During lockdown multi-prized film director and historian Mark Cousins found out he had a problem with his eyesight. He decided to turn it into a film in which he imagines “the momentous role that looking has played in his own life and the history of humanity,” as the logline reads.
Cousins’ latest film, which is based on his book “The Story of Looking,” is being presented as a work-in-progress at Switzerland’s Visions du Réel festival. It marks the latest of several film essays from Cousins who made his name with the Peabody Award winning 15-hour “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” His “Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema” scored the award for innovative storytelling at the European Film Awards last December. Cousins also won a special Cannes Camera d’Or commendation in 2018 for “The Eyes of Orson Welles.”
“The Story of Looking,” which is produced by Adam Dawtrey and Mary Bell’s Bofa Productions, is already booked as the closer for the Sheffield Doc/Fest in June.
Cousins spoke to Variety about his latest project which appears to be his most personal journey. Edited excerpts.
How did your latest project originate?
In school I was bad at reading, but good at looking. And when you look at our football teams and our engineering schools – and of course our film industry – it’s full of people who are pretty good at looking. So I wanted to sort of tell a story of looking. I first wrote a book called “The Story of Looking” (in 2017) in English [translated in various countries]. The idea then was to make a detailed film about looking in science, and sports and so on. But then COVID happened and lots of us had to rethink everything. So we rethought this film, and I realized that I had been filming everyday for 20 years, so I had thousands and thousands of shots. My producers and I realized we could still make the film without traveling anywhere, using all the shots I had on my computer and making a kind of kaleidoscope.
From reading the synopsis my impression is there is also a more closely personal aspect
After I wrote the book I got a diagnosis of quite a bad eye cataract. I did one of these DNA tests that told me I had one of the genes for macular degeneration. So these were two things that might challenge my eyesight.
Looking had always been such a pleasure for me. It was closely related to my happiness. Now maybe there was a risk that it could go. So during the filming I had an eye operation where they removed the cataract and added a new lens, and so that became part of the film. We actually filmed the process of cutting into my eye and the placing of the lens, etc. So that became a kind of jeopardy you could say, or certainly an unexpected element in the film.
It seems that there lots of different visual, philosophical and historical elements
Yes. I’ve used paintings, for example, I looked at how Frida Khalo looked at her own body, and there is a section on bodies. There is a section on how we look at the Holocaust; how did we look at the terrible atrocity, with images that you see on YouTube. But it’s mostly to do with the pleasure of looking, the rapture of looking. It has different tones; sometimes it’s philosophical and sometimes it’s simple and joyous. I think particularly under lockdown, and in the last year, most of us didn’t go many places, and most of us haven’t seen many things. It [lockdown] was almost like being in an edit suite. Like being in your own head in a dark room looking at images. That’s what lockdown felt like to me: a very long edit. So we tried to capture some of that.
My impression is a key aspect is just appreciating that we can see things and maybe connecting that to the way things have been seen throughout time
The film starts with Ray Charles talking about being blind, and how he didn’t feel that he needed to see again, because he’d seen his mother and the sun and the stars. And of course he’s wonderful and we admire him. So I start by saying he’s probably right: we don’t need to keep seeing things. But by the end of film I sort of say: ‘Actually, he’s wrong.’ That’s kind of the conclusion of it.
How does ‘Story of Looking’ fit in with your body of work?
People who know my work, they probably know my work with cinema, like “Story of Film.” But I’ve made films about other subjects, like childhood and recovery. I was born in Northern Ireland during the troubles and a lot of my films have been about how people live through bad times and get better. The fortitude or resilience of human beings. This is another story of that [type], really. I see that in all my movies, and it’s very much to the fore in this one. It’s one of my most optimistic films.
Can you talk about the visual materials?
What people see when they look at this film will be a really global story. Because I’ve been lucky enough to film in Iran, and Africa and China and all over the U.S. and the North of Scandinavia. I became my own cinematographer a long time ago. Therefore we are seeing images from around the world. That’s what strikes people when they see this. The other thing is its range. There is some tragic stuff and there is some sad stuff, but as I mentioned before there is quite a lot of affirmation in it. Quite a lot of the film I’m lying in bed in a dark room imagining what’s happening in the outside world. So it slightly refers to the COVID times, but it feels quite affirmative.