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Mark Cousins on film festivals and making films. "A camera is visible, a microphone is visible, but the form of a film is not"

This week Mark Cousins, the prolific Irish-Scottish director and critic, author of texts and documentaries on the history of cinema, is a guest at the Biografilm festival in Bologna, where he presents three of his works. His accessible style and enthusiasm have made his documentaries and essays extremely popular: above all his monumental "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" (in 15 episodes); more recently, "The Story of Looking" (2017). At 'terre di confine filmfestival', years ago, we screened his documentary 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia (UK/Italy/2014/85') thanks to the collaboration of Laura Marcellino (co-author of the script) and the artistic direction of Paolo Zucca.

Mark is friendly, informal, empathetic. We asked him some questions about film festivals and film education.

The following is a transcription of our conversation. An Italian translation is available here.

Q. The first question is about the article you wrote on the Guardian two years ago. You described your dream film festival, 100 movies no red carpet no VIP area and movies chosen by Amartya Sen and Dolly Parton. And projected on their bed sheets. Is there a film festival which has managed to apply a similar formula?

A. I think a lot of film festivals are quite similar, quite formulaic. A film festival should be a creative event. It’s not that you just choose films and slot them in and pick guests. You have to innovate with the form. So the festival that I heard about that I think has been the most innovative recently was in Sweden, in Goteborg, when they decided to make a whole festival with an audience of one. And they chose a health worker, a nurse, and they showed the whole festival to her in a lighthouse in Sweden.

That's exciting, that's electrifying. I think that there are so many film festivals in the world now that really, really need to innovate with. With form with atmosphere, with aesthetics, with class. That's why I've got Dolly Parton in there. Festivals should be high and low all together. They should be super accessible to uneducated people. Shouldn't be afraid of kids. Shouldn't be afraid of melodrama, but mix it up with real internet and innovation, so accessible to everybody and also spreading a message which is understandable.

You know, we're sitting here in Bologna. If you look, why did Guido Reni paint the way he did? Why did Ludovico Carracci paint? Specific message from the Council of Trent was to make the paintings accessible to everyone. And our film festivals should be like that. Now that does not mean that they just have to play it safe and mainstream, the opposite, they have to innovate with form.

Too many film festivals in the world, you buy your ticket online, you show up, there's a guest, there's an intro, there's a Q and A, and then you're out. And the next audience is in. We need to mess around with that structure.

We need to imagine that we are data artists or punks. I think that's the thing, you know, that's why Tilda Swinton and I pulled a cinema truck across the Scottish Highlands and brought it into local communities, because it had never been done before.

And it was childlike like the circus, like La Strada of Fellini, there was something childlike in that. I think that many festivals have lost the sense of play and childishness.

Q. And maybe this could be also be organized in some remote place like they do in Lapland, where they also make karaoke and they involve the people, in public.

A. Yeah. I mean, so. They don't put high and low culture in different places. A film festival is like to make a film. First, what you're doing is creating a world and creating a world like Steven Spielberg does. It has to have its own atmosphere and a key element is location place.

I once attended a film festival near a swimming pool. And in the final night, everybody swam and lots of nakedness, but it was the sense of place that really matters. So definitely, the location is important. An old ocean liner, turn it into a floating film festival and go around the Adriatic or the Baltic or India, stopping around the coast.

We are in show business, you know, in entertainment, but we can be very daring and original. But I think that that idea of entertaining is crucial, you know, and we can be radical and serious and political and challenging and daring, but also we have to have a sense of play and pleasure in it as well.

Q. The second question is: if you were the artistic director of a new, small independent festival in a remote area and you were given ‘carta bianca’, do anything you like, what will you propose?  

A. It's a question of form rather than works and offers, you know, so if I had ‘carte blanche’ anywhere, I would take over St. Peters in the Vatican and turn it into a cinema, and put on 20 film screens, show films around the big pool, and maybe play like punk music, a really loud music and people could dance. Maybe lots of LGBT films in there, because the Catholic church has been so bad in that subject. So queer films, loads of music. To kind of celebrate diversity in San Pietro. 

So underground, fantastic space. Or you could take some of those big, old communist spaces from the Soviet friends, and again, use those bunkers to show rock and musicals, for example, there has to be an element of musicality, of operatic music, of rapture.

In a film festival, there cannot be only products of the intellect. They cannot only come from the imagination of the burgeois classes. You know, I mean, I think that bourgeois are bad at having fun. You know, they like to talk, and drink a glass of wine, but there's no sense of pure fun, of abandonment, and cinema has always had that quality.

