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Our dirty questions to Mark Cousins

DMovies's editor Victor Fraga interviews Irish director Mark Cousins at Karlovy Vary, where he showcases his latest creation at the Crystal Globe Competition; they talk about the relationship between painting and the moving image, playing films backwards, neurodiversity as a catalyst for creativity, tattoos, the new UK PM, Palestine, and more


I was very excited to meet Mark Cousins, and I wasn’t disappointed. I had previously interviewed him, but it wasn’t face-to-face. The highly prolific Irish documentarist is as clever, sharp and pleasant as you would expect. He talks more sense in 15 minutes than many others do in an hour. His answers are precise and assertive. He seemed to enjoy the interaction, a suspicion confirmed by his confession that he prefers being interviewed to being an interviewer.

He was dressed in a black shirt and very brief black shorts. Booted and suited me immediately felt overdressed. Because the interview took place in the morning, I presumed he had been jogging. “No, I just like wearing shorts”, he retorted. He then complimented my Palestinian flag lapel pin. Despite our sartorial differences, it became clear that we were firmly on the same page.

Mark attended the 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary because his new film A Sudden Glimpse in Deeper Things is in the Crystal Globe Competition, vying for the prestigious event’s top prize. The documentary offers some very peculiar insight into the life and work of Scottish painter Wilhelmina “Willie” Barns-Graham.


Victor Fraga – Why Willie and why now? Please tell us how this journey began.

Mark Cousins – I first saw her paintings in the 1980s, and I responded immediately, for one of the reasons I discuss in the movie. I am quite a mathematical person, and I was never good at reading. And I saw these mathematical structures in her paintings. The paintings are just like engines, machines. Why now? By chance. I was in Scotland and tweeted about her. And the people who run her estate saw it, and asked whether I wanted to see her paintings, her clothes, her brushes.

VF – In her birthplace in St Andrews?

MC – No, her Trust in in Edinburgh. I was amazed at the might of the work. When you see 1,000 paintings by this woman in one room, in one archive, you feel her life force – although she’s dead. So I said: “I want to make a film!”.

VF – Please tell us about your relationship with Karlovy Vary. I know this isn’t your first time here.

MC – I think this is my fifth time here, and there were times when I had films and couldn’t come. So I think I may have had nine of my films played here. The first time was for The Story of Film [2011] perhaps, and Karel [Och, the Festival’s artistic director] played it over five days [his doc boasts the runtime of a mere 915 minutes]. Then there was this zero-budget film What Is This Film Called Love [2012], and the audiences were large, it was hot, and people were sitting in their underwear. And I thought; “wow, this is like a rock convert. Karlovy Vary is like Glastonbury!“. I love that youthful, slightly punky energy. So any opportunity of coming back here I do. Plus, I’m an architecture fan, and this building in which we are sitting [the Thermal Hotel] is a masterpiece. I love the combination of Austro-Hungarian buildings [he points to the buildings pictured just above] and brutalist architecture [in reference to the Hotel]. That together is fantastic.

VF – Your filmmaking choices in A Sudden Glimpse are very austere. There is very little CGI, and Willie’s pictures and photographs are shown without the gentle movement – the panning and the zooming – normally associated with documentary practice. Please comment.

MC – We know what an arts documentary usually looks like. As you say you slow pan across the images. I didn’t want to do that. When I start a film, I make a list of the conventional ways of doing things, and then I strike them off. I want to use other techniques. I don’t like camera moves. I like using a wide lens.

VF – What is wrong with camera movements?

MC – I love the films os Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Max Ophüls, and the way the use the camera. Or Mizoguchi in Japan, it’s just incredible. But for me, my approach is not to try and express myself. I don’t think I have a huge inner world that I can bring out. I want to look at the outside world and bring it in. I was brought up quite Catholic, and so you almost want to stand back and look at the altar.

VF – Please allow me to be a little provocative. A film about paintings is a betrayal, because film is the moving image, and painting is the still image. Would you agree with that?

MC – I wouldn’t. DW Griffith said: “cinema is the wind on the trees”. What I love is a totally static shot with just a little but of movement. Often films are actually about stillness. Think of Abbas Kiarostami, or Yasujiro Ozu. They are approaching the quality of painting. Throughout film history, filmmakers have been influenced by painting. So it’s totally appropriate to make a film about something completely still, like a painting,. The extra reason is film has a soundtrack. One of the things that I think works in my film is that we are seeing these painting of glaciers and we are hearing the cracking sounds of real glaciers. This combination is a kind of poetics.

VF – Your film reveals Willie could write backwards, and would often hang her paintings upside down. Is there any way we could extend that to film? Is there a film we can watch backwards, or upside down to the same effect? Movies such as Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002), and Five Times Two (Francois Ozon, 2004) approached that, but not frame by frame. Can we subvert film in the same way that Willie subverted painting?

MC – There are loads of diptych films, with two screens. The screen on the left is responding to the one on the right, with a sense of meeting in the middle.

VF – Who’s that artist or filmmaker?

MC – I can’t remember. I want to say Michael Snow, but I can’t remember it [laughs loudly]. But I do think that lots of filmmakers such as the ones you mentioned have been have told stories backwards. The idea of ambidexterity is something directors play with.

VF – Upside down as well?

MC – Yes! Did you see Alice Rohrwacher’s Chimera [2023], with Josh O’Connor? The camera goes upside down, he’s the hanging man in the tarot cards. It really plays with the upside down.

VF – Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you never call Willie by her full name – a real tongue-twister: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham – in your film. Why is that?

