Mark Cousins: A story of childhood and film

The director and Dazed Visionary talks us through his favourite kids-in-film moments

Mark Cousins has manually carted a 33.5-tonne portable cinema through the Scottish Highlands with Tilda Swinton. He’s also screened kids in a Kurdish village in Iraq their first movies before handing them cameras to make their own. In his latest madcap, visionary quest to connect people with film, the Irish filmmaker and curator has expanded on his 15-part love letter to cinema The Story of Film with documentary A Story of Children and Film, opening in UK cinemas today. Idiosyncratic and highly personal, it looks at how children appear on screen. With a UK-wide season of 17 rare masterpieces that feature in it also launching on April 11, Mark talked us through his favourite kids-in-film moments.

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), USA, Charles Laughton

“It's about the shadow and the bogeyman, and is like a child’s film noir. While a lot of children's films are about loss or discovery, this one’s about fear - the gothic imagination of the child. That famous scene on the river where they're overlooked by animals and cobwebs feels like a child's worldview.”

PALLE ALONE IN THE WORLD (1949), Denmark, Astrid Henning-Jensen

“It's about a little boy who wakes up to discover that everyone else in the world has gone, and he can do anything he wants. He steals an airplane and rides to the moon. Children, no matter how much we love and pamper them, are slaves. They're told when to eat, where to go to school and so on. So this is like an anti-slavery film.”

TOMKA AND HIS FRIENDS (1977), Albania, Xhanfise Keko

“This is a great filmmaker whose work is unknown outside Albania, and it's our loss. As it was a woman making children's cinema she wasn't considered important. But in fact cinema and childhood were made for each other. Cinema is vitality, myth and magic which children are great at. Picasso understood that, and we should understand it as well.”

MOVING (1993), Japan, Shinji Somai

“Renko's parents are splitting up. By the end this child has become almost a mythic version of herself, having visions of the world without her parents, with her parents together and so on, and the filmmaking becomes operatic. A lot of these films are about threshold moments where a child becomes different. Here, she attaches to sadness. She understands that life is going to be a valley of tears.” 

TEN MINUTES OLDER (1978), Latvia, Herz Frank

“A little boy is watching a puppet show. It's only ten minutes long but it’s like looking at Constable's beautiful paintings of clouds. The close-up shot is central to children's cinema, because children are so great at looking.”

E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)

“It's about being new in the world, seeing something and becoming fascinated by it - in this case an extra-terrestrial, but it could be lots of things. Spielberg's particularly good at not scaring children. Performances in films about children have improved because the production process has simplified and is less intimidating – there are no longer huge cameras and massive bursts of light.”

LONG LIVE THE REPUBLIC (1965), Karel Kachyna, Czech Republic

“It's about a boy who is bullied something rotten. He's got a very imaginative inner world. When things get really shit for him, he imagines himself out of the situation. It shows the magic realism element we often find in children's cinema.”

BAG OF RICE (1998), Iran, Mohammed-Ali Talebi

“The little girl is already under-stimulated and wants more, more, more. There's an old lady on the street who has a voucher for a big bag of free rice, but to get it she has to travel across Tehran. She can’t go alone because she’s blind. Ah-ha, the girl thinks, now's my chance. It's one of those great road movies.”

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO SOLD THE SUN (1999), Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambety 

“This is made by one of my five favourite filmmakers. The little girl in it has a wonky leg. All the boys in Dakar where she lives make money selling newspapers, and she decides to do that as well. What's really brilliant is that Mambety is a kind of mythical filmmaker, so it's not social realism. The film becomes really poetic.”

CROWS (1994), Poland, Dorota Kedzierzawska

“Another great film directed by a woman, in which a girl's mum's pretty absent. There's a hint that she's having to be a sex worker at nights to earn money for the family. But this is a tough little girl. She steals a toddler. There's real peril - it's got a Hitchcockian quality in a way - because she's not old enough to look after this child. It's an honest portrayal of childhood - the peril and pain. Children are all straining at the leash, trying to escape rules. She breaks the leash and just thinks fuck it, I'm going for it.”

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