The stories behind the images
A figure in arabic dress.
A sitting thrush.
A giant metal horse, or some industrial machinery.
A donkey by a road.
A man points a camera at a boy.
Some pastures, slightly dusty.
Lots of kids lined up against a wall.
A serious boy looks at us.
Looking down upon some cloths laid on the ground.
A boy pretending to fly.
A boy's cheerful eye.
A child squats at a drainage channel by a field.
MANY THANKS TO PHOTOGRAPHERS BRENT CALKIN AND TIMO LANGER
A Kurdish girl in vibrant clothing passes by some balloons strung on a washing line. Some of the balloons are popped.
Siver – the girl in blue with the red balloons

I knew we had to get magic into the film, but “old fashioned” magic like the Melies films from the earliest days of cinema. So I strung these balloons up on Siver’s mum’s washing line then asked Siver to walk backwards, popping them one by one, with a pin I’d brought along. She must have thought that I was stupid, but when you reverse the footage, it looks as if they are bursting into life. She did the backwards walk beautifully, so it’s hard to see that the footage is reversed.

A bird sits at an awkward angle, like it may have just flown into a window.
The bird

One morning in Goptapa, we heard a bang. This wee bird had flown into the window. It was alive and breathing, but just sat on the ground, a bit stunned, probably, as if it was catching its breath. I knew I wanted images of animals looking and listening (I watched Charles Laughton’s brilliant Night of the Hunter before we went to Iraq), and this wee bird looks so alert, so tender, so I filmed it. In the edit, we needed a shot to hint at the point of view of a child, and this one fitted well.

In the rubble strewn mountains is a large industrial framework which could pass for a giant horse if you were Don Quixote.
The “horse”

On our research trip to Iraq in 2008, we kept driving past this big piece of machinery – I don’t know what it is. The first time I saw it, it reminded me of a horse, but I’d asked our driver to stop so many times that day that I didn’t do so. But when we saw it a third time, I filmed it. Doing so immediately gave me an idea. What if I showed images like this is the film but the commentary said “A horse” when it’s clearly not a horse? I started to think of this as the “misrecognised” sequence – where a kid would see things more magically than the mundane reality. We got some more examples – the “cactus”, the “palm tree”, but this is the best one.

A donkey crosses a road, but through the heat-haze a truck threatens to run it over.
The donkey crossing the road

This image is another example of the luck that you need when you’re making docs. I’d watched Robert Bresson’s beautiful film Au Hazard Balthasar, about a donkey that suffers throughout its life, before I went to Iraq, so maybe donkeys were in my head. In our second week in Iraq we went to the city to get supplies; on the way back I saw this donkey and her foal - you can just see the foal’s ears behind the yellow grass in this image. I started filming. There was an amazing heat shimmer. I didn’t move the camera. Minutes passed. Then a juggernaut came over the hill. Then, at that moment, the donkey stepped onto the scorching tarmac to cross the road. Looking through the viewfinder, my heart was beating. I was afraid for the donkey and that I would accidentally move the camera: this image had to be static, I felt. The donkey crossed safely, as did her foal.

In the edit we put this image near the start, as an example of dramas that just happen in Iraq if you keep your eyes open, but my producers felt that it slowed down the story. Then I realised that the drama of the little moment had resonance. The truck is so dangerous, so oncoming; the donkey is so exposed, yet doesn’t quite know it. The danger’s on the edge of the donkey’s understanding, a bit like war’s on the edge of Mohamad’s. So we put the scene, shortened, in the letter at the end of the film.

Mark manipulates a complicated looking piece of camera equipment while a boy sits watching a shaggy doll sat astride some water bottles.
The gib shot – Mark at camera in grey t-shirt

At some point I realised that the only proper “filmy” camera moves in The First Movie – ie ones done on a gib arm or crane – should be tracks into the faces of the kids – not establishing shots of the village, for example, which would be the norm. The gib arrived but didn’t have enough weights with it, so we tied bottles of water on to counterbalance the camera! Then I asked one of the kids – Mushta – to look straight into the lens as I tracked, but it looked too confrontational. So I decided to tie a soft toy to the bottles and ask the kids to watch the toy move as the camera moved. This allowed me to track into the side of their faces, as if we were drifting into their thoughts. It worked much better.

