TIFF13: A Story of Children and Film (2013)

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Mark Cousins is a controversial figure in film scholarship, but there’s an idiosyncratic charm to his views, as demonstrated in his new film A Story of Children and Film. He has a particular view of film history and he doesn’t hide his thoughts behind notions such as canonicity or social impact. He wears his biases up front and if nothing else, A Story of Children of Film demonstrates his remarkable film knowledge. However, although festival programmer Thom Powers said that Cousins took exception to one critic’s comment that the film was little more than a footnote to his 15-hour essay The Story of Film: An Odyssey, the film does seem little more than an afterthought to that previous achievement. A Story of Children and Film is not nearly as exhaustive as that massive film. It’s merely diverting.

Using the various moods of his niece and nephew as a jumping off point, Cousins explores the various moods of children in film. He focuses individually on anger and social class and shyness, among other categories. He looks at E.T. and Fanny and Alexander and draws parallels between The Red Balloon and The White Balloon.

Cousins still has the same biases as he displayed in The Story of Film. By skewing to international cinema, he gives favour to Iranian films and social realist drama. He also glosses over the more imaginative qualities of western cinema’s depictions of childhood. Don’t expect to find Cousins discussing films like Stand By Me or The Tree of Life here. Sometimes he just seems to be showing off how obscure his film tastes are. It’s an interesting exploration of children’s place in cinema, but by no means a definitive one, even in the simple way that The Story of Film was definitive.

I would say the one major flaw of Cousins’ discussion of children’s place in film is his omission of animation. He’s certainly not the first film scholar to gloss over an entire genre — the Criterion collection’s lack of animation is its one egregious error. Many scholars avoid animation because they believe it to be a juvenile film genre. However, in a movie explicitly titled A Story of Children and Film, it’s a fatal error to not give animation its due in depicting children on screen. Where is Hayao Miyazaki or Walt Disney? Surely when discussing children in cinema, you have to discuss My Neighbor Totoro and Pinocchio, right? Animation can capture the imaginative fancy, the skewered reality of childhood better than anything else. By leaving animation out, he’s hardly telling a true story of children in film.

Still, at the very least, A Story of Children and Film will make you want to take note of various obscure titles and track them down for viewing. Cousins’ film is by no means on par with The Story of Film and he betrays a lack of broad thinking in leaving out animation and much of western cinema, but it’s still worth a watch for those who were intrigued by his other works.

5 out of 10 (2013, UK)

Directed by Mark Cousins.

A Story of Children and Film played on Sept. 5, 6, and 15 during the Toronto International Film Festivalas part of the TIFF Docs program.