We Survived The Story of Film
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We Survived The Story of Film

Hordes of diehard cinephiles come to Toronto during TIFF, but only a few lasted through the 15-hour epic documentary that tracks the entire global history of film.

Director Mark Cousins (front row, centre), Esther (to his left), and McNally (second row, second from right) with the fans who attended all five installments of The Story of Film. Photo from The Story of Film's Facebook page.

There are lots of things you can do with 15 hours, like fly from Toronto to Hong Kong, gain a working knowledge of a foreign language, or make 900 one-minute eggs one at a time. But last week some of TIFF’s most motivated—or masochistic, depending on how you look at it—movie buffs chose to spend that amount of time watching Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey.

Polly Esther and James McNally are two such documentary devotees who jumped at the chance to embark upon the cinematic journey, which examines innovation in film all the way from the silent era in the United States to today’s global digital age and everything between. From 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Monday to Friday last week, they could be found in the AGO’s Jackman Hall (as opposed to two larger eight- and seven-hour chunks split over the weekend), among a few fellow like-minded cinephiles. And Torontoist caught up with them shortly after the final installment in the seemingly never-ending story.

Torontoist: Why did you choose to watch The Story of Film?

James McNally: Well I’m a big documentary fan in general, and I’ve watched a lot of history documentaries, like [ones about] World War II, or the Civil War. So it’s combining two of my favourite things. And I always feel I don’t know enough about the history of movies […] and this just promised to be, you know, 15 hours and he’s going to go all over the world and tell you about films you’ve never seen.

Polly Esther: I’m also passionate about documentary, and this came up and it sounded fascinating. But the main thing with this was that it was free. I can’t really afford to see TIFF movies any more; I used to take my two-week vacation for it back in the day and get the pass and everything, but I haven’t been able to do that since 2000. It’s just gotten crazy. So it was fascinating on its own, but the fact that it was free, it was like “Oooh!” And the three-hour chunks Monday to Friday was also, like, “I can do this.”

Did you have a game plan going into the screenings?

Esther: Coffee.

McNally: I wasn’t sure if there was going to be any kind of break. There wasn’t, actually. They were one-hour episodes, so there were three episodes per day and they ran without a break. So the game plan was really—

Ester: Sit on the aisle.

McNally: Well, sit on the aisle. And with the coffee, you were going to need to get out, so I would wait for something I knew or a director I already knew.

Esther: It was harder because in the earlier stuff, I was like “I don’t want to miss anything.” And I thought it would be easier near the end of the week when I knew more about the films, but it wasn’t […] In the ’80s he was like, “I’m going to show you films from Turkey and Mexico” and it was just like “It’s fabulous, but at some point I’m going to have to pee.”

McNally: One of the questions every day was “When can I see this again?” Obviously, people don’t want to miss any of it […] but there’s 1,000 clips of 1,000 movies in this documentary.


McNally: The two mornings that I was hungover I had to depend on [Esther] to be there in line. And, to be honest, I thought it would always be packed. Like why not, it’s free, it’s about the history of film, it’s a film festival, people who love movies are going to be there. But, sadly, it wasn’t full. It got fuller as the week went on. But it was great to be there for the whole thing.

So, what is the story of film?

Esther: Well, it’s interesting, I knew so much about most [other documentaries about film], but I’d say that only about 10 per cent of that was in those 15 hours. So, really, 90 per cent was completely new stuff for me. I knew about most of the stuff around, but he decided, “No, I’m going to take you to the animation boom in Czechoslovakia.” That I had no idea about. And my passion is Iranian cinema, and a lot of people were excited to see that on screen.

McNally: [Mark Cousins] is a very idiosyncratic guy. I was interested in him because he’s kind of an academic but not really. He’s good friends with Tilda Swinton the actress, and they did this film festival I think only 40 people could go to, and they set up their screens in these tiny villages in Scotland, and I thought “He’s interesting. He’s got a unique perspective.” But it wasn’t very academic; it was very personal […] I loved the connections he made between things that I never would think about, how someone has influenced somebody else.

Where does it begin?

McNally: It was framed as, not a history of studios or development in film, but a history of innovation in film. So the things he focused on were the equipment and technology to create film, and the language they had to develop to talk about film, and things like editing and cuts, and camera angles, and continuity and all these things—they were all brand new. In the first 10 or 20 years of film, they had to figure out all that stuff. Like, the director, what do they do? And this is all even before sound. And people had never seen moving images before—

Esther: Yeah, the train coming into the station!

McNally: People were freaking out. So they had to figure out how to tell stories this way. When you cut from one place to another, they weren’t sure if people would get that you were still in the same story, so they had to experiment. That was fascinating.

How how does it end?

Esther: With Avatar, and the technology…

McNally: No, there was a film called Russian Ark that came out in 2002. I mean, it’s not the newest film but it was an innovation in that it was a 90-minute film made with no cuts.

Esther: It was one take.

McNally: I guess it was an innovation in that the technology we have today allows you to do that in film, and not only film, in digital. There’s no end, really, it just keeps going. Who knows what’s going to happen? I don’t know if there’s going to be another one; it’s just kind of hard to know when to stop.

What was your favourite part?

McNally: My favourite part was his doing the Q&As after. He’s from Belfast, and he has this really nice gentle brogue. In the film, his narration is very soothing and meditative, but in person he’s like this little imp and animated and excitable. […] I think he said that we were the first audience to see the whole thing, so it gave the feeling that they were still kind of working on it and finishing it.

Esther: For me it was, maybe the ’30s that was most interesting. That was the first decade he really took us in a direction I didn’t know about and wasn’t expecting. Though, at one point I asked him which decade he found the most fascinating as a film watcher and which decade he found most fascinating as a researcher for this project. And he said as a watcher it was the ’70s.

Were you alone in your excitement, or was it shared?

Esther: There were about eight of us who would always be lined up as early as possible. So it was always “Hello! How are you?”

McNally: I would say there were about 20-30 people that were there every day […] It was almost like summer camp; by the end we kind of knew the director well, the producer, they were really approachable.

Esther: I was sad, you know, before [Friday’s screening] even started, I was like “What am I going to do tomorrow?”

McNally: Another of our friends, she was only there for four days because she found out about it Monday night, but at the Q&A she was thanking him. And she’s only about 20, she’s quite young, and she was choking up a little bit. Just like “Thank you for doing this!”

Esther: Yeah, that was so sweet.

McNally also wrote about his experience on his film blog, Toronto Screenshots.