A century of cinema

From the Wild West to Bristol, Mark Cosgrove – Watershed’s film curator and the founder of Cinema Rediscovered – speaks to Alexis Herrington about how film transcends time and place…

In a world dominated by the worship of individuality, our sense of community seems to be crumbling. We often see ourselves as lone heroes, our egos making us forget that the walk of life isn’t meant to be a solo journey.

A friend once expressed to me that she couldn’t understand the societal praise for the hero archetype. In every film or TV series, isn’t the best friend the most beloved character, while the hero is forced to endure the greatest difficulties and make the largest sacrifices? The best friend supports the hero, provides perspective, and delivers comedic relief. Without them, there would often be no story. Ever since then I have been asking myself the question – why is individuality today’s greatest commodity?

Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces is a 1938 American crime drama film about friendship, identity and coming of age. The film follows childhood friends Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) who part ways as Rocky becomes a criminal and Jerry a priest dedicated to influencing the youth of the neighbourhood. Their paths cross again when Rocky becomes idolised by some of the young boys under Jerry’s watch. The film explores themes such as morality and the evolution of human character.

From Buenos Aires to Cannes to Toronto to Berlin, film festivals scatter the globe, bringing people together through an appreciation for cinema. By uniting us through spectatorship, films show us that we are never as different from our neighbours as we may think, and remind us that the weight of the sky is not meant for our shoulders alone.

Film transcends not only place, but also time. Tales of heroes and villains, friendship, love and loss have been passed down through generations. Every battle has already been fought and there are no new tears to shed. Humanity’s repetitive nature is beautiful and unifying – to be human means to cry, laugh, and dream.

In the modern day, the process of storytelling has evolved onto the screen. Over a century of cinema allows us to reflect on those who existed before us, and also how we intend to play our part. By showing us the infinite possibilities of life, film teaches us about our world and how we each fit into it. Perhaps, you’re not the hero in this ultimate story. Maybe you are the best friend, the mentor, or the confidant. In the words of poet John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. By granting us this perspective, film serves as a reminder that we exist not to project but to experience and to learn. This is why not just films, but specifically old films, are so important to revisit.

In Bristol, this ode to the past exists in the form of the Cinema Rediscovered festival at the beloved Watershed cinema in the city’s Harbourside. Cinema Rediscovered, described by film magazine Sight & Sound as “the UK’s leading festival dedicated to classic cinema”, is an annual celebration of films reminding us of those in whose footsteps we are following.

Arguably Sergio Leone’s greatest Spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West is an absolutely classic Wild West film. The story follows a set of iconic characters in a fictional Arizona town called Flagstone. The film contains everything you could possibly want from a Spaghetti Western – drama, mystery, a dispute over land, and a harmonica.

The creative mind behind Cinema Rediscovered is Mark Cosgrove: Watershed’s film curator and the founder and co-curator of the festival. It is a given that to love film is to love humanity, and Mark has proven to be a great example of this. He has spent his life entranced by the power of film to evoke emotion. Through his own experiences as a viewer as well as a curator, Mark has witnessed the immediate impact that a quality film can have on the individual.

In time for this year’s festival, we caught up with Mark to gain some insight into the life of the man who continually reminds us all that we belong to a greater whole.

Tell us about where your love for film first began…

As a pre-teen youngster watching Saturday matinees in the late 1960/early 70s era of Jimmy Cagney/Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne films ironically on television. They were my early entry into the cinematic world of Hollywood. It was seeing Kaneto Shindo’s atmospheric and haunting Onibaba late one night that switched me onto the wider world of film. Angels With Dirty Faces had one of the biggest impacts: Cagney’s performance as gangster Rocky Sullivan was spellbinding and the ending – his lonely walk to salvation – always brought a tear to the eye.

If we want to understand each other and the world we live in then I feel it is important we have access to the range of stories on film.

Melvin Van Peebles’ The Story of a Three-Day Pass is a film about an African American soldier named Turner (Harry Baird) on leave in Paris for three days, during which time he experiences a romantic connection with a French woman named Miriam (Nicole Berger). Their relationship is tested by external racial prejudice and the couple’s impending separation. The film explores these themes while delivering a romance nothing short of unforgettable.

