Celebrated Irish filmmaker and writer Mark Cousins first came to India in 2001 – he drove out from Scotland and he and his car eventually got to Mumbai in a boat from Iran. He has returned several times since and was back in Mumbai early in January for “two secret reasons”. We are guessing that one of them had to do with his ongoing project Women Make Film, a 15-hour compendium of female directors from around the world. The first four hours were premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018.
The 53-year-old cineaste presented film programmes on television in the United Kingdom in the 1990s before embarking on a series of documentaries that combine the rigour of an academic essay with the intimacy of a fireside chat. They are characterised by an idiosyncratic commentary delivered in a lilting and playful voice, a thoughtful curation of films from around the world, and deeply personal insights into the history and evolution of cinema. “I feel almost like a priest who wants to celebrate the mass in some way,” Cousins said about his sensory approach.
His 15-hour-long The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) was an unconventional history of the seventh art. In The Story of Children and Film (2013), Cousins juxtaposed his niece and nephew at play with clips of films featuring child characters. His most recent film was The Eyes of Orson Welles, which examined the influence of the American iconoclast’s paintings and drawings on his films.
Cousins has an enthusiastic following among Indian cinephiles for his evangelism of Indian filmmakers, including Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Guru Dutt. Cousins quite literally wears his passion for films, books, art and ideas on his skin – his arms are emblazoned with tattoos of the names of a variety of people and places, including the scientist Marie Curie, the city Sarajevo, the filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, Alfred Hitchcock and Kira Muratova, the architect Le Corbusier, and Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad. Also on his arms are the names of Guru Dutt in Devanagari (“I got that one done quite recently”) and Satyajit Ray in Bengali. “These tattoos are like my stigmata,” Cousins told Scroll.in during the course of an interview that touched upon his approach to filmmaking, his championing of Indian cinema, and his views on the state of film criticism and the rise of digital technology.
How did you get introduced to Indian cinema, and what did you make of it?
I got to know of Indian cinema through books. I come from a period in which you couldn’t see when you wanted to see, and you had to read about it first. I read Andrew Robinson’s book on Satyajit Ray, and became hungry for Indian cinema even before I could see any of it. Then I was in Edinburgh, where I saw a lot of Ritwik Ghatak. He was like that trunk of a tree that led me on to the rest of Bengali, and then Indian, cinema.
I have always loved cinema that is bigger than life. I like maximum, hugely styled cinema, like Pedro Almodovar or Kira Muratova, and a lot of Indian cinema is stylised. That is why when I watched Guru Dutt’s films, it felt like arrival. There was something about his Pyaasa. I was brought up Catholic, and we love the baroque and the obsessive, and there it was.
I remember when I was meeting Amitabh Bachchan, he told me I had 10 minutes. He asked me who my favourite Indian filmmaker was, and I said, probably Guru Dutt. Amitabh said, you can have long as you want.
There is a political answer to this as well. When [American president] Donald Trump talks about building a wall between his country and a neighbouring country, if we call ourselves humans and citizens, we have the duty of looking at the way another culture has used cinema. Those of us who love movies, we are the same tribe and family. We are all the same religion, let’s say. You can ask the question, why aren’t you interested in Indian cinema? When there are lists of the greatest musicals made, never or seldom is a single Indian film on that list. I think that is racist by definition – it reveals a profound lack of curiosity.
But Indian cinema follows different narrative rules. Also, you came to it through arthouse films first.
Yes, but then you see Sholay, and Mother India and Mughal-e-Azam. Is Indian cinema really all that strange? Then we have to say that the Mahabharata and Homer’s Odyssey and the writing of Nikolai Gogol are strange.
Across cultures, there have been a lot of people making art in registers that are not realistic or classical. Somebody who loves the writings of Gogol and Russian extravagant writers, the people who go and see the paintings of Tintoretto in Venice, surely they get Indian cinema? It’s not as big a hurdle as it seems. Of course, there is also lots of terrible Indian cinema.
You are a remarkably prolific filmmaker, and seem to be working on several ambitious projects at the same time. What is your entry point into a project?
There is a great northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who said inspiration is a ball kicked in from nowhere. And I also like what Werner Herzog said, that it is not about having any ideas but managing their assault.
