Terra Incognita
by Mark Cousins
Aug 30, 2013 | 5913 views | 0 0 comments | 482 482 recommendations | email to a friend | print
We mostly get to know places gradually. I first saw America in the movies, for example, then went to New York in my 20s. I first imagined France when I heard Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)” (“You live in a fancy apartment/Off the Boulevard St. Michel”), then through Inspector Clouseau, then I went to Lourdes, then I saw Francois Truffaut films—a long and winding road to the country.

But I didn’t get to know the place I’ve just been to gradually. I plunged in. The place was Albania. Before that week I’d read one novel by Ismail Kadare; seen the movie Tirana Year Zero; got annoyed that Taken 2’s baddies are cardboard-cutout Albanians; watched a documentary on communist dictator Enver Hoxha; and discovered, thanks to Christopher Hitchens, that Mother Teresa was Albanian. But I hadn’t really been to Albania in my head. It was terra incognita. Ancient cartographers wrote on such parts of the map, “Here be dragons.”

My visit to this land of dragons (there’s a two-headed one on the Albanian flag) was one of the most intense weeks of my life. I was invited there by two passionate Albanian filmmaker sages, Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci, and accepted because of Gentian Koci’s documentary, Not a Carwash, which shows the film school’s staff and students defending it against attacks from the authorities. I cried as I watched it because, amidst the scuffles and shouting, the activists articulate the reasons why learning and film matter. They fight for their sacred space, and then we watch the school’s outdoor screen being torn down. If you run a film school anywhere in the world, get a copy of Not a Carwash and screen it on the first day of term to new students. It’ll show them why you exist and why they’re there.

As a jury member of the Festival of Albanian Film, I saw every Albanian fiction feature made in the last five years—a state-of-the-nation event. Fifteen films over four days turned out to be a crash course, a grand tour. In back-to-back, packed screenings, I saw a post-traumatic cinema of memories, borders and sexualities. Half the films were good or better (could we say this about British or American films?).

On my last day, I saw Pharmakon, a first feature and a masterpiece. The title refers to an Albanian scam where doctors profit from patients who buy drugs, but the film is more Roy Andersson absurdism than issue drama. The color scheme is white-beige (director Joni Shanaj studied in Scandinavia). The first thing we see is the brutal slaughter of a donkey (and, later, an image of Robert Bresson’s donkey film Au hasard Balthazar). Soon we’re following a blond, woozy young man as he walks and watches a girl. She’s the dead spit of Kim Novak in Vertigo—and is filmed as if she is. The buildings in the film are like those in Antonioni’s films. But it’s the somnambulant melancholia that grips, the awkwardness of the couple’s bodies, their hair, the way they speak to each other. The young man’s father is a creepy presence throughout, but then he gives a speech about solitude that could have been written by Jean-Claude Carriere. One journalist asked me, “Why are Albanian films not as good as Romanian and Turkish films?” In the case of Pharmakon, they are.

I visited Albania’s film archive, and filmed fungus growing almost a centimeter out from some of the walls. I’ve been in film archives around the world but have witnessed nothing worse than this. Two summers ago, part of the cooling system at Albania’s film archive failed, which led to temperature changes of considerable amplitude. The archivists there did all they could on limited resources, but the film prints—Albania’s entire film history, plus many foreign films—began to smell of vinegar.

And yet the archive had just done Albania’s first film restoration: Nentori I Dyte, which played on the opening night of the festival, is a very national story of Albania’s fight for independence—their Braveheart, if you like. Technically, the restoration is world-class, revelatory, turning a murky film into one of rainbow colors and inviting landscapes. Also in the archive are the films of Xhanfize Keko. She’s not mentioned in Annette Kuhn’s usually reliable The Woman’s Companion to International Film, yet in Tirana a main street is named after her. I went to a market, bought DVDs of some of her 25 films; having watched them (unsubtitled), I can see why she’s so famous in Albania. Her Tomka and his Friends, made in 1977 is set during World War II and follows a bunch of boys whose football field is stolen by the Nazis. It is fresher than Bicycle Thieves, with a documentary naturalism and a masterful mise en scene.

My happiest, most intoxicating experience of Albania was walking in Tirana’s streets. On my first morning, I wandered to the massive concrete pyramid in the centre of the city intended as the mausoleum for Hoxha. It’s covered in graffiti now. I wondered how to film this amazing place, then noticed that wildflowers have seeded themselves on it. Their roots will eventually make the pyramid a ruin. I think of Saint-Just’s line: “The present order is the disorder of the future.” And so I film not the building but the wildflowers.  

Mark Cousins is a filmmaker, author, curator and wanderer. He was a BBC TV presenter for five years and was director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. His films The Story of Film, What Is This Film Called Love and The First Movie played at Telluride.

HERE BE DRAGONS | England, 2013, 79m

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