Interview: Mark Cousins - The First Movie
Documentary on experiment introducing the children of Iraq to cinema
Mark Cousins most recent adventure took him to Kurdistan on a mission to spread his love of cinema. Miles Fielder catches up with him
Belfast-born, Edinburgh-resident Mark Cousins has been involved with cinema in many ways. He’s hosted the BBC’s cult film seasons Moviedrome, directed the Edinburgh International Film Festival and made the Beeb’s Scene by Scene profiles series. He co-edited with Kevin Macdonald the book of essays on documentary filmmaking, Imagining Reality, and has made some docs himself, including 2005’s Cinema Iran. He also wrote a history of world cinema titled The Story of Film, which he is currently adapting into a 12-hour documentary. And two years ago he and pal Tilda Swinton staged an alternative film festival in Nairn and followed that last year by dragging a mobile cinema from one coast of Scotland to the other.
As if that wasn’t enough, now Cousins has made The First Movie. It’s a documentary in which Cousins travels to a Kurdish village in Iraq (Gotapa, site of ethnic cleansing under Saddam Hussein), where he introduces the local children to films and gets them to make their own. His central thesis is that imagination, embodied in cinema, is more real to children than war – something Cousins identifies with through his own childhood in Northern Ireland. As conceived, scripted and shot with numerous cinematic flourishes by Cousins, The First Movie is something more than a straightforward documentary. Maybe it is Cousins’ first real movie.
‘I had been to Kurdistan and loved the vitality of the place and wanted to capture that,’ Cousins says. ‘I have become increasingly interested in kids and imaginative development, so I wrote a treatment for the film calling it “the first magic realist documentary”.’
To get the film made, Cousins had to contend with 45-degree heat, regular power cuts, the language gap, killer scorpions, Iraqi secret police and, most disturbingly, what he calls ‘the ubiquity of guns’. These challenges aside, he got to spend three wonderful weeks with the children, who loved the films he showed in a makeshift outdoor cinema – The Red Balloon and ET among them – and who also proved surprisingly adept at making their own. Cousins found the whole experience moving and enlightening.
‘I make a film to work out what I think,’ Cousins says, ‘about war and not-war, about my own upbringing in Belfast, about my passionate love affair with film. These things came into focus for me in Iraq. I saw that I was not wrong to assert the non-tragic aspects of war – the everyday life, the placeness of a place. But I came to realise that these things co-exist with the sadness. There’s sometimes a flicker between happiness and sadness, beauty and despair. They don’t always cancel each other out.’
Finally, is the title of Cousins’ film a play on Dennis Hopper’s cult classic? ‘I love Dennis Hopper’s film The Last Movie,’ Cousins says, ‘which is about Hollywood arriving in a South American village, making a western, then leaving. In the aftermath, the locals make cameras out of bamboo – it’s as if they have become hooked on the drug of filming. I wanted a similar story, but with the opposite meaning; I was interested in the imaginative rather than exploitative properties of filming. The cameras my kids get are real.’
The First Movie, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Wed 5 May.