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The First Movie

Lucinda H. Dunn

So why did Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins choose to make his latest documentary film ‘The First Movie’ in Kurdish Iraq?

Some years back Cousins made a trip in his camper van from Edinburgh to India. Of the places he visited he became most excited about Kurdish Turkey, Kurdish Iraq and Iran. “Kurdish people sing like Irish people. I identified with the place and wanted to make a film about a place I loved the vitality of,” he explains.

Unlike the many other documentaries made in recent years, Cousins’ motivation was not political: “If people want to get a socio-political context they can watch CNN.” In fact Cousins says Westerners have a lot to learn from these people. He talks of their resilience: “It’s like Abbas Kiarostami’s film, ‘Life goes on’. They keep going. They haven’t had the hope bombed out of them”. 

Kurdish Iraq is an autonomous region with independent oil wealth and relative security. The capital city Erbil is coated with dust from ongoing construction works, but the rest of the land - as we see in Cousins’ film – remains untouched, so far. However The Kurdistan Regional Government has major aspirations to develop it, using Dubai as a role model. Cousins does not agree: “They are already ahead of Dubai in heart and soul and culture. No, don’t go there!”

Living in the West, Cousins’ experience of the negative side effects of power and money has sensitised him to more humane and poetic interpretations of life. “When there’s a lot of money flushing around a city like London it slightly malforms the place. It is slightly toxic. And people think you can buy your freedom, your quietude, your identity: That leads to a certain cynicism.”

His first introduction to the cultural poetics of the region came through Iranian cinema. While researching his book ‘The Story of Film’ he felt his interests begin to migrate: “It was at the time when Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Where Is The Friend’s House’ came out. And it was such a revelation. It was so magnificent that I sort of shifted the geometry in my head towards Iranian cinema.”  Then in 2005 he filmed an eight-part documentary series for the UK’s Channel 4 entitled ‘Cinema Iran’, for which he interviewed filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf. 

Cousins quotes Kiarostami on Iranian cinema saying ‘Our cinema is poor on the outside and rich on the inside’. He agrees, adding that “whereas western cinema seemed to value irreverence, Iranian cinema seemed to value reverence”. Influenced by these new interpretations the filmmaker in him responded. He wanted to make films that “shook off the smartness of western cinema” to see what is left.

In ‘The First Movie’ Cousins literally does this by handing the video cameras over to the children of the mountain village Goptapa so they can go make their own films. So the final footage we see is a combination of his work and the children's own cinematic interpretations. He says he was following Kiarostami’s advice by keeping his camera back and letting the subjects take control. He also drew on Bahman Ghobadi’s musicality – his use of rhythm to structure a sequence.

 “I haven’t made work that is any way near as good as these pictures but I can see that I’ve been influenced by them. The aesthetics of Iranian and Kurdish Iraqi cinema have changed my filmmaking and my view of cinema.”

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