The award-winning documentary filmmaker brings his latest production, which gave children in a long-suffering Middle Eastern community the chance to experience film, to Dubai.
Mark Cousins brings First Movie to Dubai
Do you remember your first movie? Many people's earliest memories will include being charmed by the latest Disney release on the big screen or by oldies on television. But an entire generation of children in one long-suffering Middle Eastern community risked growing up without any such experiences to look back upon.
The award-winning documentary The First Movie - set to screen at the Dubai International Film Festival next week - shows not only how the joy of cinema was brought to the children of a tiny Iraqi village, but how they were given a chance to become filmmakers themselves.
In August 2009, the Northern Irish filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins arrived in Goptapa, a Kurdish community about 80 miles from the Iranian border, where dozens of villagers had been killed in Saddam Hussein's Anfal gas attacks 21 years earlier. With his small crew, he set about building a cinema.
"It was so low-tech," he says. "We were in a tiny little village, with intermittent electricity. We literally hand-stitched together our bed sheets and tied them to the wall of a house with bits of string. You don't need fancy equipment to make a nice little cinema."
Best known for introducing late-night films on British television in his unmistakable Belfast drawl, Cousins discovered Goptapa eight years earlier when he drove his 1970s camper van from his home in Edinburgh to India.
"By far, the best bit was the middle bit; Kurdish Turkey, Kurdish Iraq and Iran. Then I was talking to my producer Gill Parry about the traditions of hospitality in the Middle East and how you always leave fatter than when you arrive."
When asked, none of the village's 90 children had ever watched a movie. Cousins, who last year brought film to some of Scotland's most remote communities by literally dragging a mobile 80-seat cinema across the country (helped by the actress Tilda Swinton), knew the same principle could work in Goptapa.
"I've been fascinated by young peoples' cinema for years and have written about it a lot. It took me about 30 seconds to choose the films to show the children, to be honest. It was easy."
The choices included the 1992 Iranian drama The Boot, the 1957 German fairytale The Singing Ringing Tree and the 1982 blockbuster ET: The Extra-Terrestrial - all translated live into Kurdish by one of Cousins' crew.
"We showed Steven Spielberg's film ET, particularly because [the characters ride] bikes in it and in Goptapa the kids love bikes. So I knew the scene where the kids fly across the moon would go down really well."
After the open-air cinema had been built, Cousins placed posters around the village inviting the children to the first screening.
Although initially uncertain of whether the idea would work, he says that every single child in the village came, and instead of being in their seats at the advertised 7.30pm start time, most were there by 6pm.
"They just screamed and yelled and danced and went wild and loved it. I don't think I was surprised because I think cinema is a universal thing. This was a town with a bit of electricity, but not loads, so when you put up a big screen and fire up the projector, there's a real wow factor because of the luminosity of this huge image."
But showing the children what they had been missing was only half the job. Cousins' ambition was that they would be inspired by what they had seen on screen.
He distributed tiny Flip cameras among them - although only about the size of an iPod, they are capable of taking cinema-quality HD footage. His only instruction was a piece of paper, with the words "press this button" written in Kurdish.
"I wanted to keep it dead simple so that the cameras didn't interrupt the filming. The quality of the little films that were made was extremely high, I think better than anything that I have done in the 20 years of my own filmmaking."
One boy named Mohammad made a two-minute movie, given the title The Boy in the Mud, in which he films another child and attempts to guess his thoughts. When the subject begins playing with some water, Mohammad narrates: "He is giving his dreams to the mud."
"It's a gorgeous little two-minute piece of film poetry, really beautiful. A few child psychiatrists and teachers have seen the film and remarked about how splendid that little bit is."
But others chose to explore the story of their community in a more literal way; by asking adults directly about the gassings.
"Some of the older ladies talk about the Anfal attacks and [the interviews] are so fresh and relaxed ... because it's a kid who they know speaking to them and using a tiny piece of equipment ... and they aren't intimidated."
Cousins' film, which won a prestigious Prix Italia award in September, shows both his efforts to build a cinema in Goptapa, and some of the best footage taken by the children. But the two elements are tied together by a narration in which the filmmaker discusses the similarities between the children's lives in Goptapa and his upbringing in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
"I was a nervy wee boy going to the cinema in Belfast, often on my own, and I just remember feeling this intense calm - totally relaxed and unwound. When the film started, that feeling of self-loss, travelling somewhere else in your imagination was intoxicating."
He says that despite both Saddam's gas attacks and the rise in tensions caused by the recent Iraq War, the fortitude of Goptapa's children has remained unbreakable.
"It takes adults a while to change from one emotion to the other, but kids can do it really fast, and that's what clicked with me from my youth. I remember in Northern Ireland, I felt like I was in war, like a fish was in water - and then the tide would go out and there would be a great beach on which you could play. Seeing the speed of that switch in the Goptapa kids reminded me of my experience."
In the next few years, Cousins intends to return to the village and present the children with the Prix Italia "for their co-directing efforts".
"I'll also take my camera and film some more. Two years is a long time in the life of a child - they will have changed. I'll film some more and maybe make a second movie."
The First Movie screens December 16 and 19. For details, see www.dubaifilmfest.com
The Boot, Iran, 1992, Mohamad Ali Talebi
The touching drama sees a grumpy young girl pester her mother to buy her a new pair of red boots. When she loses one of them while on a bus, a neighbourhood boy embarks on a search for it that takes him across Tehran. Mark says: "The Boot is one of the greatest films about community ever made. It should be shown at the United Nations."
ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, US, 1982, Steven Spielberg
The loving friendship between a lonely American boy and an alien stranded on Earth is threatened when the authorities come for the creature. ET became the highest-grossing film of all time upon release and was recently voted the greatest children's film of all time. Mark says: "Elliot's dad is absent, which we thought would strike a chord in Iraq, and particularly in the north, where Saddam's gassings killed many men."
Palle Alone in the World, Denmark, 1949, Astrid Henning-Jensen
A young boy, Palle, wakes up one day to find there there is nobody else left in the world. He decides to try to do everything his parents wouldn't allow, including driving a fire engine and putting curry powder in his porridge. Mark says: "The movie could have been sickly sweet, but Henning-Jensen never loses the slight edge of danger and transgression."
The Red Balloon, France, 1956, Albert Lamorisse
The short film tells of a young boy who, on his way to school, finds a large red helium-filled ballon. When it begins following him through the streets of Paris, he soon discovers the balloon has a life of its own. Mark says: "We hadn't planned to show this Oscar-winning classic about a boy and his beautiful, friendly, solicitous balloon, but we had the DVD and decided to. And we are so glad that we did."
The Singing Ringing Tree, East Germany, 1957, Francesco Stefani
A wandering prince is told by an arrogant princess that she will only accept his offer of marriage if he brings her a magical tree. During the endeavour he is turned into a bear by an evil dwarf, but the princess learns to love him anyway. Mark says: "In 1950s East Germany, an Italian cameraman takes a brothers Grimm story and turns it into one of the most colourful and surreal movies ever made. That itself sounds like a fairy tale, but it's true."