Is anyone capable of taking another person’s life? This is the question raised in First Kill, Coco Schrijber’s feature documentary about war and the dark side of humanity, which premieres at the IDFA in November. It’s a complex issue for a complex film, and Schrijber doesn’t try to paint it in black and white terms. ‘I wanted to make a film in which slowly, towards the end, you feel that there’s no way of knowing if you would pull the trigger or not,’ she says. ‘Most people say they are convinced they would never do that. My main goal was to confuse the viewer, so he wouldn’t be so certain anymore of what he would do.’ Schrijber pitched First Kill (then called Laws of Mars), at the IDFA Forum in 1999, but she may be better remembered for her opening comments than for her actual pitch, which she admits was not well-received.
At the beginning of her seven-minute presentation, Schrijber said she ‘used to shoot an Uzi to relax, which I could do with now.’ (Schrijber joined the Israeli army when she was 19 and served for several months, but got out because it wasn’t for her. She admits that she used to enjoy shooting rifles at tin cans or stones from time to time to let off steam.)
Schrijber now says the comment, an inside joke, was meant to shed light on the film, and wasn’t meant to scare people. But, not everyone at the Forum was amused. ‘Some people laughed, they really got the joke right, and some people got it really wrong. I think they thought that I wanted to shoot them,’ says Schrijber. ‘I used that comment to clarify the subject of this film – that not all actions in war are negative.’ She clarifies, too, that First Kill, which has been selected for the IDFA’s Joris Ivens award, does not promote war – a notion that some people at the Forum were left with. She explains that the film brings to light certain aspects of war – the adrenaline rush, the excitement – that can be seen as positive. ‘War is horrible, but there is something about war and the feelings we have in war that are very positive. I thought I had expressed that in a very subtle way – talking about both sides of the war – but some people were surprised and very scared that it would be a pro-war documentary.’
Though no money was secured at the Forum that year, the better part of the funding for First Kill (budgeted at about us$370,000) was already in place prior to Schrijber’s pitch. Dutch broadcasters Lichtpunt and ikon, along with funding bodies CoBo and Film Fund, were already on board. Producers Joost de Vries and Leontine Petit of Lemming Film, with whom Schrijber had worked on a Dutch Academy Award-winning short film for children’s series Not Big, Not Small, managed to secure the rest from a television distribution loan. ‘The first 75% was financed really fast. It took about eight or nine months to get the last 25%,’ says Schrijber. The 73-minute film will have a theatrical run in theaters in the Netherlands after it premieres at the idfa, and will likely be shown next spring on ikon and Lichtpunt.
Co-written and shot by Sander Snoep on Super 16 (later blown up to 35mm), First Kill weaves together interviews with people who have been affected in various ways by war. Included is Michael Herr, who wrote the classic war memoir Dispatches, and who has writing credits on the epic war films Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. Vietnam War veterans were also interviewed about their experiences, as were tourists who had visited Vietnam, trying to get a feel for what the war-torn country was like.
Schrijber describes the doc as very ‘filmic’, with the interviews interspersed with landscape shots. ‘There’s a lot of scenes where you get taken into the jungle… sort of like in Apocalypse Now. You get the feeling that you’re going up the river and that you’re going to undertake a journey into your dark side.’