Visiting an area which is itself highly cinematic (the dusty, green and arid mix of truly stunning landscapes and the City of God-esque feral kids in their slum-like environment) Cousins brings a strong visual and lyrical sensibility to the footage he shoots, drawing parallels between his younger self in a volatile Ulster decades back and the children here, and how war and cinema sometimes share a dreamlike quality, particularly through the eyes of an innocent child.
Coming across as a real-life mini-Cinema Paradiso, Cousins and his crew begin by constructing a makeshift outdoor screening area and showing a selection of eclectic children’s films from around the globe (ET is included, of course) when the suns goes down. While many kids in the west have at least some rudimentary access to cinema, this a rare and wholly welcoming night of escapism for the Iraqi youngsters, and the excitement and genuine enchantment felt here is palpable as the kids react in wonderment at the images in front of them, sometimes reaching out and trying to grasp at what they are seeing, as if the film itself is alive.
Cousins is very good at tapping into the pleasures derived from even the simplest of interactions between the kids, and this is especially evident in a sequence where they are given balloons to play with. It’s one of the many winning and refreshing moments in the film where we’re reminded that the imagination is sometimes the best plaything a child can possess.
A selection of the kids are invited to make their own shorts with the small digital camera provided by the visitors to their village. The footage they return back with ranges from the mundane (a cow being milked, kids playing football) to the heart-wrenching (an older lady recounts the time members of her extended family met their demise during the old political regime) but what is very clear is the children’s innate skills at using their own lives and environment to tell a story, however basic it may be.
Cousins captures the hypnotic quality of cinema incredibly well, even if he sometimes lays on the ‘magical realism’ angle a little thick (the soundtrack tends to swell up in a very manipulative Hollywood way at times). This is a very minor quibble (it could be even argued that the filmmaker is consciously referencing those tropes of the medium in a knowing way) and whatever you feel about his sometimes weird vocal inflections over the narration (ala ‘Odyssey’) this is a beautiful and poignant tale of a dedicated cineaste who is trying to make the world a better place thorough the art of visual storytelling, one frame at a time.