The story of the cinema of childhood is not one that Mark Cousins set out to document. After completing an exhaustive TV documentary series, The Story of Film, the filmmaker and writer was looking for some light relief. So he turned his camera on his young niece and nephew, Laura and Ben.
“The idea came out of the blue, like a ball kicked in from nowhere,” he tells BBC Culture. “I looked at the footage of Laura and Ben that I had casually shot and, because it was so casual, it also looked candid, true and revealing. When I looked at them I realised that they were like children everywhere.”
Cousins’ A Story of Children and Film is the resultant cine-essay, which splices together his own footage with clips from a vast, global selection of films. It reaches way beyond the most well-known kids’ movies − Stephen Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Kes (Ken Loach, 1969) − toward gems from Iran, Japan and eastern Europe unknown to most western audiences.
In Palle Alone in the World (1949), a boy wakes up to find Copenhagen deserted – and it becomes his playground. In The White Balloon (1995), a stubborn little girl, shot naturalistically by director Jafar Panahi, is unrelenting in her quest to have a goldfish. The Japanese film Moving (1993) tells the story of a young girl coming to terms with her parents’ divorce.
Beyond the common traits that children display on camera – shyness and wariness but also joy, curiosity and what Cousins calls “performativity” (a tendency to show-off?) – the film highlights the concerns that connect the cinema of childhood across continents.
“The exhilaration of a playing child, the way they get lost in play, is something that happens in many of the films” he says. Another key theme is loss: “Most films about kids have some big absence in them – a dad, et cetera – and the kid strives to fill it.” Friendship is another, he explains, “of another child, an extra-terrestrial, a bird, a balloon. [It’s] what could also be called attaching or empathy.”
By identifying these motifs, says Cousins, he wants us to understand that they are hardly unique to the cinema of childhood or to that stage of our lives. “Joy, loss, empathy... these are some of the biggest themes in adult life too.” And he makes a further parallel between children and the medium of cinema itself: “Both are young,” he explains. “It's obvious that kids are young, but many people think of cinema as ancient when, of course, compared to the other art forms, it is just getting going.”
It is also the directness, the present-tense, ‘in the moment’ quality that children share with cinema that deepens the similarity, Cousins argues. “Watch a film and it always looks present tense, and childhood is the time of life that is most about the moment. The older we get the more we have accrued memories, so life becomes double-barrelled: then-now. For childhood, and for cinema, it is now.”
And what can the films about childhood tell us, as adults? “They are, put simply, uplifting” says Cousins. “George Bernard Shaw said ‘We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop play.’ The cinema of childhood shows this.”