The tradition of Georgian filmmaking goes back nearly as far as the history of cinema itself, Rusudan Glurjidze reminds me as she sits smoking a cigarette in the sun outside a cafe in Karlovy Vary. The warm and eloquent director was awarded for her feature debut House of Others last year at the Czech spa town’s film festival, which is one of the oldest in the world and is the primary showcase for cinema from Central and Eastern Europe. She was back this year as a jury member, where there were again several strong Georgian films in the line-up. “We had very good directors in the past such as [Giorgi] Shengelaia and [Otar] Iosseliani, but during the collapse of the Soviet Union everything was destroyed in Georgia and of course there was no cinema at all. Now it’s starting again,” she says of this bold resurgence of talent. “The next year will be great for Georgian cinema as there are about nine new films coming, and many debuts. Our future is the young generation.”
The break in historical continuity that occurred after the USSR disintegrated and the nation slid into civil war was the focus of Glurjidze’s House of Others, a work of haunting poetry set in the now Russian-occupied Abkhazia region in the conflict’s aftermath. The houses of residents driven out overnight “as if they had evaporated” have been taken over by new occupants. The director, who shot the film in a real abandoned village, says this is a situation most Georgians — herself included — can relate to. “I had a summer house that I loved very much and one refugee family from Abkhazia took the house and all the things in it,” she says. “For 25 years these houses have been occupied by other people, but it’s okay — they need them more.”
Rain pelts down and birds swirl above unharvested tangerine trees in House of Others, adding to the evocative melancholy of a ghost town where women now outnumber men and reality slips through its disoriented inhabitants’ fingers. “It’s very emotional when you enter the house of someone you don’t know and start to discover them through their things. Every door has a special noise,” says Glurjidze. Her sense for visual atmosphere is part of her directing DNA, a result of Georgia’s reputation for excellent cinematography. She was, after all, a student of Giorgi Shengelaia, whose Pirosmani (1969) — a lyrical biography about primitivist painter Niko Pirosmani — is a masterpiece of striking design and coloured tableaux. “Shengelaia taught us in his own way,” says Glurjidze. “In the first year he turned off the sound and told us that if he didn’t understand our films without dialogue, they weren’t cinema.”
The tradition of Georgian filmmaking goes back nearly as far as the history of cinema itself
The urge to process and tell the stories of the painful 90s has underpinned a number of recent Georgian arthouse successes. In Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated anti-war drama Tangerines (2014), two ethnic Estonians who have stayed for the harvest in another deserted village in Abkhazia take in rival wounded soldiers. Similarly acclaimed is In Bloom (2013), the coming-of-age tale of two teenage girls in Tbilisi just after independence which was the feature debut of directing duo Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross. Scripted by Ekvtimishvili and based on her own memories, it depicts a society teetering on the brink of violence, where carrying a gun for protection raises few eyebrows among macho teens.
This year, Khibula, George Ovashvili’s much-anticipated third film in what he calls his “trilogy on the 90s”, had its world premiere in Karlovy Vary. A mood piece of stately cinematography and a psychological rumination on the downfall of power, the film is pared down to the extent that it feels at times more like fatalistic fable than concrete biography. It portrays the final days of Georgia’s first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. His death in a mountain village whilst on the run in 1993 is shrouded in mystery; whether it was suicide or murder has never been conclusively determined. “I wanted to find out how this man was feeling when he understood he is losing everything; losing the illusory world which in my opinion every big leader lives in,” Ovashvili told me at the festival. “We know many different similar stories about leaders, whose nations create an idol and destroy them at the same time.” As with much Georgian cinema, communal songs and toasts punctuating meals are a prominent element, adding emotional texture. “Songs are an integral part of regular life in Georgia, which is a country of contrasts. Even when having a bad time, the Georgian response is to sing.”
Elsewhere, the visual majesty of the unforgiving Caucasian mountains is conveyed in a bold, idiosyncratic manner in Dede, a feature debut at Karlovy Vary that won a special jury award for its talented director Mariam Khatchvani. It was shot in the Svaneti region of northwest Georgia, where she was born. Inspired by family experiences gleaned from her grandmother, its focus is a woman (Natia Vibliani) whose determination to marry for love rather than adhering to the strict rules of the clan system inevitably sparks bloodshed. The film is in the Svan language, which Khatchvani urgently wants to preserve, and as a result has a cast almost entirely made up of non-professionals.
Khatchvani tells me the production hit a roadblock after ten days of shooting. Two of the male leads, one of whom is her husband (cinema is very much a family affair in Georgia), were arrested after an argument with a police officer, and handed disproportionate jail time of 6 months. While fighting for their release Khatchvani altered the script to accommodate their absence and restarted the shoot. “Now for my next project I am working to make a script about this system,” she says. “The police can change people’s lives because of one small accident. They changed Dede, unfortunately. But if I make a very good film about this misfortune, it will be some consolation.” In one scene in Dede, villagers gather to watch a Georgian comedy classic, Eldar Shengelaia’s dig at Soviet bureaucracy Blue Mountains, or An Unbelievable Story (1983), in which a writer struggles to have his manuscript read by publishing house employees, who fob him off at every turn. Its vision of persecution by callous officialdom could prove a touchstone for Khatchvani’s next endeavour.
The urge to process and tell the stories of the painful 90s has underpinned a number of recent Georgian arthouse successes
There are also echoes of the exasperation of Blue Mountain’s writer protagonist in My Happy Family, the latest from Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, in which the inability of middle-aged literature teacher Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) to get a minute for herself amid the whirl of demands and nagging of her relatives is portrayed with a charming feel for the absurd and farcical. Manana decides to leave her husband and the loud, chaotic apartment they share with extended family to live on her own. It’s a decision nobody around her supports or understands, and its basis in the conviction that women should be free to nurture their own inner lives is at odds with Georgian society’s traditional emphasis on family.
As with so many films produced by the “young generation”, My Happy Family deals with the loss of certainty in a changing world. But in the hands of these new talents the tradition of Georgian cinema itself has indisputably been revitalised, and looks more assured than ever.