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Mark Cousins: A personal odyssey

As he brings his new film to Belfast, director and critic Mark Cousins tells Una Brankin how he's learning to love his home city once more

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 06: Director Mark Cousins of 'A Story Of Children And Film' poses at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on September 6, 2013 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 06: Director Mark Cousins of 'A Story Of Children And Film' poses at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on September 6, 2013 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Of the thousands of interviews Kirk Douglas has done in his lengthy career, the Hollywood legend said that the best ever was conducted for BBC2 by the Belfast-born and Ballymena-schooled filmmaker and author Mark Cousins.

Movie buffs will know the tousled 48-year-old for his presenting of both BBC2 series Moviedrome and Scene By Scene, which ran for five years and included stand-out interviews with Martin Scorsese, Jane Russell, Paul Schrader, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Roman Polanski, Jeanne Moreau and Rod Steiger.

And this Thursday, as part of the Belfast Film Festival, movie fans will be out in force for the creative dynamo's QFT talk, alongside local DJ and composer David Holmes, about their current project, I Am Belfast. A work in progress, the film — about a 10,000 year old woman who embodies the city — is being written and directed by Cousins and scored by Holmes while it is actually being shot.

The film expert's other screen projects, including A Story Of Children & Film, and Here Be Dragons (also being shown at the festival), have been screened around the world, including Cannes and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has also co-directed five experimental film festivals with actress Tilda Swinton, and is Honorary Professor of Film at the University of Glasgow.

He's calling from Milan, where he's attending film conferences. Back at home in Edinburgh he lives with Gill, a psychotherapist he met at Stirling University, where he did a degree in film studies in the mid-Eighties. Although he had a loving home and a twin brother, Jeffrey, back in Ballymena, he was beginning to feel the cultural and political limitations of these shores at the time -- "traditional thought habits as solid, as massive, as the Mournes", as he puts it. His parents had to keep their mixed marriage a secret, but once the word was out they had to move, from Belfast to Ardglass to Antrim.

He remembers having to stay overnight in his Ballymena school "in case those bad people got us" during the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974, when farmers closed off the town with their tractors. “Like many people at the time, some of my mum’s family were judged, at job interviews, by the name of the school they went to,” he recalls. “One of my uncles emigrated to Australia — although he was a qualified tradesman, he couldn’t get work in Belfast.

“The ‘closed shop' meant something different in Northern Ireland in those days.

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“Looking back, I realise all sorts of free thinking in arts and ideas, communities and solidarity was going on, and movements like the Peace People were inspiring — I’ll never forget those rallies — but I probably had some sense that there were impediments ahead. The people who stayed in Northern Ireland, and helped bring about the quasi-Enlightenment that it has undergone, or is undergoing, are heroes, I think.”

Cousins grew up listening to his parents' Elvis and Charley Pride records, and would be glued to old thrillers and Hollywood musicals on television, as well as new releases at the Ritz in Belfast.

“The first film I saw in the cinema was Herbie Rides Again, I think. I remember seasons of films on BBC2 too — Hitchcock movies, gangster pictures, Gene Kelly musicals. But video was a thing for us too. There were video stores everywhere, and they had lots of bootleg tapes of horror movies and stuff we shouldn’t have seen as young people!”

He felt acutely defined by the ‘timidity’ of his working-class Belfast background, and would never have had the confidence to call himself a creative person. A fully-fledged free spirit these days, that in-built tension and class awareness from his early days still hovers, however.

“I was a bit nervy, and still am,” he says. “Lots of people in Northern Ireland were. I don’t know if it was because of the Troubles, but loads of the women were on Valium. Lots of people talked about their nerves, like they were pets or kids — ‘See me, see my nerves!'

“When I was young I didn’t know what they were talking about. I think I thought nerves were like varicose veins. And I just never had that quiet confidence that some people, particularly middle-class people, seem to have. Class is only a part of it, of course, and there are lots of anxious posh people (poshness has its own fears), but you can feel, all over the world, how cities seem designed for middle-class people — the nice streets, well-kept, the restaurant etiquette etc.

“When you are brought up working-class you get lots of hints that some places are not for the likes of you. But it’s good to feel that and learn that lesson.”

A creative, clever child — no good at sports — the young Cousins was a red rag for bullies. He sees bullying, interestingly, as an intoxicant which schools have taken far too long to address.

“Bullies get high on it,” he says. “I remember that, in the locker room, I could see them egg each other on with their taunts and worse, as if they were drunk. Bullying seems to happen everywhere — you see it a lot in zoos; the runt gets shunted — but in schools, the envy of the bully is sad as well as aggressive. Schools were hothouses for humiliation. Thankfully, that’s not on any more.”

He adds: “I remember when social media first came along, some of the bullies at my school contacted me a bit sheepishly! The bullying of me stopped, suddenly, when I was about 16. Only years later did I hear why: one of the most popular boys in school told the hard guys to lay off. How brilliant is that?”

