Mark Cousins, the man behind the exceptional recent The Story of Film series, channels his passion for film into this charming, unusual documentary that boldly gives voice to the perspectives of Kurdish children in Goptapa, Iraq.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime gassed this ethnic minority village during the genocidal campaign known as the Anfal, killing 14% of its population. Because Cousins grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, he strongly relates to how a child experiences the traumas of war. When he was young, he says he was ‘tenderised’ by the surrounding strife, but was able to take refuge in his homeland’s beauty and in the imagined worlds of films. The children of Goptapa are also haunted by conflict yet surrounded by a beautiful land – but they have no access to films or the escape they provide. Cousins believes that his personal experience shows how the daily threats of war could be kept at bay by nourishing his imagination; this spurs his quest is to see if film can work the same magic for Goptapa’s children as it did for him.
Cousins’ experiment of granting these children access to film as both consumers and producers envelops the audience in a dreamworld. He introduces Goptapa to imagination-sparking films, then distributes Flip cameras to the children and screens their footage as a parting gift. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the screenings, reminding us how movies can be mystical and bewitching. The kids’ films are unreal, rare insights into their values and experiences. Their footage is appreciably more raw, more honest than what we’d see from Western journalists. The older kids capture heart-breaking interviews of the adults of Goptapa, in which the interviewees speak quickly about their personal tragedies, as if it would hurt less that way. The younger kids focus more on fun, filming their friends and spinning stories, reminding us that they’re not so different from other kids.
However, even in the young ones’ films, we see a quiet despair. In young Mohammed’s film, a boy plays with mud because he has nothing else to play with; he ‘gives his wishes to the mud’. When asked who he loves, Mohammed says ‘those who protect this village’ – not his family or friends. Through the medium of film, we empathise with this wounded community, crippled by fear of persecution. By the end, Cousins modifies his assertion that film can make war feel less real – these children see film not as an escape but as a tool to help them fight toward better lives.
Cousins’ unique vision is a refreshingly thoughtful take on life in a war-scarred village; he skillfully juxtaposes Goptapa’s beautiful panoramas with its tragic history, deliberately steering well clear of the look and tone of an NGO advert. His esoteric visual style combines pastoral views with whimsical shots of wind, balloons and bubbles so that even in an ancient land fraught with conflict, we think of what it’s like to be a child and innocently imagine a world where anything’s possible. As such, The First Movie is a striking, original documentary, best watched when you crave an escape.
The First Movie is available on DVD now, released by Dogwoof.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License