Being a human treasure trove of filmic insight and having written extensively on the subject’s history, not to mention making a 15 hour aptly named ‘Odyssey’ of film, we thought we’d try our luck convincing Mark Cousins (director of I AM BELFAST in this year’s LFF Documentary Competition) to let us ply him with wine and questions. Literally, we had a question machine gun and we weren’t afraid to use it. What followed was an enlightening chat about everything from his experiences on this year’s LFF panel to how you screen films in a war zone and the remarkable inventiveness of human beings.
And always warmth, warmth, warmth: human warmth, ‘the great religion’, that centres his world.
Girls On Film: Hello Mark. How has the festival gone for you so far? Do you have any recommendations of films you’ve seen?
Mark: Yes, Hannah Pollak’s SOMETHING BETTER TO COME is about a young woman who’s living on a rubbish dump outside Moscow. It’s a masterpiece, an instant classic, I think she’s quite young, but as a historian of documentary film I think this film really is as good as documentary gets. FRANCOFONIA was great, PEARL BUTTON was great…I don’t really go to the bigger stuff because they come out, I try to see the things that might not come back.
GOF: You should see TANGERINE! [Stop it, Holly, stop it. It’s not your film.]
M: Yes, I saw that at Sundance, I was on the jury panel there.
GOF: Would you be able to talk us through the process of being on a jury panel like LFF?
M: I’ve been on lots of juries over the years, you know, and part of me is principled and part of me doesn’t really believe in juries and awards, but of course it makes a big difference to the filmmaker. Also if we’re all about the business of expanding taste, of broadening the culture, of increasing access to voices that we don’t have access to, then juries are important because they can point people in a certain direction… they might not choose the most obvious film, and opt for something more aesthetically daring or intelligent, so juries are part of the taste making process. We’re living in a super abundant age of cinema where we are overwhelmed and don’t know quite what to choose and juries can act as a signpost. So (as a juror) you get in a room with people from very different backgrounds and you find that the only thing you have in common with them is cinema, our ‘lingua franca’, our universal language, how we communicate to people when we can’t in any other way, and that’s often quite inspiring.
GOF: Did you feel like you had complete autonomy over your own vote? You weren’t swayed at all – you didn’t have to compromise?
M: I never, ever compromise about that kind of thing. I’ve always sort of worked outside the industry, and been a bit skeptical of it. I was lucky enough to know the late great Lauren Bacall and she said “the industry is shit, it’s the medium that’s great.” And in a sentence, viola – there it is. The industry is full of compromises but the pure medium is this existential creative thing so in juries I would always speak my mind. But at the same time you don’t want to be a bossy boots.
GOF: Do you feel that film festivals are primarily inclusive or exclusive spaces?
M: Film festivals are about market failure. The market fails in delivering a broad range of films to the audience and because they fail film festivals exist. If the capitalist distribution system made a diverse range of films we wouldn’t need film festivals frankly so in that way they’re very inclusive.
“Look how open the BFI building is but it takes courage to walk through the door.”
I’ve written a lot about class; I came from a very working class background. They (film festivals) deliver inclusivity but sometimes they can feel quite exclusive. Take a beautiful building like this (the BFI); lot of Londoners would never have been in this building. They will feel like it’s not for them, it’s for intellectual types. Look how open it is but it takes courage to walk through the door of a creative, cultural institution. So film festivals can often feel like they are for fancy people.
GOF: And they’re not free.
M: No. I did some work with Tilda Swinton – a series of events where we absolutely radicalised this question of access to things. The top price was 3 pounds and lowest 2 pounds. We opened the spaces out so she and i were making tea and coffee on the streets and inviting anybody in whether they could pay or not. A radical attempt to say welcome. Do all film festivals say that? I’m not sure. And even if they intend to – they’re run by lovely people but they often come from quite a narrow class background and they don’t quite get what it takes. Human warmth. I come from working class Northern Ireland and what we do well aside from killing each other is human warmth. The friendliness, the embrace, the chat, the hug: film festivals need a lot of that to make it seem like its for them.
“I come from working class Northern Ireland and what we do well aside from killing each other is human warmth.”
GOF: We’ve definitely been to some smaller festivals that really prioritise that.
M: In big festivals it’s really hard, its very systematic, and I would argue against the red carpet and the VIP area. When I was director of Edinburgh festival the first thing I did was to get rid of all that and parties were available to everyone.
GOF: It sends a message.
M: Especially if you’ve got public money in it, which we do here, then you have to make sure you’re not only speaking to the converted.
GOF: So in terms of Northern Ireland, your home town and where your film, I AM BELFAST, is set, do you think it gets its fair share of representation in UK culture?