As a teenager in the punk days of the late Seventies, Cousins, like many of his cohorts, felt a sense of a collective inferiority complex, as if Ulster wasn't a real, fully signed-up part of the world. He agrees this has changed with our political progress and increased tourism, sporting, literary and cultural achievements, but feels self-deprecation is in our blood.

“In famous places like Hollywood they think of Northern Irish people like Liam Neeson and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (currently working on the 50 Shades film) as very ‘real’. A few times in Los Angeles people have said to me, ‘You are so real!' Reality is in scarce supply in parts of LA, and the fashion world, and they long for it, they try to get it from us.”

Dreamy sequences feature in most of Cousin's extremely low-budget, left-field documentary-style films. For I Am Belfast, he wanted to portray the city in a way it hadn't been seen before and he was inspired on his extensive travels by the West African tradition of the Griot, a mythic storyteller.

“I wanted to show how female Belfast is, how it is a melodrama, like a David Lynch film almost,” he muses. “I imagined a film about Belfast told by one of the old ladies I knew when I was growing up; the ones who knew everything, and could handle fire coals without tongs, and wore nylon overalls all the time. Women who seemed to come from the dream time...”

Sounds familiar, indeed, to those of us who still know — and are — such colourful old dolls. So what did Gill, his partner of 30 years, make of us when she first came here?

“When we met in Stirling she had a poster of Corrymeela on her wall, and I had just been there! She had read Bernard MacLaverty books before I did. She loves Northern Ireland, and feels like it is her second home. She and my dad used to drink gin and tonics and have a laugh. She tries to do our accent, but still can’t even say ‘towel', ‘cow' or ‘baby' properly'.”

The deaths in close succession of his father and his sister-in-law a decade ago got him thinking about his own mortality. He's 49

next month and although he's terrified, as he ages, of losing his sight — the source of his “greatest pleasure” — he has recently accepted the passing of his youth.

“Since then, (the bereavements) I think I had become scared,” he says. “The grey clouds were gathering, the beasts were coming out of the forest. Then I started to wise up. I’d look in the mirror and see the grey, the wrinkles, the usual stuff, but would then go dancing, or pull a mobile cinema across parts of Scotland with Tilda Swinton, or jump naked from a pier into the sea in some posh film festival like Cannes, or walk across the whole of LA (25 miles), or drive my campervan from Edinburgh to India. I was rediscovering adventure — the stupid, the rapture of self-loss, the epic. As I said bye to youth in the mirror, I started to feel 15 again.”

With experiences and a delivery like that, I tell him he should be writing a novel, but he's very much a visual artist, who lives in the here and now. And although he comes across as a soulful sort, he doesn't have any spiritual beliefs to assuage his pangs of mortality.

“I was brought up Catholic, but stopped believing in the supernatural a long time ago,” he says. “The natural is glorious enough, thank you very much! I was in Sarajevo during the siege, when 10,000 people were killed, and saw how people not only kept going, but built underground cinemas. I’ve filmed in a village in Iraq in which 16% of the people were gassed in one day, and yet the villagers are happy and full of beans.

“I’ve seen the Northern Lights, and a harvest moon over Stromboli as it erupted in the night; I’ve walked the Great Wall of China and seen the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua; I’ve climbed inside the Great Pyramid in Giza, and sat in its inner chamber which pre-dates nearly everything I know; I’ve taken LSD and met Gorbachev and got drunk with Lauren Bacall. I'm starting to sound like that song I've been to Paradise But I've Never Been To Me! What I mean is that paradise is right here, right now, in a bowl of stew in the Crown Bar, the millions of daily acts of solidarity and the turning of the earth — as John Wayne says in The Searchers!”

I Am Belfast is at the QFT Belfast, this Thursday, at 7pm, followed by a screening of Here Be Dragons at 9pm. A Story of Children and Film is at the QFT tomorrow night at 7pm. For details, visit



* Martin Scorsese: “Has the fastest metabolic rate of anyone I know. You can see this in his film Goodfellas. His brain seems speeded up. My granny used to have a picture of Jesus holding his heart in his hand, outside his body. Scorsese reminds me of that picture.”

* Roman Polanski — “One of the brightest people I’ve met, and one of the most easily bored. He needs constant stimulation, and gives it with his needling, zigzagging ideas. He’s very 1970s in a way — when I spent time with him he still called money 'bread' — but bulldozed through cinema with a tragic view of life, which is what makes a film like Chinatown great.”

* Tilda Swinton — “She’s like a pal of my cradle days. She reminds me of a meerkat, always alert, or what I imagine Pablo Picasso to have been like — constantly working, making things, playing with ideas. She’s very generous too.”

* David Lynch — “When I spent time with him it felt like he had got rid of his rational thoughts and that everything he said came directly from his unconscious (Lynch meditates daily). Plus |he smokes like a chimney.”

* Good Vibrations — “I thought it was — along with Neil Jordan’s Angel and Steve McQueen’s Hunger — one of the best films I’ve seen about Northern Ireland. So many movies treat us only as |a problem, but we are a place |before we are a problem. Good |Vibrations felt to me like a movie starring James Stewart and |directed by Frank Capra. It has an uplift, a brilliant spirit.”


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