The First Movie (documentary)

When Mark Cousins was growing up in war-torn Belfast, he would escape the horrors of life by going to the movies. For a child, imagination can make all the difference. But what about kids in strife-ridden areas who don’t have the luxury of nearby movie theaters? How do they cope?

As it turns out, children who don’t watch movies are still capable of engaging in whimsy and fun. It’s true! Mark Cousins learns this in “The First Movie,” a documentary shot in the tiny, impoverished village of Goptapa, Iraq. The locals have never even seen a film before, much less been part of one, and Cousins gives them both opportunities. He screens “E.T.” and other gems for them, and gives video cameras to a few of the kids so they can record their own stories.

The subject of how children deal with the realities of war is potentially a very moving one, and “The First Movie” often addresses it with great sensitivity. Unfortunately, Cousins inserts himself into the story too much of the time, and what should be a movie about Goptapa turns into a movie about Mark Cousins’ trip to Goptapa. His intentions seem to have been pure, but by the end, he comes across as parochial and condescending.

And that’s a shame, because a lot of his material here is poignant. He narrates the film in his lilting Irish brogue, poetically describing how children see magic everywhere. His footage of Iraq’s landscape (which he shot himself) is hauntingly beautiful. Scenes of Iraqi kids out goofing around are heartening.

The adults can remember when things were much worse. “We get very sad when we remember the Anfal and the chemical rain on Goptapa,” says one. “The Anfal” refers to the gas attacks that Saddam Hussein made on the region in the late 1980s, part of his ethnic cleansing program. In the second half of the film, Cousins includes footage of the older villagers recounting what happened in those dark days. Much of this was filmed by the youngsters themselves, the cameras trained on their parents and grandparents, who are telling stories they might not have told before. They get choked up with emotion. It’s very powerful.

If only Cousins had let the material speak for itself! A certain amount of flowery narration to encapsulate the lessons of Goptapa is useful, but it eventually becomes too much. It starts to sound like Cousins is too impressed with his own humanitarian goodness — which, again, I don’t think he was. If he were to re-edit the film to give us more Goptapa and less Mark Cousins, he could make “The First Movie” into something truly beautiful instead of a missed opportunity.

C+ (1 hr., 16 min.; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for brief harsh language.)