Having grown up in Northern Ireland, filmmaker Mark Cousins knows the feeling of a childhood of surrounded by violence and terror. But he developed a passion for film that pushed him forward and upward, eventually sending him to Sarajevo in ’93 to deliver movies to those hungry for relief and escape. Now, he continues that line of thinking to a place more in need of “redescribing,” as he says, than perhaps any other in the world: Iraq. He’s not interested in the Iraq of cartoon newscasts, the one drowned in rhetoric and ugly carnage.
In his outstanding documentary The First Movie, he wants to find the innocence and hope that still remain there, bursting to life in its children. Cousins, his editor, four bodyguards/translators, and a small kit of filmmaking and editing equipment make the trip to Goptapa, a Kurdish/Iraqi farming village of about 700. The men are fastidiously observing the rituals of Ramadan in the mosque, leaving children to roam, herd, and play. The children toy with American-looking dolls but also with spare guns and bomb parts that litter the area. It’s an incongruous mix, but they laugh it off. They are happy to have a beautiful village, orchards, and livestock, and clean water and air. Although Cousins occasionally puts himself in danger with some navel-gazing that’s a little too on the nose, lacking in subtlety with his obvious voiceovers, he saves himself through painterly imagery, as well as the focus on the children.
But Cousins is really here for them anyway. He puts cameras in their hands and lets them film whatever they want. He wants to see how their lives, up to now almost entirely influenced by destruction, will shape what they create and whether imagination can conquer war. He is not disappointed. Cousins passes around a few high-def flip cameras to the kids, but before that he shows them their first movies — the first they’ve ever seen — projected against a white screen at night under vivid banners. The kids watch an Iraqi tale and a Technicolor Errol Flynn vehicle, but then comes E.T., and the children howl and whistle and cheer and laugh, loud enough to drown out the desert jackals just outside the village with their glee. It’s incredibly stirring, and it might be the best scene in the movie.
Then come the days of filmmaking. So what would such children create in their own movies? They offer anticipated but remarkable themes of love and family/brotherhood, as well as familiar cultural fables. And yet a genocide involving chemical warfare under Saddam’s regime (the Anfal, ’86-’89) figures prominently, too, even though surely all were born afterward. One boy tells the story of a fish that travels (or escapes) to a safe, magical place, and then Cousins’s camera fixes on the boy pointedly; he looks uncomfortable, as if he realizes that he revealed a vulnerable truth.
Another two boys recall an inherited fable of a chicken that works hard and asks for shared responsibility but wonders at the justice of those that don’t respond in kind. One group of girls sings a poem about a treasured mountain that is bombed by terrorizing airplanes. One boy directs a football match: Cheer after you score! Don’t swear on camera! Another interviews older village women and his mother, who burst into tears recounting the names of those lost in the genocide, as if to get the events on definitive record.
Lastly, there is “Little Mohammed.” Cousins had met him the year before while scouting locations. He was shy then, but now he’s gregarious and unusually wise; he gently takes care of local doves. Mohammed goes in another direction with his movie, shocking Cousins and us along with him. He films a young village boy playing with mud by a rivulet, giving him fictional thoughts, desires, and wishes. He projects a story with his camera, creating life from his imagination. It’s a simple clip, barely more than a minute long, but Cousins rightly hones in on it as significant. It’s important because Mohammed uses his camera as an “empathy machine,” as Cousins calls it. The boy consciously conjures a different image of Iraq for us.
This is what Cousins had set out to achieve, but he succeeds without seeming like he’s “won” an award or “beaten” a challenge. The First Movie argues and hopes that imagination like Mohammed’s will take the guns of that land away someday. When asked if there was still a lot of love in the world, the young boy says, “Yes,” and then smiles sweetly, as if the answer was already obvious.