TIFF 2013: ‘A Story of Children and Film’ an insightful didactic exercise

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A Story of Children and Film
Written by Mark Cousins
Directed by Mark Cousins
2013, UK

A Story of Children and Film is the follow-up to documentarian Mark Cousins’ epic 15-part The Story of Film, his love letter to cinema that’s generally considered a masterwork effort and a radicalized rewrite of cinema history in a style defined by a holistic take pursuing a three-part focus: the personal, the polemic, and the cryptic. Cousins employs a similar approach as he turns his gaze to the child performances and coming-of-age tales that have have left their indelible mark on the changing shape of cinema. The director has always been interested in the topic of children in film. His first project for television was a special on a kid’s festival in Glasgow and his first feature, appropriately titled The First Movie, was about Kurdish children growing up in Iraq during the second Gulf War. This current effort surveys 53 films from 25 countries that pursue the passionate, adventurous, lonely, poetic, socially conscious, and destructive elements within the realms of childhood experience. Cousins creates a passionate and didactic dissertation that celebrates established classics and lesser-known films that provide beautiful opportunities for cineastes to discover hidden gems, of which there are many.

Rather than following a chronological structure, Cousins encapsulates films that produce similar emotive tones; like any didactic exercise worth its weight, the film offers engaging hooks to help present and tie together its themes. A Story of Children and Film opens with a discussion of the Impressionism of Vincent Van Gogh to introduce the concept of the imperfect and about the importance of capturing and being in the moment. It also helps effectively convey the overall feeling of the piece — the film yearns to create a unique style, almost defined by portraiture decorated by certain hues and tones. Cousins is clearly intrigued with the fact that even though a lot of child performances are ultimately guided by adult concerns, the young actors are not always easily controllable or produce controlled work. When one compares and contrasts the saccharine and wink-infused performance of Shirley Temple in Curly Top, the raucous joy a young Margaret O’Brien experiences while dancing alongside Judy Garland in Meet Me In St. Louis, to the classic closing shot in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the depth and variety of children slowly begins to reveal itself. Digitally recorded static one-shots of Cousins’ niece and nephew Laura and Ben in varying states of play, showmanship, and aggression are efficient and entertaining in illustrating the rapidly changing emotional states of the developing child. Extrapolations from this footage to the frustrations and weariness felt by the protagonists of Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table and Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth feel as potent to kids lost in the ruin of their class milieus as conceived in the stories in Los Olividados and Ken Loach’s Kes, a UK production from 1961.

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The third act of the film presents some of its most far-reaching, free-formed, and rewarding digressions. A trip to the foggy moors of The Isle of Skye uses its fantasy-like setting to cite the adventure and storytelling opportunities to be found in kids’ movies. A light-hearted tracking shot of a spirited girl running across hills of rolling sand in the Soviet frontier film Alyonka contrasts starkly with something like the dark fantasy of two abandoned children escaping through the German Expressionist nightmare landscape of The Night of the Hunter. However, when scenes of rapturous childhood joy work in parallel together, they help beautifully clarify the universal. When Hugo from the Swedish film Hugo and Josephine is seen riding through his village on a penny farthing bike and is quick-cutted with the climactic scene of Elliot escaping with his alien friend in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial in a bike miraculously endowed by flight, the feeling of rapturous abandon is palpable and demonstrates how the composed elements of casting, soundtrack, and camera movement can create an emotional space that feels iconic and precious.

Through careful editing and disciplined parameters, Cousins displays great intuitive skill in illustrating the emotive forces, underlying psychology, and social context that has defined a lot of the perfect and imperfect child performances over the decades. The curated films are a curious and dazzling mix of arthouse favourites, short, and feature-length films waiting to be found by younger generations and those looking to expand their horizons by looking back in time.

– Gregory Ashman

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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