by Mark Cousins
In January, EatDrinkFilms has been sharing some highlights from our past year with newer readers. This week brings an early piece by filmmaker Mark Cousins, whose latest feature 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia just screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
The link between food and film should be one of affinity. Both are pleasures. Each is from the world of Dionysus rather than Apollo. As well as these things, however, the relationship between eating and cinema has, for me, darker tones. It is a film noir as well as an MGM musical.
Twice in my life, food and film have squared up to each other in bizarre dissonance, whose atonalities have haunted me ever since. The first was in my mid-teens. I was living in Belfast in Northern Ireland. It was the early 1980s, the Troubles were ongoing, and nearly everyone saw movies on black market VHS tapes. For some years, my aunt and I had bonded over our love of horror cinema. I was too young to see films like Friday the 13th , but hearing about them made me hungry for them, for cinema, for fun fear. Eventually, my aunt got hold of a bootleg copy of The Exorcist and we sat down to watch it. To double the pleasure, we had plates of fish and chips to tuck into as the movie played. My aunt worked in a café, from where she got chunky frozen chips, which always tasted nicer to us. Then, just before she pressed play on the VCR, she got a small bottle of holy water and blessed the player. And, as she did so, I splashed vinegar on my chips.
The combination, the visual rhyme of the water and the vinegar, was like an Eisenstein montage. One plus one equalled three. The film we were about to watch was apparently so potent that God’s water had to be invoked to protect us from its iniquity. And, somehow, my splashing vinegar on my food made me feel like a celebrant priest; and the food was good, counteracting the bad that we were about to see. I think of this moment now, and laugh at its slow motion, kitschy intensity, and its unintended suture of movies and the sacred in my teenage imagination, but the second linkage of food and film was, for me, rather more troubling.
It took place about 14 years later, in Sarajevo in the early 90s, during that city’s terrible siege in which 10,000 people died. At the time, I was in my late 20s, and director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. A group of young activists in Sarajevo, formed around the Obala Art Center, had written to the directors of film festivals around the world, asking them to bring films to the city to show in an improvised underground city, in defiance of the siege. I went willingly—it seemed obvious that we should act in solidarity with the besieged movie lovers. These were the days before wheelie bags, and I was to travel from Croatia to Bosnia in a military plane, and then from the airport in an armored personnel carrier, so I couldn’t carry lots of stuff but, after packing about two dozen VHS tapes of recent films, I filled what space I had left with Scottish oat cakes and cheese.
Neither growing up in Belfast, nor the news reports of the Bosnia bombings, prepared me what it would feel like to be there. There was a kind of dumbstruck civic silence. A sense that all that was solid had melted into air. People still smoked and made coffee where it was available, but Sarajevo had become a war movie set of shocked seriousness. My hosts treated me to a traumatized show-and-tell: places that had once housed characters, communities, affinities, affiliations were like landfill.
I was shown the little makeshift cinema which, to my eyes, because it was a sign of life and defiance, was the most beautiful cinema in the world. The video projections were poor quality, but their meaning was immense. They was flickering and luminous, like eternal flames. As I watched the films, and the audience, I began to see how art heals the wounds of war. After the first screening, we went to get some food—a small blini pancake wrapped around boiled potato and some spices. The portion was starter size, and that’s all there was to eat. I went back to where I was sleeping—a derelict room high up in an industrial building—and slept. Next morning, I was desperately hungry. I looked at the cheese and oatcakes which I had brought as gifts and, as I lay in bed, separated one block of cheese and one packet of oat cakes from the rest, and put the two in my bag. I brought the rest—perhaps six more of each—downstairs to the meeting room, and gave them to my new Bosnian friends.
They were, of course, very pleased to see more food, and shared it out. I smiled, but felt ashamed. I was only going to be there a week, and could easily survive on their rations, but had selfishly kept some back. I did this out of panic, my decision came in a flash of fear of hunger. I didn’t consider that the Sarajevans had been hungry for months, and had kept going and, through that hunger, had invented a cinema and an ethos for it. If cinema was helping healing the wounds of war, my greed had opened a small wound in me. I thought that I was physically courageous, but keeping the cheese and biscuits had damaged the image I had of myself. Sarajevo was a healing and an unhealing.
My teenage years were haunted by images of Regan in The Exorcist, but my adulthood has been haunted by something paler, a misty watercolored memory of the way I was in Sarajevo: brave and weak, daring but also greedy. The cheese, oatcakes and underground cinema are, of course, as unrelated as the holy water and vinegar. There is no link between them, except in the story of my life, or in the way that yellow and blue-black sit side by side in some paintings by Van Gogh. They are part of a picture, its expressivity and feeling.
Mark Cousins is a Northern Irish filmmaker, writer and curator who lives in Scotland. A former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, his books include Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (with Kevin Macdonald), Watching Real People Elsewhere, and The Story of Film, which was published around the world. He adapted it into a 930 minute film, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which won the Stanley Kubrick Award from Michael Moore, and more recently a Peabody Award for the Turner Classic Movies broadcast of the series, which aired last Fall on TCM from September through December. All 15 installments of The Story of Film: An Odyssey are currently available to watch instantly on Netflix or Show Box and are available for purchase on DVD through our affiliate link at Amazon.com. Cousins’ follow-up The Story of Children in Film recently screened at the 57th edition of the San Francisco Film Festival.