A Story of Children and Film: Cannes Review

A quirky, deeply researched exploration of how kids have been portrayed in the cinema.

Documentarian Mark Cousins excerpts 53 films from 25 nations to investigate the various ways childhood has been depicted in film.

Since the earliest efforts of the Lumiere Brothers, children and childhood have been perennially popular subjects for movies, a fascination knowledgeably and idiosyncratically explored in this new work by Irish documentarian Mark Cousins. Minimizing Hollywood’s vast but well-known contribution to the field in order to spotlight more obscure titles from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the always stimulating film evinces an admirably searching and observant sensibility that represents a fresh and utterly personal perspective, one that will be appreciated in showings at festivals, specialized events and possibly limited theatrical dates in major cities prior to television airing.

Anyone who has seen Cousins’s 15-hour The Story of Film: an Odyssey (2011) will immediately recognize the filmmaker’s distinctive accent and sing-songy speech pattern, which is unvarying, with nearly every declarative sentence ending on an upswing, more like a query than a definitive statement. His unmodulated narration is constant and takes some time to get used to, and perhaps some won’t.

Arrestingly launching his investigation in the confines of Vincent Van Gogh’s sanitorium room in Saint Remy, France, in order to contrast the amazing paintings he made of the surrounding landscapes to the severely constricted perspective he had on them from his barred window, Cousins aptly prefaces his work with the insight that, “People have often seen a lot in a small thing.” He then provides an additional frame with video footage of his niece and nephew playing in his flat, their attitudes, actions and behavior toward him and the camera providing springboards into the various categories of children’s cinema he considers attention-worthy.

The kids’ initial hesitations about being taped inspire Cousins to first ponder “the wariness of children” via clips from Yellow EarthE.T. and An Angel at My Table. As if unable to resist introducing a socialist perspective, he then examines “kids and class” through Los Olvidados, Great Expectations and two 1930s Japanese rarities, Children in the Wind and Ozu’s An Inn in Tokyo. Throughout, the film is rich in such finds, works seldom seen or discussed but, in many cases, just as impressive as the famous examples he samples.

Of course, he offers up The 400 Blows, Fanny and Alexander, The Red Balloon, Frankenstein, Kes, The Night of the Hunter, The Spirit of the Beehive, Meet Me in St. Louis, Zero de Conduite, Hugo and Josephine, Forbidden Games, Chaplin’s The Kid, which he brilliantly links to Spielberg’s work, and Shirley Temple.

But among the 53 films from 25 nations Cousins excerpts, only the most ardent and comprehensive buffs could be familiar with Finlandia from 1922, the Czech films Long Live the Republic and The Unseen, Danish director Astrid Henning-Jensen’s 1949 short Pelle Alone in the World, J. Lee Thompson’s startling London-set The Yellow Balloon from 1953, Bill Douglas’s 1972 My Childhood, the 1977 The Witness of Childhood from India, Russian Sergei Bodrov’s 1989 Freedom Is Paradise, Abbas Kiarosatami’s short Two Solutions for One Problem and, perhaps most obscure of all, two Albanian films from the 1970s?

Based on his repeated citations, Cousins’ favorite films about childhood, both about girls, would appear to be Japanese director Shinji Somai’s heart-wrenching Moving, which was shown at Cannes in 1993, and Jafar Panahi’s 1995 The White Balloon from Iran. Along the way, he groups clips under such formulated headings as kids scrapping and fighting, telling stories, performing, rebeling, and dreaming. Eschewing animation save for a brief reference to Tom and Jerry cartoons, Cousins oddly overlooks two admittedly disturbing categories that have produced numerous classics, kids in despair and/or jeopardy (Germany Year Zero, The Window, Mouchette) and evil children (Children of the Damned and its successors, Our Mother’s House, The Exorcist, The Omen, Children of the Corn, et al.).

Although Cousins does allow a handful of clips to play out to moving effect, his overall quirky and brainy approach does not produce the sort of celebratory or nostalgic effect that many documentaries on film subjects seek or achieve. Rather, it produces shards of insights and impressions in a way that, like the best archival works, provide inspiration for further research and discovery.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)

Production: BFI, Bofa.

Director: Mark Cousins

Writer/narrator: Mark Cousins

Directors of photography: Mark Cousins, Marc Benoliel

Editor: Timo Langer

105 minutes