Rather than using the excuse of a pandemic to slow down, the indefatigable and hugely prolific director Mark Cousins has instead speeded up his output. This is the first of two films he has screening in Cannes, while two more finished films are in the pipeline. It was fitting that his latest venture, a follow-up to The Story of Film: An Odyssey, was the first screening of the Cannes Film Festival for it is a celebration of this millennium’s cinema and is a sweeping, vast and loving look at the recent past and potential future of film.
Cousins has taken a slightly different approach with this instalment: gone are the interviews with filmmakers. In their stead, we have a slew of film clips – from 97 films! – that speak for themselves. While Cannes critics and film buffs will recognise a host of winners from previous festivals – Shoplifters and Parasite making notable appearances – Cousins is not afraid to mix the highbrow with more popular cinema. Joker is the first film to appear: Joaquin Phoenix’s iconic dance routine is quickly juxtaposed with Elsa belting out a song in Frozen. And from there we are whisked around the world on a globetrotting love story about the best of cinema from all corners of the planet.
In his first instalment, Cousins talked about the ‘last days of celluloid’ while this film looks at new ways of filmmaking. Michael Haneke’s use of the cellphone in Happy End, Waad Al-Kateab’s chronicling of her daughter’s arrival amidst her country’s destruction in For Sama, and the hidden cameras used in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin are all discussed and analysed for their innovative approaches. Cousins, such a prodigious documentary-maker, also discusses how the documentary has come into its own over the past twenty years, and he looks in particular at the remarkable work of Joshua Oppenheimer with his two films about Indonesia, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The clips Cousins uses are as shocking and visceral as they were on first viewing: we see men re-enacting the murders they committed or the look on a woman’s face while her father confesses to drinking his victims’ blood.
But Cousins doesn’t dwell just on these horrors. His appreciation of the spectacular choreography of Indian cinema, whether it’s a Bollywood-style dance scene or a shoot-out, is joyous. His film ends in Senegal, in a small town with an outdoor cinema, a gaggle of children shyly approaching the camera and entering the space. He remarks that they are the potential viewers or filmmakers of the future. While not necessarily being as ground-breaking as some of the docs he cites, Cousins’ The Story of Film: A New Generation is an epic work. It is a true celebration of what cinema is and what it means to us and as such it was the perfect way to kick off Cannes. Merci, Mark!