Although director Mark Cousins introduced this evening’s screening of The First Movie at Stratford Picturehouse, it was s a real shame that he was unable to stay to answer questions. As he apologetically explained, the strain of touring his new documentary around cinemas had made him ill. I’m sure it would have been fascinating – Cousins’ rhythmic Belfast drawl is such an essential part of the film, as is his personal motivation for making it.
Captivated by cinema as a child growing up in the north of Ireland in the 1970s, Cousins travelled to another beautiful place, Iraqi Kurdistan, where people have lived under the shadow of war. He spend 20 days in the village of Goptapa that was bombed with chemical weapons during Saddam Hussain’s genocidal Anfal campaign in 1988. His mission was to take films to the children of the village, including ET, the rather disturbing fairy-tale The Singing Ringing Tree and Palle Alone in the World, a Danish film about a child whose world becomes a playground when all the adults disappear. These were the first films Goptapa's kids had ever seen.
The real stars of The First Movie, if they can be described as such, were the children: playing with balloons, jumping around excitedly at their first glimpse of cinema and telling stories. But they were far more than the passive subjects of the documentary. Cousins also gave groups of children mini digital cameras to make their own short films and the result was the kind of access into the world of the village, from interviews with mothers explaining the loss of so many members of their families to father breaking their fast during Ramadan, that probably would have been impossible for an outsider. It also helped to turn the children, who had none of the experience of cinema that their European counterparts develop from an early age, into filmmakers themselves, whose imagination has the potential in Cousins' view to become more real than the wars fought around them.
It was immensely enjoyable and repeatedly very moving, with a superb and surprising choice of score, the gentle unravelling of Cousins’ personal reflections on the role of filmmakers and his attachment to one little boy, Mohammed, who filmed a friend playing by an irrigation channel because there was nowhere else to play, “giving his dreams to the mud”.
The First Movie is about as far away from the output of the Hollywood blockbuster machine as it is possible to be – and yet it is undoubtedly one of the best films I have seen this year. Kudos to my local cinema for screening it (rather than something pointlessly terrible like Vampires Suck).