Get to know Georgian culture with Gen-Z tunes, arthouse films and dark comedy

Get the best of Georgia from afar with our list of classic and contemporary books, must-stream music and gay romance

15 June 2020
Lead Image: Ike Okwudiafor

“What you hide away is lost / What you give away is yours” wrote Shota Rustaveli, Georgia’s preeminent national poet. In the briefest of couplets, he captured Georgia’s generosity of spirit, its instinct to preserve its history, and its insatiable appetite to consume and tell stories. These conditions lend Georgia an infectiously creative atmosphere, one which has nurtured its local cultural scene through thick and thin and attracted writers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians from across the world. A creation of a list however, also implies exclusion and limitation. So the following is only — like Rustaveli’s lyric — a brief and technicolored introduction to the country’s culture, balancing epic poetry with dreamy electronica, Soviet cinema with Gen-Z pop.

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The Eighth Life by Nino Haratishvili

To truly understand a country is perhaps a life’s work. But at over 900 pages, Nino Haratishvili’s 2019 historical novel, The Eighth Life, offers the next best thing: a comprehensive, vivid, and heartbreaking portrait of 19th- and 20th-century Georgia. Following the fate of the Jashi family from 1917 to the present day, Haratishvili captures the significance of major historical moments — the Bolshevik invasion, Stalin’s purges, the 1989 protests — through human eyes. Peopled by a cast of party bosses and daring dissenters, Haratishvili’s gripping saga leaves the reader with an unmistakable sense of Georgia’s history, culture, and the wounds of its past.

The Literature Express by Lasha Bugadze

Lasha Bugadze’s darkly comic 2014 novel, The Literature Express, tells the story of a rambunctious group of writers from across Europe, who are invited to tour the continent on this unique train journey. Set shortly after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Bugadze’s work is as much a lamentation on the country’s literary culture, as it is on its geopolitical present. With sharp wit and heavy satire, Bugadze captures the politics of petty nationalism between writers brilliantly, offering moments of insight into the Georgian psyche that are both humorous and hard-hitting: “We expect danger from all sides so we tend to frown in advance,” he writes. “That’s the way we defend ourselves.”

It would be a crime to speak about Georgian literature and not mention Shota Rustaveli’s 12th-century masterpiece, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, composed during Georgia’s “golden age” under the reign of Queen Tamar. Consisting of 1,666 rhyming quatrains, it is an epic tale of courtly love and considered a crowning work of medieval literature. All Georgian poets are said to be in some way indebted to Rustaveli, including Paolo Iashvili and Titsian Tabidze, both key figures in the 20th-century symbolist movement and contemporaries of Boris Pasternak. It’s no accident that the main boulevard in the centre of Tbilisi carries Rustaveli’s name.

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And Then We Danced by Levan Akin

Levan Akin’s 2019 film And Then We Danced is often referred to as the Georgian Call Me By Your Name, unhelpfully so. While ostensibly the film follows a will-they won’t-they love story between two young men (as with Guadagnino’s 2017 Oscar nominated film), And Then We Danced is a more expansive, sociological work. Through Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) and Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), Akin delves into difficult questions around class, gender, sexuality, and tradition in Georgia, reflecting the contemporary conversations that are happening in the country today. Taking place predominantly in the austere halls of the Georgian National Ensemble, the film is both a paean to the aesthetics of Georgian dance and an interrogation of its place in contemporary culture. Winning the Grand Prix at the prestigious Odesa International Film Festival in 2019, And Then We Danced joins a growing list of award-winning recent Georgian dramas including Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines and Nana Ekvtimishvili’s In Bloom, to name a few.

Pirosmani by Giorgi Shengelaia

Giorgi Shengelaia’s 1969 film about Georgia’s most famous painter, Nikoloz Pirsomanishvili, shows more than it says. A contemplative, slow-moving series of vignettes, the film’s muted style echoes the paintings of the artist himself, which predominantly depict the rituals of everyday rural life in late 19th-century Georgia. Suffering from alcoholism and chronic financial difficulties, Pirosmani is portrayed as a melancholic figure whose tender, gentle art captured something universal about the human soul. Shengelaia’s film is a subtle, silent extension of this same artistic inclination. (Be sure not to confuse Giorgi with his brother Eldar Shengelaia, whose 1983 comedy Blue Mountains follows a writer on a sisyphean mission to get his novel published in a pusillanimous, overly bureaucratic Soviet publishing house in Tbilisi.)

Roots by Guguli Mgeladze

Guguli Mgeladze’s 1987 film, Roots, is a Georgian national treasure. Giorgi is a Georgian taxi driver living in Paris, who longs to return to his homeland which he hasn’t seen in decades. He is a tree, torn from its roots — his only tangible connection to home, a pot of Georgian soil he carries with him. Shifting between his life in Paris and visions of returning to see his family, Roots is a dreamy, tender, and painful portrayal of the experience of exile. Now an old man, and on the verge of death, Giorgi asks his grandson to take his ashes to Georgia, resulting in one of the most arresting endings in Georgian cinema.

Beyond Georgia’s rich cinematic culture, Sophio Medoidze is a contemporary Georgian artist using film as the primary medium in her work. In Jackals and Drones, which showed at Peckhamplex as part of the Serpentine Cinema programme in 2018, she warns of the ills of consumer culture through the figure of Medea. Filmed in the ancient caves of Vardzia, Georgia, Medoidze interrogates the costs of modernity, a theme also explored in her 2019 work Xitane, set in Tusheti, a remote corner of Georgia, whose ancient way of life is being threatened by tourism and the recent introduction of WiFi. Her fragmentary style — often involving disruptive techniques and abrupt shifts in narrative — reflects a wider inquiry into the multiplicity of truth. Images relating to multiplicity, dissociation, and collision also feature in her works Black Sea is really black and Andropov’s Ears, with more available on her website.

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DIE 4 YOU” by Creams

Natia Chichinadze, aka Creams, is Georgia’s answer to Billie Eilish. After storming onto Georgia’s electro-pop scene with her slow, apocalyptic single, “DIE 4 YOU”, the Batumi-born singer has become something of a Gen-Z icon. Featured by international cultural publications i-D and Vivisxn, she is already gaining attention abroad that will no doubt increase as she releases more work. In “DIE 4 YOU”, over a dark, atmospheric bass note, Creams sings: “You think I’ll die for you / One summer day / When everybody’s at the beach I’ll be on my way / To die for you.” It’s a bold, self-assured opening, announcing Creams’ arrival on Georgia’s contemporary music scene.

Sleepers, Poets, Scientists by CES Creative Education Studio

Creative Education Studio’s all-female compilation album Sleepers, Poets, Scientists is the first record produced by the experimental Tbilisi school that works across design, sound engineering, and production. Featuring the ethereal minimalism of Anushka Chkeidze (whose solo album Haflie was recently released by CES), Natalie Beridze (Georgia’s mother electronica), and others, the album boasts a diverse collection of sounds — both electronic and acoustic — while conjuring a consistently ambient, tranquil soundscape. A far cry from Tbilisi’s world-famous rave scene, the oneiric, restrained beats of Sleepers, Poets, Scientists constitute a more moderate dose of Georgia’s electronic music scene whose borders lie well beyond the walls of its techno megaclub Bassiani.