Michael Rosser talks to Mark Cousins about his latest documentary, which has its world premiere in Cannes Classics tonight [May 3].

After making the epic documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, it will surprise some that Mark Cousins has already made another history of the movies.

But the writer-director has turned his focus onto movies aimed at younger viewers for A Story of Children and Film, which is part of the Cannes Classics line-up.

Cousins told Screen that its genesis was unconventional. “This film happened because, one day last November, I filmed my niece and nephew playing for 12 minutes – a single shot,” he recalls.

“I looked at the shot afterward and saw the gamut of kids’ emotions and behaviour in it. Each emotion reminded me of films like E.T. and Night of the Hunter, and lots of others from Africa, Iran, Japan, etc.

“In chatting to a producer friend, I suddenly thought that I could make a film based on that 12-minute shot.”

Chronicling more than 100 years of cinema would be a daunting task for anyone so Cousins turned to friends and experts.

“As I wanted the selection of films to be as wide as possible, I asked friends in Sweden and Prague, and the great film historian and collector Neil McGlone to suggest films I might not know about,” he says.

What emerged was how different countries portray childhood. Cousins explains: “The Iranians are very good at the stroppiness of childhood while Japanese films frequently show the wariness of kids. British and Soviet films are great on social class and childhood.”

The best films about kids, according to Cousins, are Willow and Wind by Mohammed-Ali Talebi, Ten Minutes Older by Herz Frank, E.T. by this year’s Cannes jury head Steven Spielberg, Moving by Shinji Somai, Yellow Earth by Chen Kaige, Crows by Dorota Kedzierzawska, Bag of Rice by Mohammed-Ali Talebi and The White Balloon by Jafar Panahi.

“I was looking for what you could call ‘self-portrayal’,” he adds. “Those movies where the child actors are off on one… out on a limb… in the zone.”

As for the first film Cousins ever saw in a cinema: “Herbie Rides Again!”

Produced by Adam Dawtrey and Mary Bell, A Story of Children and Film is presented by the BFI, Film4 and BofA Productions and sold by HanWay Films.