As part of the Documentary Competition section of the 57thBFI London Film Festival, Here Be Dragons, the latest work by British “filmmaker, writer, wanderer” (according to his own twitter bio) Mark Cousins (whose The Story of Film should be a mandatory viewing for all film students) celebrated its European premiere in the presence of the director and producer Don Boyd. Albania is a country, which most people from this part of the world, know very little about. Neither did Cousins two years ago, which is the reason Here Be Dragons exists. The title is a reference to ancient cartographers, who ignorant of what Albania was like, assumed that dragons must live there. When he was invited to visit Tirana and be a judge at the local film festival, Cousins, who is fascinated by being a complete alien to this society, decided to document his experience.
The result is a micro-budget (£10.000), extremely personal ‘’essay-film’’ in which Cousins immerses himself into the Albanian culture and history, still dominated by the legacy of the 41 year long communist reign of Enver (1944-1985). Shot in four days, edited in five, Cousins, rather than attempting to paint a complete picture of the country, films whatever captures his imagination, like an intellectual, well-researched travel film. He keeps himself out of the picture for most of the film, and communicates his thoughts through narration. He visits the local film-archives, an exposition of medieval icons; goes to the suburbs and talks to local children. A significant portion of the film is dedicated to the “pyramid of Tirana,” an astonishing ruin in the middle of the city. Built to honour Enver (it was designed by his daughter), abandoned after the fall of communism and now used as a TV station, the building and what it represents for Albania fascinates Cousins. The film however focuses on a five minute long rant, aimed at Enver, in which Cousins abandons his usual calm and considered tone (to a certain degree) to voice his frustrations and give his opinions on the problems Albania has faced in the past and present. During this, we see an ordinary road, a car drives away from the camera, people pass by. First forwards, then in reverse: the people come back, walking backwards, the car returns.
Here Be Dragons is not for everyone, and weather you enjoy it or not depends very much on your personal opinion of Cousins. He is clearly an extremely intelligent, thoughtful and cultured man, but his slow, monotonous narration takes getting used to. Moreover, while it would be easy to dismiss a man who describes the view out of his hotel window as a “Monet painting” as pretentious (which the film comes dangerously close to on several occasions), Cousins’ observations about the value of history, culture and memory are compelling, and the pleasure of Here Be Dragons lies in learning about an “alien” culture.