The First Movie (1999) is an ultimately disappointing, overly self-reverential documentary from filmmaker and journalist Mark Cousins, whose recent More4 TV series The Story of Film: An Odyssey was – adversely – an intelligently written and insightful piece of work. There’s no doubt that when it comes to Cousins’ knowledge of cinema, there’s little that escapes him. Yet somehow The First Movie, although touching as an essay on the beauty of cinema, loses that same crafted scope applied to his TV behemoth.
Cousins’ feature documentary sees him carry a projector and a handful of films to a small Iraqi village to show the children there how they can apply their imaginations to the power of cinema. After a brief education in cinema, he hands them small, handheld video cameras and gets them to make their own films, shooting their everyday lives and thoughts.
The premise is quite an interesting one and leads to some poignant and insightful films by the villagers themselves, but it’s Cousins’ over-involvement that massively detracts from their honesty toward the camera. His voice-over narration – whilst poetic – is unintentionally patronising of almost everything around him and his constant use of metaphors and eagerness to simplify events doesn’t give his subjects enough time to really open up to him.
There are about two scenes in the film where children play with toy guns and Cousins immediately draws association with the Iraq war. Yet nearly every child – regardless of locale – plays with a toy weapon or pretends that a stick is a gun. It’s this kind of lack of understanding and willingness to take facts at face value that leaves The First Movie with little of the depth, insight or intelligence that Cousins has become renowned for.