TIFF 2013: A Story of Children and Film (dir. Mark Cousins) / InRealLife (dir. Beeban Kidron)

A Story of Children and Film

With a couple of fiction films punching below their weight, two major documentaries about young people prove to be the highlights of our second day at Toronto International Film Festival.

A Story of Children and Film

United Kingdom, 2013 -- dir. Mark Cousins

"I'm still a child before a moving image," wrote Pauline Kael. It's a sentiment shared by Mark Cousins who states: "I feel, when I watch a movie, that I watch it like a child." Cousins's new documentary, the follow-up to his already-iconic The Story of Film, takes off from that observation. A humbler proposition than was its epic, exhilarating and sometimes exasperating predecessor, Cousins's latest isn't really a "story" at all but rather a series of observations, of riffs and refs, around its chosen topic, which, this time around, is the way in which children have been represented on the cinema screen over the years: the diverse ways that childhood experience has been constructed and deconstructed by filmmakers.

The film takes wing from a shot of Cousins's own niece and nephew playing with a Marble Run, and from there it's a boldly free-associative journey through a selection of marvelous clips, accompanied by Cousins's mellifluous musings which merge wry humour with poetic intensity. The clips, in fact, are cannily organised by various themes -- loneliness, strops, and social class amongst them -- and the approach, unsurprisingly, is resolutely global: the movie even opens with its title scrawled across the screen in various languages.

Thus the doc moves fluidly from the middle of the Hollywood mainstream (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; a Shirley Temple vehicle) to the bracingly independent and obscure, taking in, in the process, films as diverse as Buñuel's Los Olvidados Ken Loach's Kes, Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon, Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, and David Leans's Great Expectations, the latter prompting Cousins's delicious description of Estella as "an Edward Scissorhands of cutting class comments".

It's no surprise to find work by Cousins faves Ozu, Tarkovsky and Chen Kaige coming under scrutiny, but part of the delight of A Story of Children and Film is what might be termed its "redemptive" aspect: that is, its commitment to highlighting work that's been overlooked in film history. Indeed, the viewer is likely to walk away itching to see certain movies that Cousins refers to here, be it Shinji Somai's Moving (1993) or Mohammad-Ali Talebi's Willow and Wind (1999).

Each viewer will doubtless have his or her own quibbles about the films that Cousins chooses to exclude too. But if the director goes broad in his observations he also goes deep and the documentary includes some wonderfully juicy close analysis of specific shots and performance styles. Here's the thing about Cousins: he provokes perceptiveness. His sheer delight in making connections proves contagious and will likely inspire many viewers to think about their own personal "story of children and film" after the screening is over. As Cousins expressed it so beautifully yesterday: "As a community of cinephiles we must share knowledge ... We're in the appetite-creation business."



United Kingdom, 2013 -- dir. Beeban Kidron

Funny, frightening and moving by turns, Beeban Kidron's InRealLife is the second BFI-backed documentary I saw yesterday at TIFF. And, like Cousins's A Story of Children and Film, Kidron's movie also takes young people as its focus, offering an absorbing exploration of the problems, challenges and opportunities posed by teenagers' use of the Internet. As the range of specialist commentators that Kidron has recruited as her "talking heads" attest, no shortage of academic work has been done on this topic already. But InRealLife has the distinction of being the first major documentary on a topic that should deeply concern us all. It's an urgent, vital piece of work, one that deserves to be widely seen.

Though the film is certainly a critique of the overuse of the Net, and what it might be doing to teens' brains, attention spans and interpersonal relationships, Kidron's approach isn't finger-pointing or hectoring: rather, the movie listens patiently to what each of its interviewees has to say and allows perspectives to accumulate gradually. The experts (including shrinks, sociologists and, yup, one Julian Assange) offer great insights -- especially choice is Canadian journo Cory Doctorow's scathing explication and denunciation of the "Zuckerberg ethos" -- as do the film's excursions to Silicon Valley.

But the meat of the movie is ultimately to be found in Kidron's interviews with a range of British teenagers about their use of the web. A sparky lad talks frankly about how his taste for online porn has changed his interaction with girls. A young woman tells a horrific tale of the sexual exploitation she's suffered as a result of, as she puts it, "putting my phone first". Two parents talk with wrenching directness about the suicide of their son, a victim of online bullying. Meanwhile, scenes of One Direction-level hysteria greet the arrival of a YouTube star at a meet up in Hyde Park.

Kidron's techniques are, on occasion, slightly crude: there's an over-reliance on close-ups at times, while ominous music plays over portentous shots of underground fibre optic cables. Notwithstanding, the movie builds up to a sobering portrait.

It also contains a love story, of sorts. Kidron follows a gay teen (he came out on Twitter) as he meets up for the first time with his boyfriend: a guy he's been corresponding with for many months online. The meeting is full of anticipation and the potential for awkwardness (although whether Kidron really had to underline this by scoring the journey to Dusty Springfield crooning "Wishin' and Hopin'" is debatable). What's telling, though, is that even when the two boys meet "in real life" they're still essentially communicating online. In the movie's final shot -- as touching as it is absurd -- the pair are wrapped in each other's arms but rubbing Smartphones: an attempt at "sharing content". It's a marvelously expressive image of romance in our technology-obsessed time.


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