Here Be Dragons: London Review

Never mind the Balkans.

This low-budget documentary about Albania’s cultural heritage squanders a fascinating subject with too much directorial self-indulgence.

Made for around $16,000 on a cheap hand-held camera, Here Be Dragons is the latest highly personal “essay film” from Mark Cousins, a former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival turned globe-trotting micro-budget auteur. Shot last year during a short working holiday in Albania, this free-associating documentary initially promises to illuminate a mysterious Balkan backwater rarely seen on screen. Instead, it reveals rather too much about its author, his brainy reading habits, his airline meals, and his random thoughts on culture and politics. Cousins may even have invented a new cinematic form here: film as a series of Facebook status updates.

The film’s austere visual grammar will be familiar to anyone who saw the director’s previous idiosyncratic but scholarly documentaries on cinema, most notably his epic 2011 TV series The Story of Film: An Odyssey and this year’s well-received Cannes entry, A Story of Children on Film. Over a slow-moving montage of mostly static single-shot tableaux, Cousins waxes philosophically in his sleepy, melodious, softly undulating Northern Irish brogue. The effect is hypnotic and soothing, but not enough to sustain a thin piece of work like this. Here Be Dragons has just premiered at the London Film Festival, where it is competing in the documentary section. The director’s track record should ensure interest from further festivals and niche TV networks.

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Here Be Dragons does not include naked shots of Cousins like last year’s navel-gazing travelogue What Is This Film Called Love? But it does feature him splashing around in a Scottish loch in a kilt, for no clear reason. Later, wandering randomly around Tirana, he becomes mildly fixated with Albania’s former Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the crumbling concrete pyramid built as his intended mausoleum. He even reads a scathing poem about Hoxha over an interminable shot of industrial wasteland, which reverses midway through. The impact of such cut-price arty flourishes will depend how seriously you take Cousins getting slightly cross about a dead tyrant’s human rights abuses 30 years too late.

Cousins repeatedly reminds us he is in Tirana to see every Albanian movie made in the last five years, and he makes politely anxious noises about the imperilled state of the national film archive, which he finds rotting away in a fungus-ridden basement. And yet he includes just a tiny handful of brief snippets from the archive, with barely any historical or biographical context, before promptly returning to his own navel-gazing tourist musings. Given free rein by producer Don Boyd, who previously worked with the legendary British arthouse director Derek Jarman, Cousins simply rambles away like a man with no unpublished thoughts.

Frustratingly, a more conventional documentary about Enver Hoxha could have been genuinely fascinating, as could a well-researched film about Albania’s impact on global cinema. After all, this tiny nation’s diaspora includes John and James Belushi, Eliza Dushku and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tom Perrotta. Even during the deep freeze of Cold War isolation, the British screen comic Norman Wisdom enjoyed cult fame in Albania, beloved for his proletarian everyman roles. Since the fall of Communism, the local film scene has witnessed a minor renaissance with domestic hits like Slogans and Amnesty. Hoxha’s speeches even featured as a decoy device in Spike Lee’s 2006 heist thriller Inside Man.

Does any of this basic movie-fan trivia figure in Here Be Dragons? Of course not. The director is far too busy serving up his own learned, loopy and unashamedly self-absorbed observations. There are worthy blueprints for this kind of discursive documentary essay, of course, particularly the work of the late French pioneer Chris Marker and – more recently – Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. But those films have a formal rigor and intellectual vigor that Cousins is either unable or unwilling to deliver in this lightweight jumble of holiday snapshots. Curious viewers will learn more about Albania by spending an hour on Wikipedia.

Production companies: HiBrow Productions, Ska-Ndal

Producer: Don Boyd

Director: Mark Cousins

Writer: Mark Cousins

Cinematographer: Mark Cousins

Editor: Mark Cousins

Sales company: HiBrow Productions

Unrated, 73 minutes