Skip to main content

“I Can Find the Dragons Here”: Suzanne Raes Discusses ‘Where Dragons Live’

By Carol Nahra

A woman helps a child put on paper wings. They are standing in a grassy field.

Still from Where Dragons Live. Courtesy of the filmmakers.

An enormous English estate and its extensive gardens near Oxford take center stage for Dutch filmmaker Suzanne Raes’ latest feature documentary, Where Dragons Live, which had its world premiere at the recent Sheffield Docfest. The film is a beautifully haunting and atmospheric evocation of childhood, told through the lens of an upper-class British family in the midst of clearing out their parents’ possessions.

Some years ago, Raes met Harriet Impey in the Netherlands, where they both live. They quickly discovered a shared mutual fascination for dragons. Raes had studied them for fun, while Harriet’s father Oliver, who died in 2005, had collected them as a curator of Asian art for the Ashmolean Museum, and distributed them liberally throughout Cumnor Place. For several decades, the Impey family called Cumnor Place home , after its purchase in a dilapidated state with the proceeds from a miniature painting of the slaying of a dragon. Oliver and Jane Impey spent years doing up the estate, while raising three sons and Harriet.

Plans to work together creatively on a dragon-themed project accelerated during the pandemic, when Jane died and the family needed to sell the estate. Raes quickly mobilized, filming over the next two years. A treat to watch on the big screen, Where Dragons Live is a sensual immersion into both the Impeys’ family history and the process of coming to terms with an unorthodox childhood marred by distant and distracted parents. 

Seen only through old photographs and handwritten notes throughout the house, the recently departed Jane is a still keenly felt matriarchal presence. The film features a number of very memorable scenes with Impey grandchildren, precocious cousins who have spent every summer together on the grounds. Documentary magazine spoke to Raes in Sheffield following its DocFest screenings. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


DOCUMENTARY: Can you tell me about how you and Harriet began to talk about doing a project together?

SUZANNE RAES: At first, we were thinking about filming this house as a starting point for a documentary. Then, two or three years later—because it was really hard to get this idea funded in any way—she called me, and she said, “My mother passed away, and if you want to make this film, you have to come soon.”

It was the second lockdown and traveling was almost impossible. But me and Victor Horstink, who I worked with before, had this fantasy about this film. We thought we should just go there. So we took Harriet and basically, we quarantined in the house. It was just two weeks after Harriet’s mother died. Harriet was a friend, so I was comfortable to be close with her. And Victor is a great, very sensitive person. In a way, we were just absorbing the house and the grief and the childhood memories. And in those four days, the film found its shape. I thought, “I don’t have to travel around the world chasing dragons. I can find the dragons here.” 

We had an idea about the film’s form: it would be about the secret garden, like this time capsule. Of course, an arc that we would try to follow would be clearing the house, which we knew had to be done. Coming back and making a trailer really set things in motion. We got funding; we found a co-producing partner in Scotland. 

D: As you developed your visual language, how strong a mantra was it to keep up this mood of fear that permeates the film?

SR: We had the photography capturing the house and using the natural light, using the space, being very observant of periods. We were in an intimate space very close to the grief and to the big job to be done. Being in the house, the house was very much alive with sounds. Once we got more funding we got the sound recordist with us and we recorded all these squeaks and creaks. I always thought that the house should have a voice in it.

I think what happened in the editing is that we had nice scenes, but there’s not a very big plot line. It just really had to be that the arc of the story is more that you dive into this childhood and really maybe as a viewer think about growing up and leaving something behind. And that’s something we wanted to recreate. 

And I think what David Arthur, the editor, did marvelously is that some scenes only work better when they were longer and you could feel it with the sound design, the voice of the house. But also we really want to give space to your own memories.

I think it’s dangerous with this kind of eccentric family that it’s just about the tensions, what’s going on within the family. Of course that’s important, but it’s also important that the film has this space to reflect how it is again to be a child. To hear things, sounds you don’t understand.

D: I feel like the editing reflects that, because the film sort of hints at trauma without addressing it directly. You hear people make references such as to the lack of hands-on parenting, without really going for it.  I wonder how hard it was working with a family at such a sensitive time to hint at things but not cross the line? 