Far away a girl chases some sheep along a path through the fields.
The girl in purple and the sheep

We saw this girl in purple herding sheep on the very first day of filming in Goptapa. I filmed her from far away, with the lens at its longest. She’s probably 100 metres from the camera. I always knew that I wanted to start with distant shots and then get closer to the village, using hand held imagery and wider angle lenses. But not once in the village itself did we meet this wee girl. I kept looking for her but we couldn’t find her. Then, on our last morning, there she was again, far away, herding sheep. I got the camera out, watched her for ages through the view finder, saw her pick a pomegranate then sit in a field and just look around her. This fascinated me. After 3 weeks in the village I knew more about girls like her and found myself imaging her thoughts as she sat eating her pomegranate. Then I realised that in Little Mohamad’s wee film of the boy and the mud, which is the climax of our film, he does exactly the same thing – trains his camera on someone, and imagines what they are thinking. This was an epiphany for me. I understood a bit more about why I was in Goptapa and why I love documentary movies.

Seven boys and a girl line up against a wall in Goptapa.
Kids lined up against the wall

The morning after we showed films on the big screen in Goptapa, the kids were still buzzing about what they’d seen. In this scene, the very first we shot that day, I asked them what they’d like to make movies about. They said animals, love and the Ba’ath regime. I didn’t immediately notice that the boy in the red shirt was holding a gun in his right hand, and a bird in his left.

A serious boy looks at us with very deep, brown eyes Mark peers through the viewfinder of a camera pointing at the same boy. He's wearing a Tom And Jerry t-shirt.
The sad looking golden boy and me filming him

One day as the sun was getting low, and we were drinking peach juice (gorgeous), we saw this wee boy whose stare was sad, direct, inscrutable and calm. I look at my shot and then, somewhat uncomfortably, at sound recordist Brent’s still of me filming the boy. For all the miniaturisation of filming equipment over the years, the camera still looks aggressive to me in this picture, as if the boy’s on the firing line, and I’m shooting him. I know that I’m nervous when people point cameras on me. The most photogenic people – and this boy is certainly that – seem not to show these nerves.

Looking down on a forecourt where some men seem to be constructing (out of cloth) the audience area of the cinema. Three men are bringing a large white sheet. It's the screen.
High level shot of forecourt – carpet on floor

This is half-way through making the outdoor cinema in Goptapa. We’ve laid old carpet on the ground, and found plastic chairs in an outbuilding. We’ve still to bring out the table onto which we’ll put the projector. The coloured fabric looks like a washing line in the daylight, but at night, lit by film lights, the fabric fluttered and glittered and made a kind of tent for the kids to walk through. On the left, sound recordist Brent, security guard Suad and I are carrying a hand painted welcome sign to tie it above the cinema screen. Only later did we discover that deadly scorpions are to be found on this bit of ground!

A boy is held aloft horizontally by two men. He's pretending to fly, and a large fan in the foreground points at him. Another man looks on quizzically in the background.
Holding the boy, the fan, flying

Low tech is best! Here, our brilliant translator Gharib, and editor Timo hold Little Mohamad in the air whilst I lie underneath and film him as if he’s flying. I asked our security guy Karman to waft him with our big plastic reflector to simulate wind, but Karman suggested that we plug in a fan, which was a far better idea. Mohamad loved it, of course, quite a few of my shots had Gharib’s and Timo’s hands in them so we had to cut them out, and I was drenched with sweat after these shots, but we had a laugh. In the finished film, the clouds were added in afterwards, by InkDigital in Dundee, Scotland. So low tech isn’t always enough!

A boy's face very close to the camera. There are many reflections in his eye, and he's happy.
Close up of boy's eye

I shot this on a long lens, so that the boy’s eye lashes would be in focus but his ears would be out of focus. The evening light was blinding, so we stood in the shade. There’s no way I could have known that in the footage you’d be able to see sound recordist Brent reflected in the boy’s eye! The magic of filming.

A shoeless little lad squats by a drainage channel playing with the mud.
The boy playing with the water

In documentaries you don’t so much direct as co-direct with real life, the things that happen by chance. When we gave the kids little cameras, I’d no idea what images would come back. This was one of the best, I think. Behind the camera is Little Mohamed, who we first met last year. He found this boy playing at an irrigation channel on his family’s farm. He filmed the boy nicely for a few minutes, but what struck me when I saw the footage was Mohamed’s commentary as he shoots. He tells us that the boy is “giving his dreams to the mud”. Beautiful. As I say in the film, this is Mohamed doing what the best filmmakers do, using his camera as an empathy machine to try to see into another person’s mind.