“If a critic isn’t trying to make art, they’re not aiming high enough”: An Interview with Mark Cousins

This interview was conducted for Flickering Myth in April 2016

I Am Belfast, directed by Mark Cousins, is currently playing in a select number of cinemas across the country. Released by BFI, Cousins is an artist who takes many forms. Whether he is writing for Sight and Sound or interviewing David Lynch, Cousins is an expert in each field. A Story of Film: An Odyssey was released in 2011 and it cemented his reputation as an extraordinary filmmaker, whose cinematic knowledge we can only soak up desperately, as his open-armed approach to the art form is one which all film lovers aspire to.

I AM BELFAST (2015) PIC 5 Mark Cousins and Helena Bereen

His approach to filmmaking is unique and innovative but he is equally keen to consider how best to digest a film. Documented in Cinema is Everywhere, Tilda Swinton and Cousins travelled Scotland in 2009 with an enormous cinema, creating an independent film festival in the process. But, of course, I began talking to him about I Am Belfast (my review can be found here), his latest film…

Simon Columb: I thoroughly enjoyed I Am Belfast – it’s intimate and personal without being distant. I’ve never been to Belfast myself. Where else would you recommend people to visit if they have a chance to get there?

Mark Cousins: I tried to avoid what’s in the guide books.  I walked every street in Belfast, and looked for everyday incidents that touched me or I thought were revealing.  The famous murals have loads of tourists at them, so I kept away from them as much as I could. Cities are so full of things; there are thousands of routes through – even a small one.  The best is to avoid the well-trodden paths.

SC: You cast actress Helena Bereen to ‘play’ the part of Belfast. I wonder who you’d choose for other cities. Dead or alive, who would you cast for Edinburgh? London? Paris?

MC: I’d look at Edinburgh through the eyes of Chiang Yee, a travel writer who came to the city (between 1933-1955, Yee travelled the UK and begun his ‘The Silent Traveller’ series).  As London, I’d cast Maggie Cheung (Of In the Mood for Love and Hero), who lives in London part of the time but is a Hong-Konger.  She is no nonsense and acute.  Paris? I’d look through the eyes of Samuel Beckett.

SC: The connection between art and cinema is clearly something close to your heart. Do you see any disconnect between art forms?

MC: There’s a call and response between images and sounds so, in a film, I think music is always trying to be the image, and the shot has the desire to be like music.  They crave what they aren’t.  Theatre has always been trickier for me. Bad theatre is as bad as it gets.  Cinema is the people’s art.

I AM BELFAST (2015) PIC 2 IMG_7573

SC: Recently, director Ben Wheatley stated how – regarding film critics – “As a creative person I think you should be making stuff. Talking about other peoples stuff is weird. Why aren’t you making stuff? And if you aren’t, why should you really have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked mile in someone’s shoes?” he said. “There are a lot of critics that I like, but I don’t get that relationship with art where you can just talk about it but not create it”.

As an artist and critic, do you share his feelings? Clearly, you’re passionate about being an artist – do you think all critics should be artists to justify their opinions?

MC: I’ve long said that criticism should be art, not only a response to it.  Critics should be as interested in the form of what they do as a filmmaker or musician.  Criticism doesn’t need to be a review of course – I’ve almost never reviewed a film.  If a critic isn’t trying to make art, they’re not aiming high enough.

The critics I admire most are Susan Sontag (American author, 1933-2004), Walter Benjamin (German Jewish Philosopher and cultural critic, 1892-1940), Dave Hickey (Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and author of 25 Women: Essays on Their Art), Manthia Diawara (New York author with specialism in black cultural studies), Dina Iordanova (University of St. Andrews Professor with expertise in World Cinema) and Hamid Dabashi (Iranian Cinema author based at Columbia University in New York): people who are writing outside the western movie frame, or who thought really big, about technology, gender, pleasure, borders, etc. Too many critics think within a narrow frame, I feel.

SC: You regularly attend film festivals across the world. What would be your advice to budding film fans keen to set up a new cinematic experience?

MC: There are so many film festivals in the world.  They are everywhere, and about everything.  Have a read of my Film Festival Manifesto. My main advice is be inventive with the form of what a film festival is – which is what we tried to do at A Pilgrimage (www.a-pilgrimmage.org).

I AM BELFAST (2015) - PIC 7 Christopher Doyle (cinematographer) and Mark Cousins

SC: With regards to “being inventive”, what are your feelings about experiences such as Rooftop Cinema or ‘Secret Cinema’? Are there any that truly stand out in your mind as incredible experiences?

MC: Showing films in an unusual place is a bit, but not wholly, inventive, for me. The Pilgrimage, with Tilda Swinton, really tried to rethink what movie pleasure is.  We put our backs into it and pulled a cinema across Scotland.  Secret Cinema is good (I have to confess that I did something called Secret Cinema years ago!).  I once did The Paradise Movie Hall of Kolkata, in which we played the sound of Bengali monkeys, and told people that when they stepped over the threshold, they were actually in Kolkata.  They weren’t in Kansas anymore. Cinema as territory.

SC: Finally, assuming there are readers who want to experience an evening of film-watching, with your latest film I Am Belfast amongst the movies, how could the evening play out? Is there a particularly Irish meal appropriate? Or an album to play in the background? What would play as part of a double bill?

MC: It’s not so much about food or music for me, to be honest, Simon. It’s more about world shifting: how to render unfamiliar, and enchanted, the everyday experience of watching a film.  There are loads of festivals about film and food.  Not a bad idea but we can be far more original that that, I reckon!

Thanks to Mark Cousins for taking the time for this interview.

I Am Belfast is currently playing nationwide in selected cinemas. Visit the BFI website for locations by clicking here: www.bfi.org.uk/releases.

Simon Columb

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