Outstanding Achievement Award 2020
The BAFTSS Outstanding Achievement Award sets out to celebrate work that enhances our understanding of the moving image. Many of our recipients have come from the world of academia, people who have helped to shape how media has been studied and talked about. Some have careers in film-making.
We are proud that the recipient of the award in 2020 is Mark Cousins, an educator and a film-maker. From presenting the BBC's celebrated TV movie season Moviedrome to his compendious documentary series The Story of Film and works like his city-symphony I am Belfast and 2018's The Eyes of Orson Welles, Mark has constantly shared his deep understanding of global cinema, and now we have another magnum opus from him - Women Make Film. Like all his work, it's richly rewarding. It gives us new things to look at, and new ways of looking at them.
We were hoping to share our Award Ceremony with Mark at our 2020 conference. In lieu of this, we have presented the Award to him digitally and observing social distancing of around 200 miles. We are delighted that Mark has given us exclusive access to his film Here be Dragons, his video-diary documentary about his recent trip to Albania to visit its film archive. It's very much in the spirit of Mark's work that he's donated the film to us and made it freely available to watch.
There's a link to the film above. Here follows some Q and A notes written for us by Mark to accompany the film.
You don’t like doing Q+A s do you?
I don’t like them in cinemas. Cinemas are looking rooms, not chatting rooms. But I like Q+As outwith the sacred space of a movie theatre.
When did you last watch Here be Dragons?
When we edited it. I don’t watch things I’ve made, to be honest.
Is it a good film?
Not sure. It’s a free film. By that I mean that it was unburdened. I was invited to go to Albania for the 13th Festival of Albania Film, and went, and brought a camera. I didn’t know what, if anything, I’d film. No schedule. Bliss.
But then, on the flight, I read some pages from a William Hazlitt book, and the windmills of my mind started turning, and I felt relaxed enough, free enough, curious enough to imagine a film. And when I got to Albania, I met two people – Thomas Logoreci and Iris Elezi – filmmakers and movie lovers, who opened my eyes to the place.
How did they do that?
They worked with my curiosity. They knew that I was hungry, eager to learn, and subtly steered my interest.
What did you discover, what became the subject of your film?
The first subject was the Albanian film archive. Unglamorous, off the beaten track, apparently unconnected to the big film cultures of the world, the archive was struggling to keep its films safe. There were water ingresses and lack of temperature control. I often advise people (though who am I to advise?) to start a film with a practical problem. This was a practical problem.
The second issue that I met was less practical. What do you do if your film history is tainted? Albania had one single political leader/dictator, Enver Hoxha, from 1944 to 1985. He presided over torture camps and an appalling restriction of freedom but, also, a certain expansion of education, a rejection of primitive gender attitudes and an improvement in film production in Albania. Albanian film lovers had been considering these questions for ages. How do you not throw the baby out with the bath water? How do you detox your film history without whitewashing it?
Film-wise, what was the best thing that happened?
I heard, through Iris and Thomas, about Xanfise Keko, a striking filmmaker who worked a lot with child actors and protagonists.
Why had you not heard of her before?
I could blame film distribution and culture, but I have to take responsibility for my own ignorance. If I’d Googled “great Albanian female filmmakers”, her name would have popped up. When I watched her films, I saw story rigour, classical form and real intimacy with her child protagonists.
What did you learn from the fact that you hadn’t heard of her?
I learned to keep asking questions. I’d never been someone who finds their favourite films then cuddles up to those films, alone, for the rest of their lives. I get impatient with my own taste, knowledge and horizons. That’s why I called this film Here be Dragons - the old phrase that cartographers wrote on bits of their maps about which they knew nothing. I’m drawn, like a tractor beam, to what I don’t know.
This all sounds virtuous, but is it true? Is that how knowledge works?
I know what you mean – we often feel “full up”, and can’t take any more new information. This is a question for educators, of course. How do we ensure that we aren’t trying to force-feed people who aren’t hungry, who haven’t heard of Xanfise Keko and have little desire to find out about her? In our case, the case of BAFTSS, are we in the supply business? Is that what we do? Are we retailers for film and television education, trying to enthuse as many people as possible about our wares?
But aren’t you asking the wrong questions? The issue isn’t how we make more people want to know about Kurosawa, Bill Douglas, Wendy Toye or Kira Muratova. Surely we are not suppliers of information or ardour. We are the hungry, the feeding, not the feeders.
Could you expand on that?
Because your question shows that you know what needs to be done. More detective work, more searching. I haven’t seen all the films of Alice Rohrwacher, and I want to, I need to. And because I’m now 54 years old, and have seen just a fraction of cinema, I have a mountain to climb. I love climbing mountains.
Here be Dragons was one small mountain I climbed, and the view from the top was great.
Mark's Women Make Film is available to view via the BFI.