Here Be Dragons Documentary Review Essays

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

As I discussed previously, I like to use resources from the Skeptoid podcast in my composition classes to foster critical thinking skills.

I also use the film Here Be Dragons, as it has the good qualities of being (1) short enough to show in a single class setting, (2) pedestrian enough to not talk over the heads of my students [well, most of them], and (3) cheap enough to afford the classroom license for.*

By the time I show them Here Be Dragons, we’ve discussed Black & White Thinking quite a bit. It’s one of the biggest speed-bumps to student critical thinking, in my opinion — that part of them that says THEY are right and the OTHER is wrong, and that there’s no gray area, no uncertainty to their views. Breaking them of Black & White Thinking is the first step towards getting them to think critically.

I’ve also started to install in them a sense of source quality — that all sources of information, especially on the Internet, are not created equal. It is sometimes incredible to me how much even seasoned college students trust suspect sources just because they agree with the source’s point-of-view. So we discuss things like angle of vision, degree of advocacy, and credibility in a source.

Not surprisingly, both of these previously introduced topics come up again in their writings about and class discussions of Here Be Dragons … but not always in the ways I’d wish.

For example, students will routinely level a credibility charge at the film. They start with the illustrious host himself. “Who is this guy?” they ask. “He says we should look for credible sources, but why should I trust him?” In other words, turning the skepticism back on the skeptic. This is common, of course, for those of us who occupy the skeptical community; but it’s interesting to see just how common it is in lay practice. They also tend to dislike that he’s a “podcaster,” a word they sneer with the same disdain as “blogger.” Apparently these are appellations that defy credibility.

They will also attack the film’s credibility by noting how rarely it cites its own sources in-film. This is at least a fair claim, in that I often tell my students that a source with no citation is inherently less scholarly than a source with full citation. My favorite moment, though, was when one student actually assailed one of the few actual sources cited in the film. In the film’s discussion of precognition [at around the 20:30 mark], Dunning cites two French physicists who calculated the odds of “foreseeing” a loved ones’ death. “Who are these French physicists, and how do we know they’re credible?” one student wrote. I only wish he’d been so critical when researching his own essays.

Some also balk at the “Signs of Pseudoscience” in the film. The “Ancient Wisdom” fallacy draws the most criticism. “Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad!” is a common retort I will receive to the point, as well as, “While Dunning’s right about a lot of things, he should look into [X] because it’s been proven that the ancient Chinese people lived longer!”

It’s incredible to see that some of the students fail to point that same critical eye at the sources for their own papers; and in fact this can become a talking point in the next class session. Their responses to Here Be Dragons usually give me the opportunity to discuss topics such as Special Pleading, Argument From Ignorance, and Argument From Incredulity, all fallacies that have not yet come up in class. Heck, more than usually; I can more or less count on these common themes to come up every single quarter! It’s also a time for me to stress the dangers of critical inconsistency (i.e. holding the film to higher standards than they would their own research sources).

All in all, I find that Here Be Dragons is an invaluable tool for challenging my students to examine their own fallacies and biases. If the film didn’t exist, I’d probably have to make it; and thankfully it does exist, because my film-making skills only go about as far as iMovie on my iPhone.

 

* It’s free, in case you didn’t know.

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