Q. In fact, at the beginning, cinema was a very popular…

A. Yeah, and the burgeoisie hated it. Of course, there are brilliant people in the bourgeoisie and we want their intellect and their knowledge, but this also needs to be mixed with other aspects of the human spectrum.

Q. Our last question is for our students. In one of our interviews you stated that in film schools and in courses there are maybe great people, but they teach about equipment and production, when the job is really to awaken the student’s sensory response to the world. And how important is it to teach the use of tools of technologies and how much would you insist on this aspect?

The tools, the technology is important. The technology's changing all the time. So if you teach a student, how do you use one piece of editing software? It's gonna change in two years’ time. And so that's an issue, you know, I never studied any film technology, and the technology of science and image, I would say, is a secondary issue.

The primary issue is to teach poetics. What is the form? What is the world? What is the feel? What is the aesthetic? You know, these are, every film has an aesthetic, Top Gun has an aesthetic and it needs to be understood. And so that's the hardest bit, because that's the invisible bit. A camera is visible, a microphone's visible, but the form of a film is not.

And so. That's the trickiest bit. That's the most important thing. So I would say the technology is the icing on the cake, but you need to teach the cake.

Q. I fully understood because I saw that you also made movies with some not hyper sophisticated tools.

A. Yeah, absolutely.

Q. For instance, your movie about Lawrence was made, if I'm not wrong, with some very simple tools.

A. Yeah, very simple. I've worked with some of the world's greatest cinematographers. And they'll just say, get anything, grab it, you know, use what you use best, you know - the most important thing is if something magical happening, if the light is suddenly changed, grab it by whatever means necessary.

You know, you, if you've got a van of equipment, half a mile away, that's too late, it'll be gone. you know, and I think that's really the kind of grabbing. The momentary nature of filmmaking is really important, you know, and I've just made a film in Italy, which is just finished. And we filmed one day in the big filming studio used by Fellini in Cinecittà, but the rest of time, I was out walking around just with my tiny little camera and some of the best footage came from that.

I think that the dominance of technology comes from the fact that the industry was really male and it was man, man running it and men like their equipment and their toys and stuff like that.

And I think that. In emphasizing all that they ignore the most important bit, which is the gentler bit, or the more imaginable bit or the bit where you're more vulnerable. Like, I don't know what's gonna happen. I'm looking for something. I don't know what it is. Jane Campion talks about this very well, you know, whereas the guys, you know, (they think) if you've got a big truck of equipment, surely the film will be good.

I think that there's a sort of gender dimension, a sort of feminist dimension to this question as well, you know? And also a confidence question. I think that's a big thing for me as a filmmaker, for many filmmakers and for students, the confidence to be not sure what you want to, looking for something, to be not sure how you use the equipment and also to misuse the equipment in interesting ways.

All that stuff is, you know, to be gently radical with the production process.

As soon as small cameras came along, I made films with small cameras, like. I had three days in Mexico and I made a film with a tiny camera in three days and it went around the world and got lot of prizes

Q. This documentary, which will be shown tomorrow,"The Storms of Jeremy Thomas", did you shoot it inside the car?

A. Yes. Only inside the car.

Q. Which camera did you use?

A. I used this mobile phone and my small Sony.

Q. So were you the camera operator?

A. Yes. And of course the convention, the conventional way of doing this is you've got a camera in the car, then you've got another car following with another camera. and nowadays you have a drone. That's the way that everybody does it.. You don't want to be this kind of claustrophobia in the car. And it's difficult that way.

Q. You didn't have a fixed camera inside. So you were filming, and Jeremy Thomas was driving.

A. Yes. No fixed camera. I didn't want that. You know, cause that's like TV, that's the way they shoot TV and you want try and get away from that if possible.

I've always tried to see the equipment as not an end in itself. It's a means to, you have to see through the equipment out into the world. And what you have to do is use that equipment to let poetic gets in the way.

So, the film shown tomorrow costs almost nothing. It's a labor of love. It's just because I love Jeremy Thomas and therefore I wanted to do something like a painting, a portrait of him, you know, simple as that.

(interview by Carla Caprioli)


(**) 'terre di confine filmfestival' is a partner in a film education project targeting, among others, several secondary schools in the province of Oristano, Sardinia, which should be implemented in the 2022-2023 school year. The general project submissed to MIUR-MIBACT provides for teaching cinema in schools in Lombardy, Lazio, Sardinia and Emilia-Romagna. A leading role in the project is played by the Liceo Laura Bassi in Bologna, with its pioneering CorsoDoc (documentary course), coordinated by Professor Roberto Guglielmi. A group of CorsoDoc students met Mark Cousins ​​and attended the screening of the documentary “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas” on June 16 in Bologna.

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