TIFF 2014: Mark Cousins helps us see the war-scarred village of Goptapa, in Kurdish Iraq, through new eyes: the eyes of its children. This is a film inspired by the irrepressible spirit of youth, a spirit unbowed by the horrific gas attacks suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein.
Mark Cousins is one of that rare breed, of whom Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame) is another: the film-enthusiast-turned-director. Such students of film can become remarkable directors, but first they have to go beyond an understanding of cinematic language in the abstract, and turn it into the medium of their own self-expression. This is Cousins’s achievement, and hence his reputation as a film critic, though considerable, is now increasingly eclipsed by his stature as a filmmaker. Indeed, he has been heralded as an important pioneer of that relatively new form of visual self-expression: the film as essay.
In this ground-breaking work, Cousins the film-essayist takes us on a kind of study-tour to a remote village in Kurdish Iraq. His documentary strategy is an interesting one: to uncover some truths of this troubled place – the site of horrific gas attacks during the reign of Saddam Hussein – through its children. Thus he films them extensively but, perhaps more importantly, inculcates the children themselves into a new way of communicating. This, of course, is precisely that cinematic language in which Cousins has come to express himself so lucidly.
The first step is to show them films he hopes will inspire them, an eclectic mix of children’s ‘classics’, including the hugely successful yet underrated Hollywood blockbuster, E.T. These are screened with some considerable sense of occasion in the village square. Then, finally, he gives the kids their own cameras and the fun really begins!
The results of this experiment are quite fascinating. Nevertheless, the film betrays some weaknesses, which perhaps would be unsurprising to those familiar with the work of Cousins. His virtue – as well as his vice – is to make highly personal films. Here one feels the sense of personal engagement is undoubtedly a source of inspiration, especially in light of his own background as a child of Ulster’s own sectarian violence. It is nevertheless also a kind of baggage or ballast that at times seems to impede the objective at hand.
The film can seem too self-conscious and its premise presaged with a gravitas that is frankly overblown. There is much to admire in Cousins’s cinematography, for example, but this seems to have the role of a tour-de-force for its own sake more than to employ film, to use his own words, as ‘an empathy machine’.
The First Movie is nonetheless a very good film. For all its flaws, it has a rare capacity to touch us and to provide a glimpse of something new. I, for one, left the cinema with a new (or perhaps renewed) sense of the strength and creativity of children, and the hope for the future they offer, even in the apparently unpromising terrain of war-scarred Goptapa.
For all you film lovers out there, Cousins is a director worth watching. Moreover, The First Movie provides an interesting insight into the evolution of his craft, especially for those TIFF-goers who caught some of his more recent work. Some will doubtless remember his substantial documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, from 2011.