MC – That’s an interesting observation you made, I hadn’t thought of that. I call her Willie throughout the documentary until I announce her death in the end of the film. I’m quite suspicious of the male narrator’s voice. There’s always a kind of intimacy and subjectivity in my voice. I don’t want to sound like I’m giving a lecture. It needs to be quieter than that. That’s probably why I didn’t use her formal name.

VF – Are your concerns about your male voice one of the reasons why you got Tilda Swinton on board as an extra narrator?

MC – Not at all. I got Tilda because Tilda is Scottish, and she loves Willie’s work.

VF – Tilda is Scottish, so was Willie. You are English-born, but from Northern Ireland. Willie lived in St Ives, in Cornwall. Do I sense a Celtic connection, of is this a pure coincidence?

MC – I’m Irish. It’s not coincidental at all. You don’t want to make generalisations, but one thing that you could say is that the Anglo-Saxon is really interested in detachment and irony, whereas the Celtic world, in the place you mentioned, tend to be more passionate and fiery. Tilda is passionate and fiery. I am passionate and fiery. And you can see the passion in Wllie’s work. It’s protestantism versus Catholicism. I can’t believe I just said that!!!

VF – Willie has synesthesia [a condition that causes the senses to blend together]. Is neurodiversity a catalyst for creativity?

MC – There’s a whole movement now called neuroarthistory looking back at great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. Is there a chance, if he was living today, that would he be ADHD? Would Paul Cezanne perhaps to have synesthesia? We are beginning to look at art history in the light of neuroscience, and I think that’s fantastic. Not only art history. We can also look at the history of engineering, the history of football, and ask the same questions about the people who were really great in that field.

I think that one way of looking at creativity, it is putting two things together that don’t seem to connect, and then creating a connection. The guy who wrote Darkness at Noon, do you remember his name?

VF – I’m afraid I don’t!

MC – I can’t think of it, either. He wrote a whole book called On Creativity, and created the phrase “by association” in order to describe the connection of two unusual things, particularly in the neurodiverse brain. Arthur Koestler – that was his name!

VF – You tattooed one of Willie’s pieces The Red Table on your right arm, and that’s something you show in your movie. Please tell a little bit about the relationship between ink, paint and film [Both of Mark’s arms are visibly covered in tattoos, as pictured above]

MC – Left arm [lifts sleeve and shows tat]! Do you have any tattoos?

VF – Yes, five in total. Four of them are film titles.

MC – Amazing! For me ink is an expression of my passion. Like the stigmata in Catholic faith. You can see the writing on the body! These are all things that I really love. Film, architecture, painting. So that’s the simple answer to your question. Ink is an act of love, an expression of love, a demonstration of love!

VF – You can see your “Leonardo” tattoo. That’s presumably Leonardo da Vinci, not Leonardo DiCaprio?

MC – Yes, I did that on the day I went to see The Last Supper in Milan. I nearly cried. And this is Kinuyo Tanaka, the great Japanese director [points to tattoo on his right arm]. I also have [Iranian poet] Forugh [Farrokhzad] and Abbas Kiarostami.

VF – I have a tattoo of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema [1996], and he’s a great friend of mine. I got the tattoo done when I was 20, long before I met him.

MC – My favourite Makhmalbaf film is A Moment of Innocence [1996].

VF – That’s a great one, too! Anyway, when I first met him I was concerned that he would be offended because ink is against Islam. It’s considered dirty, a desecration of the body. But he loved my tattoo and so we became friends.

MC – Dirt is quite good. the idea that you love something so much that you will infect your body with it is great.

VF – You must be a big fan of Iranian cinema?

MC – Oh, yes. once I drove all the way from Scotland to Iran and then onwards to India. I did a series for British television called Cinema Iran, and it was about the history of Iranian cinema. It’s a big part of my life!

VF – You were a prolific interviewer, with some of the biggest names in the history of film under your belt. From Spielberg to Allen, from Bacall to Janet Leigh. Which role do you prefer: interviewer or interviewee?

MC – [laughs] I stopped that 25 years ago, when I was a television presenter. To be honest, I prefer being asked questions. I did five years of interviewing, and I think I ran out of the ability to do it. So in my films there are hardly any interviews. In the Willie film, there is one. It’s no longer a mode I can use in my work. With cinema people, I felt I was hearing the same story being told over and over again. Five years doing something is a very long time.

VF – The new UK PM said the UK will not rejoin the EU during his lifetime on the day he was elected, just yesterday. What are the repercussions of this possibility for British film?

MC – For the film industry, it’s really bad. Obviously I live in Scotland and the majority of people there want to rejoin the EU. Same in Northern Ireland. So Keir Starmer is not speaking for the four nations of the UK. Forget the film industry, the dangers of isolationism are much greater. It becomes part of the mindset of a nation. This is not too far from xenophobia. All of these things connect, and there’s a domino effect. The fact that Keir Starmer said this is really appalling! Not in his lifetime? That’s not for him to decide. It’s a democratic question. If the majority of the people change their mind and want to rejoin the EU, then he as a public servant should respond to that.

VF – Did you have the time to cast your postal vote before you left?

MC – Yes, and I voted Green. I didn’t vote Labour for two reasons: Palestine and trans rights. I am very passionate about the liberation of Palestine, and I’m very passionate about trans rights.


Both pictures on this article are of Mark Cousins, and they were snapped by your interviewer Victor Fraga

By Victor Fraga - 05-07-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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