M: (laughs) Well, we did something very clever to get attention in Northern Ireland which was to kill each other. And we had a terrible social injustice where one part of the population didn’t have the same rights as the other. So we had a war and that got the world’s attention. And then Hollywood came and made thrillers about it and a lot of romances across the barbed wire and the like… so we’ve been depicted on screen quite a lot, but the problem with that is Northern Ireland becomes a background or fear zone, and whats missing is the placeness of the place, the ordinariness of the place, the texture… when I was making I AM BELFAST I kept saying to myself think of the texture of Helena’s face, the texture of the sky against the walls, just the ordinariness and the stuff that we love from that place and hopefully there’s something universal in that. So yes, Northern Ireland has had lots of attention on screen but when you think of the great films about it which I would say were HUNGER and ’71 and GOOD VIBRATIONS and this brilliant film by Neil Jordan called ANGEL, they’re not the big generic films, and there’s very little shooting in them. HUNGER is about Fassbender’s body and the texture of his knuckles and touch and I tried to do that in my film. So to sum up: we’ve probably had too much attention in that way.
GOF: Maybe not the right kind.
M: What I liked about ’71 was there were a lot of children in it, a lot of night time in it, which made it feel non-journalistic, not like another current affairs story from the headlines. It almost felt like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER or one of those mythic films. Gregory Burke is a great writer.
GOF: We wondered if you saw your films as ways of bringing people together and mending divisions of the past through telling stories, specifically in Northern Ireland?
M: Storytelling is a healing process rather than separating process. If I could think of a 10,000 year old woman who has an overview and a wiseness and a richness, not identifiable as Catholic or Protestant, then hopefully you get into a dreamlike zone, or the unconscious, and then these are aspects of human nature that are unifying. I think in the end my film is quite optimistic. It was the opening film of the Belfast Film Festival and you could feel an 800 seat cinema just lift, emotions rising in the room, and by the end lots of us were crying. We (in Belfast) are ashamed of ourselves, but most human beings have done shameful things, and if you take your shame out and put it on the table and say look at the atrocity…
GOF: Then maybe that’s the start of the healing process?
M: That’s why in my film I consider what would happen if the dead came back and looked us in the eye and asked if their death was worthit. The answer is fucking No – no death is worthit.
…In CENSORED VOICES a mother says (of the 1967 Six Day Arab-Israeli War that the documentary is centred around): ‘it’s not worth the fingernail of my dead son’, and it just humanizes everything. Humanism is the great religion, and to centralise that is very important. That’s what I AM BELFAST attempts to do.
GOF: Running on from that, but not really, do you think it’s important in your films to be objective?
M: No, I think it’s important to be fair. Fair is not lying to the audience. I made a film about holocaust deniers – Neo Nazis – and I started by doing something terrible which was lying to them, telling them we wanted to make a film about Nationalism but really I wanted to take them to Auschwitz to show them the gas chambers they denied existed. As filmmakers we need to be fair with both the people onscreen and offscreen. But objectivity is philosophically a much bigger issue…
..I’m a person of the left, and I believe we need to structurally rebalance life on this planet to not exclude large portions of the population: people of colour, women, and working class people for example. That’s a leftist point of view and I’ve never of course hidden that, so I don’t believe in any kind of objectivity in that area. The politics comes out in the work. I would call it a pre-ideological thing, a kind of humanism, you know… If you believe, as I do, that the feminist thinking of the 20th century was the greatest thinking that the 20th century did, then you want to use and learn from that thinking in your work.
GOF: More generally, thinking about you as a filmmaker, what inspired you to be one? What or whom?
M: Well it was personal stuff at first. I was a nervy little guy, growing up in Belfast. I was bullied – they beat the crap out of me – which isolates you in your world, makes you tremulous and reluctant to trust. But I’d go into a cinema and I’d feel totally safe – it was the safest place I’d ever been. The darkness, the warmth, the velvet curtains, and then of course the screen would open and adventures would happen. And it wasn’t always fun and games up there, there were dangers and threat too, but it was safe peril, so it felt like a kind of proxy life, or a surrogate life, testing the boundaries of fear. There was something about fear on the screen that was extremely nourishing to me as a scared little boy.
“There was something about fear on the screen that was extremely nourishing to me.”
…But beyond that, the aesthetic properties of the medium. One of the reasons I was bullied was because I was very very bright. Physics, maths, art…I was good at arty stuff and good at sciency stuff, and here was this medium that was a sciency art or an arty science.
GOF: A sciencey art, definitely. Duh.
M: I took to it instantly, and it was a friend, it made me feel safe, but it also allowed me to use different parts of my brain to imagine spacial constructs. I could see the timelines of films I was watching. So it was perfect for me.
GOF: So did it give you natural confidence because you just took to it like a duck to water? ‘This is my thing’?
M: Absolutely, and that doesn’t mean that I was good as a filmmaker to start with, I still had to learn and think, but it felt like a natural thing to me. Duck to water is really good – cinema is something that you swim in, something that keeps you buoyant. What a lovely metaphor. It keeps you up in the world. During some of the work I did with Tilda Swinton, we asked what we would we have done without cinema, especially the lonely people, the outsiders. Our culture in the UK is still very literary – the best thing you can be is literate – but what if you’re not literate? Art schools are full of people who are not literate.
GOF: And it’s interesting how cinema revenue goes up during economic downturn, like if you look at the Great Depression in 30s America… A method of coping.
