Young in the 90s: in her debut novel, director Nana Ekvtimishvili explores a decade most Georgians want to forget

Young in the 90s: in her debut novel, director Nana Ekvtimishvili explores a decade most Georgians want to forget
Image: Irma Sharikadze

Award-winning director Nana Ekvtimishvili talks to The Calvert Journal about turning her obsession for the post-Soviet 90s into a literary debut.

5 November 2020

Nana Ekvtimishvili is best known for documenting the private struggles of life in Georgia in the 1990s through film. Alongside her directorial partner Simon Groß, Ekvtimishvili tackles some of post-Soviet Georgia’s most pressing social issues in her award-winning features, In Bloom (2013) and My Happy Family (2017). Part of a new wave of Georgian directors (that also includes Tinatin Gurchiani and Zaza Urushadze) expressing the particular turmoil of the 90s through art, Ekvtimishvili found a way to communicate the intimate trials of a country in transition, free of didacticism or sentimentality. She achieved this by transporting her viewers to worlds behind closed doors, letting them touch and feel the ridges and bumps of everyday Georgian life.

Ekvtimishvili has now returned to the familiar setting of the 90s in her debut novel, The Pear Field, published by Peirene Press, a UK-based publisher once aptly described as specialising in “literary cinema”. The Pear Field takes place in a residential school for children with disabilities – what the neighbours ruthlessly call the “School for Idiots” – in the outskirts of Tbilisi. A torturous environment where cruelty and abuse thrive, the school harks back to the nightmarish Soviet-era orphanages described in Ruben Gallego’s Russian Booker-Prize winning memoir, White on Black. For one character, the distant promise of being adopted by a foreign family provides a way out. For another, it is death.

While the novel could be viewed as an extension of her cinematic work, Ektimishvili stresses their separateness. “When you’re doing a film — it’s a project, it starts and it ends,” she tells me over Zoom from her home in Berlin, Germany. “It’s very artificial: you organise things, you buy things, you put it together, you try to create some context. But when I’m writing, I just need some paper and a pen. I feel that I am close to me.”

If the literary form provides Ekvtimishvili with the space for self-discovery, the book’s subject matter is equally personal. “I lived next to this school; we shared a fence so their backyard and our backyard were next to each other,” she says. “At some point, when I went back to Georgia, these memories came alive. I started to discover those children on the street, begging, asking people for money. So I wanted to let readers into this world, to stay next to these people, as opposed to being above them.”

As a child, Ekvtimishvili was told “normal families shouldn’t play with those children”, a mindset reflective of the wider neglect vulnerable children experienced in the Soviet and post-Soviet period. In the last decade, Georgia has implemented huge reforms in childcare, closing down antiquated state orphanages and introducing laws to protect homeless children. “It’s a completely different situation now,” says Ektvimishvili. “But these things I describe in the book were typical for Soviet countries. Of course, the book is fiction and the characters are not real, but I would say everything in the book could have happened in Soviet or post-Soviet schools in Georgia,” she says.

As with her films, which so often feature congested frames and busy dialogue, there is a similar sensorial density to Ekvtimishvili’s prose. “I was really focused on describing the naturalist geography of the school”, she says. Take her descriptions of the school’s bedrooms: “It’s the smell of dirty children, or sometimes of clothes scrubbed clean with laundry soap; the smell of musty linen and hand-me-down bedding; the smell of paraffin lamps and, in winter, wood stoves; the smell of old armchairs and sticky tape covering cracks in the windows and Chinese mallow plants lined up on the sill.” The effect on the senses is oppressive and overwhelming. And yet, her prose remains limpid and light, gliding easily between description and dialogue.

I have just one life and the 90s left in me something which feels endless

Born in 1978, Ekvtimishvili’s teenage years were spent during the turbulent 90s, before leaving to study in Germany at the age of 20. Like many children, she witnessed anti-government demonstrations in 1989 when Soviet tanks descended onto Rustaveli – Tbilisi’s central boulevard – just months before the break-up of the union. And yet, like all children, she speaks about a feeling of youthful disconnection from the winds of change around her. “On one hand, my teenage life was absorbed by politics. My friends and I just talked about politics,” she says. “And on the other hand, I felt I was on the edge of the world.”

Writing about her experiences of the 90s – a traumatising time that many Georgians would rather not revisit – has also attracted criticism. “I hear a lot of times, in Georgia, that people cannot stand to read about the 90s or see films about the 90s or even talk about the 90s,” she says. “But for me, I’m not looking for drama; this is not my intention. It was just my life. I have just one life and the 90s left in me something which feels endless.” Despite external pressure, Ekvtimishvili is undeterred and has already sketched out her second book. “It takes place in the 90s and is a story about one family. In particular, the relationship between a teenage girl and her father who comes back from the war in Abkhazia and tries somehow to coexist with his family,” she says.

There is some familiar architecture here: inter-generational disparity, the effects of war, domestic unrest. But also, something more ontologically challenging that, though often unseen, is always at play in Ekvtimishvili’s work. “Maybe it’s about the impossibility of coexistence,” she adds, an elegant summary of the philosophical problem that underpins her artistic project as a whole.

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