Mark Cousins: Women Make Film

Article by Niamh Muldowney

29th of February 2020, the evening the first case of Covid-19 in Ireland would be announced. But, that morning, director Mark Cousins was in town to introduce his latest film, Women Make Film, at the Dublin International Film Festival. Two other film students from Trinity, Giorgiomaria Cornelio and Markéta Ní Eithir, and I sat in on the introduction to the fourteen-hour-long film and, afterwards, had the opportunity to pick Cousins’ brain on the documentary and the state of the film industry in general.

Markéta Ní Eithir: Watching the film, it struck me that it’s kind of an education and maybe even a guide to filmmaking. To what extent was this the aim when making it?

Mark Cousins: I wanted to capture that feeling that we filmmakers have when we’re sitting having pizza together, and you say, “see that shot from Scorsese?” The practical talk of how you do something, you know? That’s what filmmakers ask for, like: “God I have to shoot a sex scene tomorrow, how do I do that? What are the great sex scenes?” It’s quite practical. The original title for this film wasn’t Women Make Film, I was going to call it An Academy of Venus, so it was going to be a film school, an academy, but where all the teachers were women. If we had called it that, it would’ve been a clear answer to your question. Yes, it has got an aim, not educational in an academic sense, but as a learning tool, like a toolbox.

MNE: When making it, was there something that surprised you the most or was really new for you?

MC:  Yes, I discovered filmmakers I didn’t know! For example, in Sri Lanka, I did not know the work of Sumitra Peries, who’s been making masterpieces from the seventies. She’s still alive. She’s eighty-six and I’ve been in contact with her and I’ve been in tears. When I first sent her an email, she said: “I hadn’t heard from anyone in the UK in, I think, thirty years.” There’s a forgottenness, you know. If we want to change the conversation about cinema with this film, if we want to sort of shock, to defibrillate people into knowing who these great directors are, we need to know them and we need to talk about them in the same breath as we’re talking about the great male directors.

MNE: On distribution, I know that one of your previous films, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), was screened on television as one-hour-long episodes. Is there a plan to do this with this film?

MC: This has sold all over the world – every European country, Chinese TV, Indian TV, Russian TV – so it’s going to be seen globally, which is really good! I, on purpose, don’t specify how I would like it to be shown so people can watch it in one-hour episodes on TV or they can watch 20 minutes a night if they want. This festival is showing nine hours today which is “woah!” and some festivals are doing a single fourteen-hour event where you can drop in and out, almost like you would see in a gallery. I think anything goes! I’m really interested in the tone of a film, and the tone of this film tries to be quite hypnotic. It’s very intense and so people can then choose to be hypnotised for five minutes or five hours. I don’t mind if you watch the ending first, or re-watch bits, mess it all up!  Really fuck with the structure!

Niamh Muldowney: As you mention, the structure is very non-traditional. Would you like to elaborate on the non-chronological approach the film takes to film history?

MC: It was on purpose; I didn’t want to do a chronological structure. I’ve done that in some of my other work and this time I thought what’s lovely is if you choose a theme like work and then you put all these clips together from different parts of the world and different periods, from silent periods to really recently, and the sort of electricity, the sparks that jump between the clips are what you’re looking for. I think, in this case, with a chronological structure there would’ve been sparse periods until the 60s and then the 70s. It didn’t feel like the right thing to do. But also, this is only one voice. Obviously, it’s quite an unusual film and other people can tell the stories in more conventional and chronological ways.

NM: Did the #MeToo movement have an impact on the production of this film? And, if so, can we redeem the past? Can we redeem these female filmmakers without victimising them?

MC: We started this years before #MeToo, years before Weinstein and, you can imagine, there was a certain pressure on me to mention Weinstein in this and I thought, “No way!” That would poison this! This is a joyous piece of work, a celebratory piece of work. This is about enriching the language of cinema. I absolutely agree with the activists that are marching, demonstrating, and charging sex abusers but you’re right to say that, if we don’t get to know these women’s names, if the names Binka Zhelyazkova or María Luisa Bemberg are not mentioned by cinephiles in five years’ time, we will have failed.

We cannot blame the industry. The number of people [who] say “it’s so hard to see this stuff,” but a lot of this is on YouTube! And the people who say the research must’ve been incredible, you know what the research involved? I searched on Google “great female filmmakers from…” and then I just started putting countries like Venezuela or Colombia. That took seconds to do for each country and the list went on and on and on.

I’ve been interviewed by a lot of feminist filmmakers, male and female, who’ve said: “I’ve never heard of that,” and I’ve said to them: “partly, that’s your fault.” Yes, we can blame the industry but it’s partly your fault that you’re not curious enough. If you haven’t heard of a great female filmmaker from Venezuela, does that mean there isn’t one? No, it means you haven’t looked! The Marie Curie instinct is to think it must be out there. She thought radium was out there, so she kept looking, and looking, and looking, and then she found it. This is what happened here. I thought there must be a great female Sri Lankan filmmaker and there was! There must be more from Senegal, from Morocco, from Mauritania, from Colombia, from Mexico, there must be more! Even the really macho countries, like Spain, had the great filmmaker Ana Mariscal in the 50s! My point is, we have to blame ourselves. We can’t point the finger to the industry because the industry doesn’t give a fuck. It wants to make money so, at some point, we have to take responsibility and think “ok we’re gonna wake up.”

Giorgiomaria Cornelio: Because there is a tendency to reevaluate history through a political lens, which is a risk when educating ourselves, how can we avoid an ignorance of female filmmakers because of a political frame? Thinking specifically of Leni Riefenstahl or the #MeToo movement.

MC: I am a political human being, my politics are left of centre, but I really agree with your question and that is a difficult point. Leni Riefenstahl is in this film. I would not want her work shown without an introduction because there could be people in the audience that don’t know that she actually used people who were from concentration camps in her films, in particular that film, Tiefland. I think it’s really hard to show some of Polanski’s films now without some kind of introduction but I think that we should still show the work. I think for films that were either made by people who have committed sex crimes or abused people in the process of making the film, we need to tell the audience that, to make sure that isn’t forgotten. That’s my answer. It’s not a great answer but it’s the best that I can come up with for that problem.

MNE: Lastly, could you tell us a bit more about the connection of the road movie element of the film with the filmmaking?

MK: So, I needed something to break up the clips. It was too intense going clip to clip to clip to clip and I love just looking out the front of a car. For decades, I’ve been filming looking out of the front of cars when I travel around. Film should feel passionately global. You should see many countries and, so, that was why I used those forward moving shots. However, as you’ll know if you’ve got to the end of the film, [at] the very last shot we arrive at the grave of Alice Guy-Blaché, so the whole film has basically been a road trip to lay flowers at the grave of Alice Guy-Blaché. I wanted to do something really touching at the end to reward people and when we showed it in Toronto there was a lot of crying at the end because it is so moving and so exhausting to get to the end and realise it is all basically a thank you to Alice Guy-Blaché.

Both Giorgiomaria Cornelio and Markéte Ní Eithir have written on this interview, which can be found at https://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/laccademia-di-venere and http://trinitynews.ie/2020/08/women-make-film/

Women Make Films Will be broadcast as weekly episodes on TCM starting September 1st or can be rented and streamed from Amazon or iTunes. It is also currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.

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