Mark Cousin’s Empathy Machine
by Ken Russell
Sep 23, 2010 | 1945 views | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The mother says: “There were as many soldiers as a tree has leaves.”

It’s a film called The First Movie, and she’s talking about the Anfal of twenty years ago—the name given to eight military offensives (1987-89) by the Baath regime under Saddam Hussein. For her and her isolated village, the Anfal is the infamous May 3, 1988, genocidal rain of chemicals from helicopters, accompanied by mass detainment, torture and “disappearances.” The “ethnic cleansing” devastated her village of Kurds and left 14 per cent—one seventh—of the population dead in a day.

Mark Cousins, a British filmmaker of preternatural sensitivity with solid success making documentaries (BBC’s Scene by Scene for five years, films on Neo-Nazism, Gorbachev and Michael Powell), has directed this powerfully artful documentary about the opposite of war: children’s imaginative lives. He lets the fact of the genocide sink like a single stone to the bottom of a river that bubbles exuberantly overhead with the life force of children’s dreams and activities.

Cousins traveled to a Kurdish village called Goptapa, in northern Iraq, 80 miles from the Iranian border. It’s an isolated farming community of 700 in a baking desert of herded animals, irrigated crops and an oil refinery under construction. In one small mosque men pray and kids giggle and make faces in the back row.

Because it’s Ramadan and the adults are indoors fasting while the kids roam freely, it’s the children we get to know. The high-spirited boy with the gap-toothed grin. The boy who wears his pants high on his chest. The girl in the purple dress who runs to catch up with her goats after savoring a pomegranate. The little-girl gang wielding their Barbies like scepters. And little Mohammad, who shows a spontaneous talent for movie-making.

The First Movie is an achingly lyrical story of honesty, honor and hope in a postwar landscape that looks like mounds on the Moon. Mud, dust going gold in the sun, wheat fields peopled with shadows, a pearly landscape of sentinel trees (“where lovers meet”), in a land that time forgets.

Cousins and his editor took a camera, projector, laptop editing suite, a few mini-video cameras for the village children, a generator and hard-won permissions from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. Cousins’ experiment was to see how imagination in children might be affected by a lineage of regional violence. In spite of no cinemas, brownouts and secret police who want the film crew to be AIDS-tested, Cousins was able to invent a film culture for the children in three weeks. He showed them their first movies in a makeshift theater of strung-up sheets, then passed out cameras to a half-dozen children to make their own movies.

And they did.

One child makes a movie about a fish who lives in a magical palace, one about a chicken who teaches justice. Another wants his film to be about “love and freedom: like roses, we should be together,” the tyke astonishingly declaims. Little Mohammed, a favorite, films a boy playing with mud “who gives his wishes to the water.”

Cousins attends to detail, recreating the pace of a landscape where goats, chickens, geese, a brown cow and a sleepy dog are featured players. The colors thrill: flapping fuchsia, orange and yellow sheets, the changing sky, a red clothing of a small girl.

The film score by the Hong Kong-Canadian composer Melissa Hui is perfect. With a fusion (profusion) of images, a few camera-wizardry tricks, and an insightful, poetic commentary, The First Movie delivers ah-haa moments like wheat cakes. Cousins travels into the place where Derek Jarman often took us—that liminal, vibratory state which shows you the world as a fireworks seen through tree branches—to reference one of Cousins’ memorable shots.

In Iraq, he’s chosen five movies for the children to see: ET, Iran’s The Boot, Palle Alone in the World (Denmark), The Singing Ringing Tree (East Germany) and The Red Balloon. The kids cheer, jump up and down, try to touch the balloons in the air… cineastes will love this bit.

I talked to Cousins—he’s living in Edinburgh (and is a past director of the Edinburgh Festival and a film and art historian with four books to his credit, including The Story of Film). He and the Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton are famous for their tours in a van of Scotland and Beijing with a traveling circus of films beyond the multiplex offerings, The Cinema of Dreams. He comes from Belfast: “My mother was Protestant; my father Catholic—a Romeo and Juliet scenario with a happy ending,” he says. He found himself as a child not wounded so much as “tenderized” by armed conflict. “War is less real to a child than imagination. War inadvertently gives to children heightened awareness, peripheral vision. I made my first movie at the age of 8.” About First Movie, he says: “I’m interested in the camera as an empathy machine. War doesn’t kill beauty.” Cousins’s next project is “the story of creativity in film,” 12 hours told in 12 parts—a brave lad.

The First Movie celebrates delicacy, vigor and the opening of horizons without being cloying. Mark Cousins’s letter to the boy after returning says it all: “Mohammed, I’m here in Edinburgh, where there are no jackals.”
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