Mark Cousins Fights to Banish Banality, and Find New Ways of Looking at the World

Mark Cousins Fights to Find New
Courtesy of Sheffield DocFest

You might find yourself looking at the world in a very different way after watching Mark Cousins’ latest documentary “The Story of Looking,” the closing night film of this year’s Sheffield DocFest.

It’s an uplifting meditation on the power of looking, all at a time when we are more assailed by images than ever. The film begins as Cousins is preparing for surgery to restore his vision, and sees him explore the role that visual experience plays in our lives. It’s a kaleidoscopic, idiosyncratic and deeply personal project – almost a call for the viewer to embrace the “mindfulness” of looking.

Cousins has been making films for more than 30 years, including the Peabody Award winning 15-hour “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.”

He thinks we’re living through a golden age of documentaries, although it’s not without problems.

On the plus side, as filmmaking kit has become more accessible, “never before have there been so many voices, so many styles.”

However, Cousins reckons the market is oversupplied. “There are loads of terrible documentaries being made. The challenge is how to navigate the meteor storm of documentary. It feels like they are coming at us in their thousands.”

Cousins also thinks there’s a danger of certain types of formulaic documentaries dominating the market. He cites thriller docs as an example; before they even start, we know what the music and the “eking out of the story” will be, he says.

These dominant formulae make it hard for directors who are working with small budgets, but trying to innovate with form. Indeed, for Cousins the biggest challenge for documentary filmmakers is the same as it always has been: to avoid banality, and to find a new way of looking at the world.

That’s certainly what he attempts to do in “The Story of Looking,” which knits together its thesis with images of events and experiences that he has filmed largely on his own 4K camera – from a man standing on an Edinburgh rooftop chimney, through to trees being knocked down, or a power station being blown up. “I film every single day…filming just makes me happy. I love it,” says Cousins.

In many ways, he sees his documentary as something of a metaphor for the life of a filmmaker. During “The Story of Looking,” we see Cousins given a new lens for one of his eyes. “Every documentary maker is, in a way, trying to get a new lens. That’s what we’re trying to do – to remove the cataracts, the blurs of everyday life, and the tired, exhausted ways of seeing – and to see afresh, either the tragedy or rapture of life.”

Another big challenge for documentary makers is that of making a living, and building a sustainable career. It’s tough, acknowledges Cousins, who says that he can do so because he typically makes two or three films a year. Coming up is an update of “The Story of Film,” taking in the past ten years of moviemaking titled, “The Story of Film: A New Generation.” There’s also “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas,” a film about the legendary British film producer.

“I work really fast, and edits are really short,” he explains, pointing out that he also works with similar teams. (“The Story of Looking” is produced by regular collaborators Mary Bell and Adam Dawtrey). “So, we keep the costs down.”

“The Story of Looking” was also helped along its way by “two amazing women,” Barbara Timmer and Catherine Benkaim, says Cousins.

He was at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival when Timmer and Benkaim – who come from art history backgrounds and liked his previous films – made a philanthropic, five figure offer to help complete the film. “I immediately started crying,” says Cousins, noting that in the U.K. there isn’t much of tradition of film funding philanthropy like this. “But that’s what happened – and so they helped complete the film.”