REVIEW: Mark Cousins’ Here Be Dragons

20 October 2013

HERE BE DRAGONS (Mark Cousins, 2013)

Nick Shimmin

Mark Cousins is an Irish documentary maker best known for the 15-part TV series “The Story of Film”. His interest in the “essay-film” has led to a new work, “Here Be Dragons” (premiering at this week’s Adelaide Film Festival). The film is a masterpiece, as fine an example of the genre as anything by, for example, two of the great directors he’s recently been immersed in, Agnes Varda and the revolutionary Indian filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan.

The film is basically an account of a week Cousins spent in a place unknown to most of us, Albania. Initially simple, straightforward and engaging, Cousins swiftly takes viewers deep into the contradictions of history, dictatorship and film as memory. Fortunate in having a subject about which most people know very little, his own ignorance of Albania actually drives the film, allowing Cousins to reflect on and demonstrate how “looking” shapes knowledge, and consequently how film can, at its best, shape our awareness like nothing else.

On his way to Tirana, Cousins throws writers such as William Hazlitt and Tom Paulin into the mix to introduce his theme of the revolutionary potential for film – since revolution, as its best, incorporates an imagined vision, a projection of an ideal, it is analogous to filmmaking because that projection is inherent in the process of filmmaking too. If it sounds contrived to relate this neat idea to the vision of dictators like Enver Hoxha, the man who dominated Albania for decades (and whose legacy is still dominating the country in so many ways), well, Cousins makes the connection not just plausible, but compelling.

The beauty of the film politically is that Cousins manages to see (and celebrate) the vision, the beauty of the ideals which propelled Hoxha and others like him, but his narrative is also a savage indictment of how such revolutions lose their way, a process of which Hoxha is also an extreme example. Arriving at these views through the act of seeing, of looking at Albania through his camera, is what makes the film a celebration of cinema as much as a reflection on history, dictatorship and revolutionary politics (how do people remember anything without a camera? he provokes at one point).

So engaging is this affirmation of film, it’s hard for any viewer not to contemplate how to help the Albanian film archive as Cousins visits it, disintegrating in its damp-ridden home. “Here Be Dragons” incorporates fragments of some extraordinary Albanian narrative films from this archive, films which make it clear that this is a superb national tradition which is completely unknown in the West. Watching these excerpts, we can only hope that Cousins’ work not only enables us to see the real vision of revolutionary politics, but also opens up another great trove of film history,

Cousins camera itself is never less than evocative. He knows the value of the ordinary image, and how long to leave such images with the viewer for them to grasp the meaning of them. In the age of youtube and ubiquitous mobile phone cameras, films such as this are more valuable than ever in showing us a path through the clutter of mundanity and to render the simple, superficially banal image meaningful. If we can see valuable meaning in footage of a pair of shoes, then surely we are more likely to see more clearly the memory, the history, the politics inherent in all the images here.

Cousins’ camera brings us both the monumental and the intimate. His recurrent engagement with Hoxha’s bizarre Pyramid/”Nipple” in Tirana (now a shattered, graffiti-covered monster) and his visit to the military bunkers is fundamentally positive, as these edifices are reconceived as great architecture and new sites for the film archive. But the intimate is never far away, and his fleeting “interview” with a group of young Albanian boys in one of the “less posh” parts of Tirana is one of the most charming and enlightening encounters with children you’ll ever see on film (it’s one of Cousins’ particular interests). As he questions and jokes with the boys, the camera whips around to look up the road, just as the boys do when their mothers appear to find out what’s going on. The camera becomes human, and by doing so, an honesty and authority is given to this encounter, and to the whole film.

On the evidence of “Here Be Dragons”, one can only imagine where Cousins might take this genre of “essay-film”. Audiences should be encouraged to find out and participate in this opening up of vision, politics, history and be reminded of what great cinema can actually achieve.