My ideas don’t come from inside my head. My ideas come from the world, from the cities, from the places I go to and people I meet. For instance, I wasn’t intending to make The Story of Children and Film. I had already made a film about children in Iraq, called The First Movie. I was looking at my niece and nephew playing. I looked at the image and said, oh my goodness, there is something there.
If you have got a fertile mind, which I do, then things grow. I always have had loads of energy. I don’t sleep as well when I am in a city. The first thing I did in Mumbai was to walk along the sea in Bandra.
When Sergei Eisenstein went to a new city, he always had the same idea – he didn’t go to a monument or the great museums. He would get onto a bus and take the bus till the end of time, to the suburbs, and that’s what I do.
But you must have an organising principle, since so many of your films draw upon memory and subjective responses to cinema.
My note taker is my camera. I have been filming every single day for 25 years. The moment I press record, I am in what sportspeople call the zone. I forget myself.
When I come to make a new film, I have got thousands and thousands of shots from all over the world. If there is a single principle, it is that one. To quote another filmmaker: Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities is about a photographer who says, I do not take photographs to speak, but to listen. I love that.
Lots of people think that when we are making films, we are being creative, but I feel the opposite – I am not expressing myself as much as responding to the brilliant complexity of life. I don’t create worlds but respond to things.
What were your first memories of cinema?
I grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland during the Troubles [the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between the 1960s and the late ‘80s]. Cinemas closed down, people were scared, and so physically going to sit in a cinema felt amazing. I could feel the scary streets outside disappear in these womb-like environments. It didn’t matter what film was on.
The first film I saw was Disney’s Herbie Rides Again . I am from the generation that saw Grease, Jaws on the big screen. Also because of the war, there was a black market in VHS tapes. You could see whatever you wanted. So I got the potency of cinema.
I wasn’t good at reading in school. But I was really good at imagery and things like mechanics – I could look at an engine and roughly tell you how it worked. I remember seeing Touch of Evil by Orson Welles on TV and not only did I love it, I could have drawn the shape of it afterwards. There was a kind of ability to enjoy and get sucked into space and measure it in some way.
My mother was a home help, and my father was a motor mechanic. They were going, who is this alien creature? This was very working class – there was no books. It was a warm and friendly family, but there was no encouragement to be interested in movies or art. I remember going to the library and getting art books – these were almost erotic things for me. I also had some really good teachers too.
My 2017 book is called The Story of Looking. The visual world has always been a part of my life, my mental health. When I feel a bit down, when I feel sad, I see look at a vista, a seascape, a cityscape, I can see myself getting out of my own head.
Cinema has always been equated with the big-screen experience. What do you make of the anxiety over the death of the movie-going culture and the rise of digital and streaming platforms?
I am not a cultural pessimist. I was talking to someone today who said, it’s all over, digital has ruined everything. My answer is yes, digital has changed the way we do things. We have downloaded our memories and our consciousness into mobile phones. But our deep brain structure, our needs as human beings – we have that sense of the sublime. We want to feel overwhelmed. We want not to be in control all the time, submit to things that are bigger than ourselves. Cinema lets us lose control.
When I go to the movies, I say to the director, I give you two or three hours of my time. I have no pause button. When I am watching a film, I feel like a small child. The screen is light and I am dark. I feel like winter looking at summer.
So whether we get this through cinema or through Netflix, it’s okay. Cinema didn’t invent a new desire in people. Cinema answered a desire in people – the desire when they sit on Chowpatty beach or see the Alps or the pyramids, to encounter the sublime, to encounter that Joseph Campbell called the rapture of self-loss. Even though people watch films on their phones, which is fucking stupid, we still want that elevation of self. That is not going to go away.
Guess what – the attendance of people in the cinemas in the United Kingdom is the highest since 1971. And look what’s happening in the music world – people are going for live concerts much more than before. You don’t feel fully alive when you’re looking at your phone. The deep seat of our brains were formed so long ago that digital is not changing our needs and desires as humans.
Has technology helped you in your filmmaking process?
Absolutely – the digitisation of the film process democratises the process. When I got into films, nearly everyone I knew was in it because their brothers or uncles or grandfathers were in it. Digitising has made it much better.
