In a world where the Adam Sandler fiasco Jack and Jill makes $68 million at the box office, it’s easy to forget that movies are pretty much magic.
But that’s the dominant theme of a new documentary coming to Boedecker Theater Dec. 26 to Dec. 31: the magical sense of childlike wonder that cinema can evoke.
The dreamlike, meditative documentary The First Movie, written and directed by Mark Cousins, takes viewers to a world far away from Adam Sandler — far, in fact, from not just the garbage of cinema, but its high points, too. The kids of Goptapa, Iraq, had never seen a film before, as demonstrated by their reaction when Cousins showed them a scene from the 1956 film The Red Balloon.
“When the balloons went up in the air,” Cousins says, “the kids started to grab up in the air as if the balloons were really there. They had no sort of ironic distance. They were trying to reach up to help him.”
Cousins traveled to the mostly Kurdish northern Iraqi town in September 2009 to film the children of Goptapa and have the children film themselves, distributing cameras to let them tell their story.
Slow and poetic, Cousins’ film captures a child’s perspective of the town, often using group interviews in which he, through a translator, asks the kids about life in Goptapa and what stories they’d like to tell. Then he weaves in the children’s videos. Some, frenetic and cheerful, depict soccer games and jokes; others, somber and direct, show interviews with family members affected by the Anfal genocide in Iraq in the late 1980s, before the children were born.
The more recent Iraq War didn’t affect Goptapa as much as some other areas, Cousins says, but residents still had to deal with the consequences of the conflict.
“They are some of the few people who overwhelmingly welcomed the incursion,” he says. “But even though they’re not directly in the theater of war, the war raises the temperature of the whole country. You can feel it everywhere.”
Cousins speaks from experience. At 46, the Northern Irish filmmaker recalls witnessing The Troubles, the ethnic and religious conflict that gripped Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until 1998.
“Why am I here, filming this place?” Cousins asks in voice-over during the film. “The answer begins 40 years ago with this wee boy.”
We see Cousins himself as a baby, sitting in a chair with his twin brother and crawling around. He draws parallels between his childhood in Northern Ireland and the Iraqi children. He says he included himself because he saw the stories as intertwined.
“I started to realize how much I was identifying with those kids and my childhood during the war,” he says.
Cousins says his childhood, like the children he saw in Iraq, was only colored by the war, not dominated by it.
“Even though there’s a war, so many other things are happening in the children’s lives, like the complete freedom to roam, and a river you can jump in all the time, and the closeness of animals,” Cousins says. “In the film, they say, ‘We’re happy every day. We’re happy when we wake up.’ I remembered my childhood in a similar way.”
Cousins first traveled through the Middle East as part of a multi-continental road trip, and the region left a lasting impression — he says it was the best part of the trip. He chose to document Iraq because he felt a need to offset common conceptions of the Middle East.
“The more I spent time in the Middle East the more I realized how different it is [from the typical media depiction],” he says. He says he hopes The First Movie can illustrate that the region’s not as foreign as many think.
He also felt a connection to the children’s world.
“I always felt quite childlike myself in my work,” he says. “I’m always interested in enchantment.”
Which, he says, brings him back to film itself and its power to captivate the imagination. He and his crew set up Goptapa’s first theater, sewing together bed sheets and projecting classic children’s films from around the world.
“When the screenings finished,” he says, “the children would scream and dance and cheer and it was wonderful. We were crying. It was joyful and fun and delightful.”
Among the films Cousins showed was E.T., and the children cheered wildly at the climax.
“My film isn’t a tragedy,” he says.
“I think what we see is the life force and sense of optimism in these children and their absolute determination just to go on.”