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director Mark Cousins

executive producer Don Boyd Genc Permeti 
Hibrow Productions Ltd. SKA-NDAL production

Here be Dragons is an innovative and poetic feature length documentary film about a foreign filmmaker, Mark Cousins, encountering, and becoming passionate about, Albania.
The film starts with Cousins in Scotland, his adoptive home.  He says that before he went to Scotland, he had tourist images in his head, but then he lived there and these were replaced.  He says that we learn by looking.  And so he goes to Albania and looks and learns.  As a filmmaker, he will learn in particular through looking at Albanian films and paintings.
Day 1, dawn.  Cousins walks the streets of Tirana.  He films the Italian buildings and intercuts them with old archive footage of them.  He comes to the Enver Hoxha pyramid, films it, notices that it looks exactly like the Giza pyramid near Cairo anda dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound, that kids use it as a ski slope and that wildflowers have seeded themselves in it.  It has a chain of meanings.  Such chains are very Albanian.  Cousins quotes from Ismail Kadare’s novel The Pyramid (Kadare has given his personal permission for this). 
Cousins then films at the Marubi film school, and at the Albanian film archive, showing the problems of fungus growth on its walls and reflecting on the importance of cultural memory, film as memory, film as light from a distant star.
Day 2.Cousins begins to look at aspects of Albanian history and at the restoration of the film Nentori I Dyte; the latter is a kind of activation of the former.  Cousins travels to the outskirts of Tirana, where his shots become more visual, more like a landscape painting.  Then as we watch a single, unbroken 8 minute shot, Cousins writes a letter directly to EnverHoxha, telling him what has happened since his death.  There’s rage in the letter, and poetry too.
Day 3.Cousins travelsinto the hills with members of the Albanian Cinema Project, to look at bunkers which might be suitable for housing aspects of the film archive.  The trip is beautiful but also thought provoking.  The bunkers might change their meaning. Creative re-use. A chain of meanings again.
Day 4.Cousins films the Onufri icons in the National Gallery of Arts.  He visits XhanfisoKekostreet, and shows how distinctive her filmmaking was.  This leads him to a sequence on Viktor Stratoberdha.
On his way home, Cousins imagines that he sees XhanfiseKeko.  He draws together the images and themes of his trip.  A decaying pyramid, some decaying films, gorgeous films, concrete bunkers, glorious icon paintings that themselves have decaying surfaces.  Images full of meaning and feeling in Albania which now have great feeling for him too. He has learned by looking in Albania, and loved looking.  Cinema is an empathy machine.  He now has, in his head, a “thousand coloured pictures to the eye.”  He intercuts images of faces from Onufri’s paintings with similar shots from faces of Albanians in film history.  They are beautiful, they flicker.  They are light from a distant star.
Mark Cousins


For about a decade now I have been exploring the poetic, emotional and communicating potential of documentary film.  I’ve rejected the TV style of documentary for something which I hope is more cinematic and imaginative.  My recent films have won the Prix Italia, the Stanley Kubrick award and have been shown in more than 100 film festivals, including Berlin, Toronto, Telluride Hong Kong, Karlovy Vary, Moscow, Palm Springs, Seville, Kosova, Rio de Janeiro, etc.  They have received rave reviews (see attached) and have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in the Academy cinema in Los Angeles, etc.
Here be Dragons is, I hope, my most thoughtful film in this direction.  It’s a road movie – the account of a journey - and so is told in the present tense.  It has a distinct visual style – cinematic framing, no reverse angles or pans.  I care a lot about the frame, the image, so choose it carefully, then let everyday life do what it does best – unwind, unpredictably.  The film is observational – I really looked at Tirana, walked its streets from dawn, visited its outskirts, tried to understand its feelings and history.
But Here be Dragons isn’t journalism.  It’s a film essay in the tradition of the great filmmaker Chris Marker and writers like Jean Jacques Rousseau. Its storyline is told through commentary but it “takes an idea for a walk”.  We see and hear me learn about Albania, and notice connections between unexpected things (a dictator’s pyramid, renaissance paintings, bunkers, dogs, wildflowers, film archives, etc).  I have tried to write it with real care and a degree of poetics and insight.
Film is, I believe, a great message in a bottle.  It is wonderful at capturing the elixir of a place.  Through careful shooting, framing, writing and editing (my editor Timo Langer is acclaimed and awarded), I hope that Here be Dragons captures some of the thoughts and feelings that are moving through Albanian life in the 21st Century, and which, with the great assistance of my hosts, I was able to see.
I have tried to make a film that is honest (including being honest about how much a foreigner can understand) passionate, curious, engaged and brainy (there are lots of ideas in it!)   I have tried to make a film that is a fine piece of cinema and which will travel widely and be seen around the world.    People who have seen images from it have said that they are beautiful.  This is because I found Tirana’s distinctiveness beautiful.

Mark Cousins

Filmmaker Mark Cousins goes to Albania for five days, and films what he sees. He discovers that the movie prints in the country's film archive are decaying. In investigating this, Cousins begins to encounter bigger questions about the history and memory of a place. Perhaps a country whose 20th Century, dominated by its authoritarian ruler Enver Hoxha, was so traumatic, should allow its film heritage to fade away? Perhaps a national forgetting should be welcomed? Influenced by the films of Chris Marker, Cousins' film broadens to consider the architecture of dictators and the great icon paintings of Onufri. In the past, when cartographers knew little about a country, they wrote on it Here be Dragons. Albania was, for decades, one of the least well know countries in the world. Cousins' road movie meditation takes the advice of Goethe: "If you would understand the poet, you must go to the poet's land."

Mark Cousins is one of World Cinema’s rare directors who integrates talents as a writer, broadcaster and critic into highly individualistic ‘essay’ films which have given him international status. He followed his 15 hour seminal history of the movies, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, with A Story of Children and Film officially selected at Cannes 2013. 

Last Updated ( Thursday, 29 August 2013 12:23 )  

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Here be Dragons