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Here Be Dragons

November 4, 2013

Here Be Dragons (2013)
Director: Mark Cousins

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Synopsis: Filmmaker Mark Cousins is invited to a festival of Albanian films in Tirana and records the experiences and sensations that the trip engenders.

Review: If you ask me what I know about Albania, the following associations come to mind: Tirana, Adnan Januzaj, Norman Wisdom, its habitual reference point as Europe’s “poorest country”, and as a state that always seems to have suffered from its ‘obscurity’ – a former Communist country that disassociated itself from the Soviet bloc, and is wedged between far more ‘newsworthy’ countries of South East Europe – Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic states. The closest I ever got to Albania was a few years ago when I travelled to Montenegro (the state directly to the north of Albania), and in some respects the physical and mental geography I embarked on in that journey echoes some of Cousins’ quest in Here Be Dragons. I flew into Dubrovnik in Croatia, and was collected by car and driven across a machine-gun patrolled border (Croatia had after all been at war with Serbia & Montenegro mere years before), and I was staggered by the first city I saw in Montenegro, Herceg Novi. It was an unconstructed monument to Tito-era Yugoslavia (the other non-Warsaw Pact Communist country), a real decaying concrete monolith completely at odds to the blossoming, tourist-friendly, westernised Croatia I’d just left across the border.

Cousins’ remit in Here Be Dragons is in essence an extension of the ‘obscurity’ dialectic I threw up in my opening sentence. Invited over to Tirana for an Albanian film festival, he uses Albania’s relative anonymity (although I use that word hesitantly, because as Cousins proves, it’s a country rich with a vibrant history, culture, architecture and landscape) as an unfamiliar canvas on which to project his camera, his gaze, in order to deconstruct the film’s title theme. In fact, ‘looking’ is the central notion of the film – it’s a permanent mantra throughout Cousins’ narration, and his camera mode is invariably observant, static and non-rhetorical in its panoramas as it seeks to read the history of Albania from its people, buildings and social practices.

To anyone with a real geographic/anthropological curiosity and sensibility, it’s a gorgeous film, and in essence, Cousins could have picked any country on the map (although it suits a smaller, more ‘obsolete’ one), to flesh a narrative and understanding around. Incidentally, although content-wise it’s a rich work, I wouldn’t overlook the formal flourishes of Cousins’ filmmaking. There is a quite staggering early cut from an autumnal loch in Scotland to a vista of clouds from an aeroplane window. This montage evokes the twin dichotomy of motion and emotion, as Cousins starts the film by musing on who he is now through his personal history and geography, before dispatching himself up into the clouds on his next voyage of discovery, this time about a hitherto unknown terrain. Cousins also finds excellent ways to thematise his revealing of Tirana, from actually scaling the architectural landmarks he is documenting, to simply placing the camera in the front of the taxi that is taking him through the streets of the city, so in the foreground we have the hive of life parading itself, while in the background are the implacable mountains on the outskirts of Tirana – reminding us of nature’s permanence amid history’s flux and decay. (November 2013)

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