SR: The brothers are not people who are used to talking about their feelings, especially when they are together. There are a lot of very witty comments, and they have all this immense knowledge and joke around. Harriet talks about her childhood as always being so alone, because she was younger. For many people as a child, you can feel so alone and everyone in a family context has their own experience. In my memories, I have strong memories of fear of being left alone. Fear of a parent being angry, fear of not being good enough. You want to feel safe and you want to be accepted. We tried to hint at that.

D: Tell me a little bit about working with the children. How did you describe the film to them and how would you go about making those scenes with them?

SR: They’re extraordinarily articulate. They were there every summer holiday. And of course, it was this great garden and pool and they are really close as cousins. What we did was a bit of trying to find some dragons in the house. It was like a bit of a treasure hunt. They had never been allowed to enter certain places in the house. Because of their parents being busy clearing out the house, I could say, “Okay, we’re going to look in this attic and we’re going to try to find this…” We would go to the graveyard and say, “Well, maybe you look around and see what’s there,” and we would just observe that. And I could just hand them issues: “What do you know about why do you have to sell the house? You can just talk about it by yourself.” These great conversations were really very natural.

D: I suppose there are moments that you hear in your headphones and you think, oh, this is absolutely going in the film.

SR: Yes, yes, definitely. There are gems that of course you recognize. There are like five lines in the film that I knew would be in the film as I heard them. I always write notes after shooting: What are the moments I remember?

D: Can you talk me through the filmmaking collaborative that you work with?

SR: I’ve been a filmmaker in Holland for a very long time and worked with a lot of producers. Some years ago, me and some other directors were filming Occupy in Amsterdam. And we thought we should make it as a collective. We just wanted to produce it ourselves. So we created DocMakers as five filmmakers. Six years ago, Ilja Roomans joined us as a production company. It allows us filmmakers to be very close to the production process and also be able to invest in projects we believe in. Of course, no documentary maker is in it for the money, but if one of us really wants to do something, the other might say, “Well we have some funding.” So that’s the great thing. It makes us free and independent in a way.

D: And did that allow you some seed money for this project?

SR: Yes, we had some development money, but we also invested in it ourselves. But Ilja went to Eave and when I said, “I really would like to do this film with UK editors,” she said, “Well, why not do it with Reece Cargan?” Because they had clicked and Reece has a small company in Glasgow. This would be his first feature documentary, but he was really enthusiastic and he got Screen Scotland on board and that cooperation made it possible to edit the film in Glasgow.

D: I’m interested in your perspective of the English countryside as a foreigner. What images did you have of Oxford and England and the upper class and how might that have informed your approach to the film?

SR: Like a lot of people from the continent I had this romanticized vision of England. I always love English literature and Jane Austen and Downton Abbey. Of course I also know the rough, and the Ken Loach, and the class differences. There’s a lot of class differences in Holland as well but it’s not as obvious. I learned from David Arthur how differently he approached the topic. Early on in the editing process is that we had a lot of test screenings, in Glasgow and Amsterdam. We made a questionnaire asking, “Okay, who do you sympathize with? What is this film about?” It was very elementary questions and it was so useful. 

I think from the start people really understood that this is a film about grief, about fear. That came across in both Holland and Glasgow. But the people in Holland were much more sympathetic to all the characters in the first screenings. In Glasgow, there were really some people saying, “Oh, the British upper class.” David said, “We need to see them suffer.”  We said it as a joke but of course in every film you feel more for the characters when you see how hard it is. We really wanted to show these adults as children and connect them to their childhoods. Keeping everything outside the secret garden outside. Of course they are educated people and have careers. But inside the house, they are still these children who are frightened. And to really make that visual helped us to connect with the audience as people, and with this connection reflect on your own childhood. 

Carol Nahra is a documentary journalist and lecturer. She teaches documentary and digital journalism at Syracuse University London, Royal Holloway, and the London College of Communications. She also works as a programmer and producer and is the lead trainer for the Grierson DocLab New Entrants scheme.