Growing Up in War Zones

AFS Documentary Tour: 'The First Movie'

Mark Cousins
Mark Cousins

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and now a resident of Edinburgh, Scotland, Mark Cousins is not your conventional documentary-making bloke – and it's not just that heavily inflected, completely mesmerizing, blended accent of his that sets him apart. Cousins describes himself as a 15-year-old inside a 44-year-old's body and "a bit of a feardie." If the dictionary says a feardie is a Scottish coward, it's not clear how that applies to the former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival who once took the fest to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, during the siege; has driven a camper from Scotland to Mumbai, India; pens serious film books; and among myriad film projects, frequently collaborates with Tilda Swinton on fanciful ones, like the Scottish Cinema of Dreams, where they created a forest inside a Beijing theatre and made it snow feathers.

At any rate, we learn from Cousins' first-person narration (did I mention the accent?) in The First Movie that he got to wondering about the toll that growing up in a war zone takes on a child's fertile imagination. For the wee boy that he was in Belfast, Cousins found that growing up with guns and violence "tenderized him the way that meat is tenderized when it's battered." But curiously, he discovered over time that it was not the war in Northern Ireland that stuck in his memory but rather the beauty of the place. His recollections of the war, on the other hand, would feel unreal as time passed. And he distinctly recalls feeling reliably safe from the danger outside simply by slipping into a movie theatre – the "moviegoing was more real than war, too."

So, armed with a camera, some DVDs, and a hunch, Cousins (both the 44-year-old and the inner 15-year-old) set off for a week in the Kurdish village of Goptapa, Iraq (population 700), to see how the movies might resonate with the kids in a place where some pretty bad stuff has happened (and still does). What he finds in this sunbaked, sleepy village where days pass in dog-day afternoon monotony is that kids whose families were gassed by Saddam Hussein in the late Eighties' al-Anfal campaign today laugh at fart jokes and herd sheep and cattle before school. Cousins – a strong believer in the power of cinema, both on the screen and behind the lens – wanted to suss out what went on in the heads of these kids who, even without Hussein, live with the threat of violence. To the delight of the youth of Goptapa who'd never before seen a movie, Cousins sets up a makeshift outdoor theatre and shows a wide-ranging movie program (from E.T. to The Red Balloon). Later, the filmmaker hands out flip cameras to a few of the kids to see what use they'd make of them after watching their first movie.

Parts of The First Movie will feel familiar to those who've seen Steve James' Reel Paradise (2005), which chronicled what happened when John Pierson brought Hollywood movies to the residents of Fiji. Cousins presents his Goptapa experience as more of a personal essay, filtering it through his quirky sensibility and enhancing the stunning natural imagery with a sometimes jarring score. In the end, the films that the Goptapa kids make will bring their mentor up short and force him to reconsider his hypothesis about war being less real than the imagination.

The Chronicle recently swapped emails with the Edinburgh-based Cousins in advance of The First Movie's Austin screening on July 13.

Austin Chronicle: How did you pick Goptapa for this film?

Mark Cousins: We drove around Kurdistan looking at cities, towns, and villages.I soon realised that we needed to film somewhere small, a microcosm, so that I could get to know the kids. And, since this was my first time as a cinematographer, I wanted to choose somewhere that already had a visual shape to it – was already composed, as it were – to make the job of making imagery out of it easier.It's a wonderful, moving place.Also there's something slightly mythic about Goptapa – the river, etc. It wasn't easy getting there but the village was very welcoming.

AC: What did you conclude, after making the film, about the effect of movies on the emotional/psychological lives of children who (like yourself) have lived in places that have experienced war, conflict, or violence?

MC: Making movies is fun and therapeutic, I think. To see yourself, or what you filmed, on the big screen – that charmed, luminous, place – is exciting and confidence-building. Moviegoing in the western world is also fun because it's a group thing, part of a crowd, a social activity.In the Middle East, social gatherings in public spaces are not yet rare, and so the social element of moviegoing isn't as needed. But watching movies as a boy was, for me, amazing.It took me out of myself, to a place of greater quietude.

<i>The First Movie</i>
The First Movie

AC: Can you expand a bit on your experience growing up in Belfast, the conflict there and how it affected you – or "tenderized" you – and the role that movies played for you?

MC: Looking back, I think I flicked between totally happy and rather tense. Kids don't take long to change their moods. I saw the same in the Kurdish kids. My parents had a mixed marriage – one Catholic, one Protestant – so we had to keep a low profile. Famously, of course, every childhood is normal to the child in question, because that's all they know. I used the word "tenderised" because it was the best way I could think of capturing the degree of intensity but, also, the sense that such intensity can enrich.

AC: How would you describe your style of documentary-making?

MC: When we were prepping this film, I started calling it a "magic realist" documentary – to tell people that it would try to contain little dream sequences and touches of surrealism. When Kevin Macdonald and I did our book Imagining Reality, the Faber book and documentary, we came to see how polygeneric documentary is, how personal and playful and fun it can be, and that it isn't only about the pedagogic.

The shoot was hard because of the heat. A week seemed like a month.The edit was short but intense because we had a few executive producers and, inevitably, different people want different things. Much of the commentary was written in the moment – often as the camera was rolling.I loved that feeling of thinking as you are filming – that the shot sparks ideas. My other docs are more made for the small screen than the big.

AC: Aside from funding, what was the biggest challenge to making this film?

MC: I think I had a not too difficult time making the film. Maybe the hardest part was convincing people that it shouldn't be "straighter" – more like journalism, full of facts. I'm sure I woke up in the middle of the night worrying if I was right in this – ! – but it was how I saw it. The simplest thing in some ways was the deciding on the form – few camera moves, no reverse angles, few interviews, no pans or tilts.I wanted it to be simple, gentle, quietly confident visually.If we did it again I'd bring far more colourful material to make the cinema!It was supposed to be like a tent but I made it look like washing on a line!But even that was fun.

AC:Was all of the music in the film original? It was really wonderful.

MC: Glad you liked it. I kept saying to my editor, "We're making a musical."About a third of the music was original – by a brilliant Canadian composer, Melissa Hui.I listened to loads of composers, but many of them sounded a bit too jokey or commercial. I thought the music should be almost sacred. Movie houses are my cathedrals, and even though we made a ridiculously lo-fi, hand-knitted one, I wanted it to feel special.

AC: Now for the Tilda Swinton question: How did you two come to collaborate on your many whimsical traveling film projects together?

MC: I admired Tilda for years, of course and then, because we both live in Scotland, we met and had a laugh and each noticed how child-like the other was. Both of us are also passionate cinephiles.In our little festivals we try to do something enchanting.

The AFS Documentary Tour presents The First Movie on Wednesday, July 13, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz (320 E. Sixth). For ticket info, see

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The First Movie, Mark Cousins, AFS Documentary Tour, Tilda Swinton, Scottish Cinema of Dreams, Goptapa, Imagining Reality, Kevin Macdonald

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