M: And even this recent downturn. When you’ve got no money you look for cheapish entertainment. Not in London maybe [no. Not in London], but where I live in Edinburgh cinema is fairly cheap. I went to the Sarajevo siege where 10,000 people were killed and co-founded the Sarajevo Film Festival. Imagine this place, there are bombs dropping 10 times a day. I went there and we showed films underground, and people dodged the bullets to come and see movies. Yes we need bread, but we need roses, too. And cinema is like roses. It’s the luminosity of cinema, the bigger-than-life properties of cinema. Cinema feels like life, it feels so alive. Yes, it’s very important.
“Yes we need bread, but we need roses, too.”
GOF: So what is it specifically about the medium of film as storytelling that you love so much?
M: Well I’m going to challenge your question because I don’t think cinema is a storytelling medium actually. I think it’s closer to magic and myth and dreaming. And dreams aren’t good storytellers. A dream is like a story where the links in the chain have been broken so the story doesn’t add up. That’s why David Lynch is such a good filmmaker, and the recent departed Chantal Akerman is a great filmmaker. There’s something about ‘story’ for me that is quite aggressive and macho. Sometimes if there’s less story there’s more room to feel and engage. The great filmmakers Yasujirō Ozu andRoberto Rossellini, they try to dial down the story so it’s just one element in the mix, and there’s more room for things like time and texture. In I AM BELFAST there’s no story but there’s a sense of texture, a sense of being, a sense of looking and the pleasure of looking: the ongoing moment.
“When you’re sitting in a film you can’t fast forward it. You have to submit to the director’s sense of time.”
Hollywood cinema is usually about sensation and I love lots of it but it’s missing the contemplative aspect of film, of time, of slowing of the heartbeat, of de-adrenalizing life, especially when our lives are invaded all the time by technology. Where in your consciousness is there total stillness? Is your memory there (gestures at iPhone)? The answer is sort of yes; we’ve downloaded our personalities in a way onto these brilliant little slabs and cinema can reverse that process and makes us just sit and be still. I think it’s extraordinary and it requires a sort of focus and submission, of course. When you’re sitting in a film you can’t fast forward it. You have to submit to the director’s sense of time. How often do we really submit? Freud talks about this a lot. I say to the director, I give you 2 hours of my precious time. Do something magnificent with it.
..We assume that art is about self-expression don’t we, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I think the greatest artists and filmmakers aren’t trying to take their inner world and put it out on screen but just the opposite. They are trying to listen and absorb and notice the potential paradise of the moment…
GOF: A bit of peace, maybe.
M: And the paradox of me saying this and then yabbering on at you.
GOF: Well, we’re making you.
M: So much of our culture is about career and achievement and CV and what’s been in my past and what’s my goal in life. And of course neither really matter as much, it’s right here right now.
GOF: It’s so hard to convince yourself of that sometimes [#unemployedfilmaddict].
M: I know, but it’s also true. What moves me – the falling of the light, the colouring of the leaves – I know it’s old person’s stuff, but I just get so moved by each day and ‘the turning of the earth’ as they say. The bizarre nature of the fact of consciousness. I went to the refugee camp in Calais recently and its hell on earth. It’s 55 minutes from here. I’m not sure I’ve encountered a kind of hell like i saw in Calais. It will change your life. To see people not only living in those circumstances but being inventive. Hell is right next to where we are.
GOF: Everything you’ve said negates this question but what are your goals and aspirations as a filmmaker?
M: My goal is not to have a goal. My goal is to not under-imagine life. Not to live in a thinner way than I should. Not to underestimate the splendour. I don’t think of myself as a professional, I’m an amateur. I’ve achieved a lot – a history of cinema etc. – but ‘goals’ aren’t for me.
GOF: You’ve studied its past so where is its future going? How is it changing and is that due to technology or heart?
M: People will always want to get together, for joint collective experiences, and cinema is such an experience. Also human beings want to get out of themselves, and experience a sense of the sublime. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on an iPhone is never going to give you the sense of the sublime so I’m reasonably hopeful. There are great things about technology a well as bad, but those technological things are secondary questions and the primary is what do human beings need? To get out of themselves – the rapture of self loss, let’s call it. We want escape and thought and consideration and cinema provides those things, so having made a 15 hour essay of cinema I would argue that cinema hasn’t changed at all. It’s doing what it did back then in 1885, bypassing conscious life, getting into our dreams, a magic carpet ride. So I think cinema in the future will be similar to the past – although we might consume it differently. It’s a medium that is so profoundly human and a product of human desire. I’m optimistic.
GOF: We talk a lot about the ‘cinema experience’ and wonder what the future is for cinema goers, who seemed to have dwindled in the last decade?
M: For me it’s a question of enchantment. When you think of the big movie palaces of the 20s and 30s they made you feel like a prince or princess when you walked in, because of the chandelier, the bigger screens, the glamour about it all…When you walk into multiplexes now it feels a bit de-humanized.
GOF: It smells of farts.
M: That sense of child-like wonder: everybody should be thinking about that when they’re building cinemas. It shouldn’t feel like prose, it should feel like poetry.
See the winners of the 59th BFI London Film Festival 2015 here.