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The Cake Itself

6 November 2012 | 5:30 am | Anthony Carew

“There were too many big holes in these film histories, so I was just trying to do something a bit more complete.”

“At the end of the 1800s, a new artform flickered to life. It looked like our dreams...” So begins every episode of The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, the words intoned in the soft, seductive, Belfast brogue of its maker, Mark Cousins. Across 15 hour-long episodes, the cinema lecturer chronicles the 120-year history of motion pictures, skewering the normal narrative of Hollywood-centric histories as it takes a determinedly global perspective.

“It's a love letter to cinema,” Cousins says, of his essayist labour of love. “It's something more than facts and figures, how many Oscars a film won, or how much money it made at the box office.”

Growing up in Northern Ireland, Cousins fell in love with cinema as a solace from reality. “I'd go into the cinema,” he recounts, “where it was dark and there was not many people, and the nervousness that I had – because of The Troubles – it fell away – that idea of escapism is so true,” Cousins says. “Joseph Campbell talked about 'the rapture of self-loss' and movies gave me that rapture – they made me feel so alive during a time of so much death.”

In the '90s, when Cousins was serving as director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, he travelled to war-torn Sarajevo and saw an underground network of screenings, in which people were risking their lives to go to the cinema. “It became really, really clear to me that movies and art aren't the icing on the cake, they are the cake itself,” he says. “They're not merely representations of our life, but they are our lives, indivisible from the human experience”.

Cousins was inspired to undertake his mammoth project due to his dismay at most chronicles of celluloid. “Histories of cinema are always flawed,” Cousins offers. “They're written by academics and they're too dry, or because they're written by men they completely marginalise women filmmakers, or, most troublingly, they're really American and European-centric and they're completely blind to African cinema, completely blind to aspects of Iranian cinema, etc. There were too many big holes in these film histories, so I was just trying to do something a bit more complete.”

So, Cousins spent six years travelling the globe, speaking to dozens of filmmakers and every continent. “I had to travel like a backpacker with the equipment on my back; whether it was 42 degrees in West Africa, or in the markets of Calcutta, or the mountains of Iran,” Cousins says. “It sometimes felt like as much of a physical endurance test as an ideological one.”

The series works in tandem with his book, The Story Of Film: A Worldwide History Of Film, which divides history into 'silent', 'sound' and 'digital' eras. “The digital revolution hasn't actually been a revolution in the art of cinema; cinema is still great at presenting dreams and reality, that's its essential duality,” Cousins says of the latest era. “I know there's this school of thought among older critics that cinema is dying, but I think exactly the opposite. The people who say something like that are not seeing films from Thailand, from Taiwan, from West Africa, from the Philippines, from Romania, from Argentina, from so many parts of the world. The people who think that cinema is dying tend to have their eyes trained very much on Bollywood and Hollywood.”

WHAT: The Story Of Film
Running until Sunday 11 November, ACMI