Tell us about your career so far and your involvement with the Cannes and Berlin film festivals…

I’ve worked in independent cinema exhibition since 1987 when I started programming the cinema at Plymouth Arts Centre. That was followed by some time at Cornerhouse – now HOME – in Manchester. The bulk of my time has been at Watershed though where I started in 1993 (I know, I can’t believe it either!) As a boy from Glasgow it took me a while to relax into the more laid back Bristol vibe. I’ve been fortunate to see Bristol really develop as a major cultural destination and with a rich and varied film exhibition scene with everything from pop-ups to multiplexes via indies. At Watershed, we try to bring the range of world cinema to Bristol. There are so many interesting films from countries other than Hollywoodland, which can sadly get overlooked in the clamour and noise of the blockbuster. I see a lot of these films at festivals like Cannes and Berlin where the global film industry meets. Films from Chile, Tunisia, Iceland, Singapore, Senegal and many more. If we want to understand each other and the world we live in then I feel it is important we have access to the range of stories on film.

What led you to creating Cinema Rediscovered in 2016? How do you feel that watching films from the past can teach us about humanity in the present, and what is it about film that you feel can transcend time so effectively?

In the mid-noughties I became aware of the audience’s appetite to see older films in the cinema. I hate the word ‘older’ as it can somehow have negative, dismissive connotations when applied to film. Cinema now has a long illustrious history – well over 100 years – and seeing this history on the screen, for which they are made for, is a unique experience (especially given the growth of computer(s) and other more solitary viewing platforms). Back circa 2005 I remember putting on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and our main cinema was packed with older teens and twenty somethings who were seeing this masterpiece in the cinema for the first time. Around this time I was going to Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna which is the mecca for film restorations and presenting the past of cinema. Seeing restorations of films like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl playing to packed cinemas and especially in their 5,000-seat open air piazza, you sense the power and impact film can have. I came back determined to recreate that impact in Bristol and, working with a great group of the city’s cinephiles, we set the festival up. That power and impact is to do with the collective experience of watching a film and also the power of film to communicate emotion and ideas.

Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun is a film about childhood memory and familial love. It depicts Sophie (Frankie Corio) on holiday with her father Calum (Paul Mescal) as remembered by Sophie in the future. Its retrospective quality allows the viewer to empathise through the lens of their own childhood memories.

Can you talk us through the curating process at Watershed? What qualities, themes or topics stand out to you as having the ability to create a potentially impactful film?

We primarily want to bring that broader range of world films to Bristol and remind people that there is more to cinema than Hollywood blockbusters but we also want to explore thematic connections across the history of cinema and take a deeper dive into those themes so we curate monthly seasons. Also, we work in partnership with a variety of organisations and community groups to platform different aspects of film culture such as Afrika Eye, Hong Kong Film Festival on Tour and the Japan Foundation. As well as with, for example, UWE Philosophy and Politics Dept to create events which open up discussion about different aspects of what a film is saying about society, identity, politics.

The second question is difficult but I’d say first up a film has to draw you in, command your attention. Now this doesn’t mean to say it’s action packed. The reverse can be true. Two examples of this are Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi. Both films are slow paced and around three hours long but you get absorbed into the characters’ rhythms and their lives to quite a profound emotional effect. I think taking you on an authentic journey is key. It can be a maze, it can be surprising, but the conviction of the filmmaker will come through and convince.

Michael Haneke’s Amour tells the story of an elderly couple, Anne and Georges. After Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) has a stroke that paralyses half of her body, George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) cares for her despite his own difficulties and frustrations. The film depicts the hardships of elderly life and the persistence of love through the passage of time.

What drew you to Bristol in particular? In your view, how has Bristol’s UNESCO City of Film global status positively impacted its local community?

Because in 1993 Watershed was one of the leading independent cinemas in the UK (and I’d like to think I’ve maintained that status). The UNESCO status has been a brilliant recognition of the incredible depth of film and television making in the city from Aardman to the BBC and now Channel 4. The creative talent in Bristol is fantastically rich and increasingly diverse.

What are your top 3 favourite films that you’ve screened at Watershed so far, and why?

Melvin van Peebles’ The Story of a Three Day Pass: We screened this at Cinema Rediscovered. A very real discovery of the long lost film from Black American pioneer.

Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun: A beautiful filmic memory which emotionally connects with your own childhood memories.

Michael Haneke’s Amour: I’ve never experienced such an intense atmosphere in an auditorium after a film. The audience watched the credits roll and did not move, the house lights went up and they still didn’t move. They were transfixed by the film and wanted to stay with its emotion.