Cousins likes to shoot video every day. Last November, he started shooting his niece and nephew, Laura and Ben, with his regular video camera, a $110, consumer-level Panasonic, and began noticing their reactions to the camera's presence. He divided their reactions into different categories – wariness, shyness, showing off, storytelling and what he calls "stroppiness," or ill-tempered behaviour. These observations about kids and cameras became a springboard for talking about children on film history – from The Night of the Hunter to Fanny and Alexander, from Spielberg to Ozu, and more esoteric choices.

The films' clips are linked, not only by the categories but by visual motifs: The Yellow Balloon in bombed-out London, The Red Balloon in mid-fifties Paris, The White Balloon in modern Iran. Research was not really a problem.

"I'm a film historian by training. I knew what to show," said Cousins; he knew the films well enough to have the key clips in mind.

Cousins pulls out the piece of paper on which he sketched the outline, with behaviours (anger, shyness) and a list of film titles under each category, "so instead of a narrative, we have more of a painting, with different colours."

The film was assembled between February and May of this year and the final result was "less than 1-per-cent different" from the plan he had outlined. He decided, for example, to exclude The Wizard of Oz, because Judy Garland, at 16 when she shot it, was too old. He also excluded a brief clip of Bruce Lee as a boy to show destructiveness, because it was too brief to illustrate his point.

While A Story of Children and Film suggests there's a universal behaviour of children on film, Cousins says there are cultural differences: "The Iranians are good at stroppiness. The Japanese are good at shyness. Americans have a nostalgia about childhood, almost a sentimentality."

The Scandinavians, he says, led by such directors as the late Astrid Henning-Jensen, have been the leaders in making films with child protagonists and creating films for child audiences.

Throughout the world, children become a projection of adult fears and longings, especially the sense of limitations and desire for freedom.

"Cinema is very good at showing this ambiguity," says Cousins. "You see a film like Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple [a 1998 Iranian film about two Iranian girls who were confined by their strict father], where the children are literally imprisoned. And yet children are incredibly free to run. In the great Danish film, Palle Alone in the World [a 1949 short by Henning-Jensen], a boy gets to fly to the moon! If we, as adults, care to think about that, we can see them as as our alter-egos. Like them, we feel contained and long to be free."