I have only directed two films on 35mm. I am self-taught, and I didn’t touch a camera while I was studying film history. When I started directing, I was 21, the crew was all men, all scary and middle-aged, who would say, don’t touch the equipment, we know best. I did some work for television, but I felt that I couldn’t do this anymore. So I went away and did things around festivals.
Meanwhile, the equipment miniaturised. When I got back into filmmaking, I could film myself. I decided I would shoot a feature-length documentary, called The First Film, myself. I was even nominated for some cinematography award and I thought, what!
You said that you grew up reading about films before you watched them. You were exposed to a certain strain of criticism. How do you look back on this writing, and is your work a response to it?
The people I was reading and I liked were the emotional and passionate writers, like Francois Truffaut’s review of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Truffaut wrote, if you do not like this film, never see another film.
I read the theoretical stuff, but I didn’t really enjoy it. It didn’t do anything for me. My relation with cinema was always a bit emotional and personal. I was always interested in poetry, not prose.
We need a revolution in film writing and history and criticism. One of the most famous British critics, whom I won’t name, made a list of films before he died and it had only one Indian film, Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough. This is disgraceful.
If those people in the 1960s and ’70s didn’t have their passions, maybe we wouldn’t admire Ingmar Bergman or Pier Paolo Pasoloni, Ritwik Ghatak or Mizoguchi or Ozu. They did a good job, but they thought their job was finished. Not only that, they thought film culture was finished.
Many of those major critics said to me, the golden age is over now. But in fact, it was only beginning. I would argue that the ’90s was one of the greatest periods in cinema since the ’20s. Those tastemakers were blind to Abbas Kiarostami or Samira Makhmalbaf, for example. Maybe we respect them for what they knew, but they did not know what they did not know. That’s why we need new voices and writers.
There is also a pedagogical aspect to your films, which look at the history of cinema in non-linear and non-canonical ways.
When I came to make films, even though there might be a learning dimension to what I did, I didn’t see myself as a teacher, but more of a drug dealer – try this drug of cinema, you are going to like it and you’re going to get hooked for life. It was more about taste and the appetite for desire.
I am delighted that some of my work, particularly The Story of Film, is shown in universities around the world. The reason that professors say they use it is that it’s passionate, it’s not dry and desiccated, not theoretical. I am informed about quite a few things, but I think of myself as an amateur in the best sense – a lover, not a professional.
My grandmother had a picture of Jesus Christ who had plucked his heart out and was holding it out in his hand. That, I realise, is what I have done my work – I have exposed my emotions.
How does your cinephilia square off with the tradition of film criticism in your documentaries and essays on cinema?
My problem is with the phrase film criticism – a lot of people think that if you are critical of something, it means you are being negative. For me, I am a fan of the poet Rilke. He says something on the lines of, pray poet, what do you do? I praise? But what do you really do? I praise.
I want to find what’s great in the world and share the greatness. A secondary issue is to evaluate something. I think the Sagrada Famila [church] in Barcelona and St Peters in Rome are terrible, but it’s not nearly as important to say that as it is to say that Mandu is one of the greatest places in the world. The primary function of criticism is to find the marvellous stuff, but it’s often hard to find. Also, people are almost scared of the marvellous.
If you don’t like a film, it’s important to articulate why. My life is limited and I want to focus on the things that are magnificent, like the childhood experience, walking, cities, cinema. I never reviewed films, so I don’t have that need to evaluate, but I am glad there are people who do it.
What will ‘Women Make Film’ tell us about female directors?
Women Make Film is almost finished. It is going to run roughly 15 hours. We premiered the first four hours in Venice. It will be finished in the next three months. We will try to premiere it at some of the major film festivals.
It is important to look over our shoulders at what happened in the past. Around the ’50s and ’60s, there were great women in Bulgaria and Romania and China and Russia and Korea and Japan. It’s important for us to realise on whose shoulders we are standing. If we want to articulate a future for cinema which is less male-dominated, we really need to inform ourselves about the past. I have 130 women directors in my film. Most of them are names that are not known.
The original title was Eye Opener. I call the film an Academy of Venus. Imagine a film school where all the lecturers are women.