Kutaisi in Georgia is one of the most ancient cities in the world. Watch director Alexandre Koberidze’s new feature, What Do We See When We Look At the Sky?, and you’ll be convinced it might also be the most romantic. The arthouse fairytale about perception and possibility turns not only on the magic of chance, but also languid summer evenings of ice-cream, khachapuri and beer by the city’s White Bridge. The film premiered online at the Berlin International Film Festival and, beamed into lockdown living rooms around the globe, quickly became one of the event’s biggest buzz titles. It also came away with the Critics’ Prize.
“The times are hard enough. Hopelessness has become boring. The eye of the modern human is so tired,” says Koberidze as we chat to him about the film’s upbeat mood over Zoom in Tbilisi (he lives part-time in Berlin, but the virus kept him from travelling for the premiere.) “It was clear to me from the very beginning of writing that [this film] would be a fairytale where anything can happen. The walls can speak, and the rain can be a friend. The film is set in pretty realistic surroundings, which is perhaps a naive way to show that it’s not a joke; we somehow also mean it.”
Pharmacist Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze, then Ani Karseladze) and footballer Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze, then Giorgi Bochorishvili) agree to have a first date after a serendipitous encounter involving a dropped book in the street. But they haven’t exchanged numbers, and are unable to recognise each other at the cafe after a curse from the Evil Eye transforms their appearances. It also robs them of their professional skills, and they spend their days at new jobs just metres from one another in lovelorn yearning.
The film is gentler and more polished than the director’s prior film, Let the Summer Come Again (2017), which was shot on his cell phone and followed a gay dancer who becomes caught up in male prostitution and illegal boxing before falling in love. “I was shooting in Tbilisi for a long time and felt like that was enough with that town for a while,” says Koberidze. “Right from the first day in Kutaisi, I knew it was a good decision to try something there, because the town is very much alive.”
What Do We See When We Look At the Sky? is a film in which every crack, corner, and creature of Kutaisi seems to breathe vibrant life. Beyond the luminous cinematography, the narrator lets us in on the secret: that everything there has a kind of animistic agency. Objects from seedlings to surveillance cameras voice warnings of the curse. While lovers congregate at the White Bridge cafe, football-mad stray dogs deliberate together on where to watch the World Cup.
Kutaisi might almost seem like an enchanted city outside time, but the narrator denies us total escapism, referring to our “brutal, merciless” era in which animals are killed in forest fires caused by greed.
Koberidze had never spent time in Kutaisi before making the film, but his forebears had lived there in pre-Stalinist times. “I knew it only from stories I heard in my childhood,” he says. “It’s very small, but it’s kind of the heart of the country. Many important things have come from there.” Not least of all cinema. What Do We See When We Look At the Sky? contains nods to other Georgian classics shot there: Peola (1970), Baadur Tsuladze’s short on teen football, and Unusual Exhibition (1968), Eldar Shengelaia’s comedy about a sculptor roped into making gravestones.
While Koberidze’s closest relatives don’t live in Kutaisi anymore, that didn’t stop them from getting involvement. His brother Giorgi provided music, and while the director’s mother and father were cast in two minor roles “for some fun”, as filmmakers seeking six couples in love for a project. “It’s the only moment in life where you can direct your parents, and not the other way around,” he smiles. They don’t normally work on movies, but that’s not to say cinema doesn’t run in the family. Georgia’s first fantasy film, Tsiskara (1955), was directed by none other than Koberidze’s great-grandfather, Sergo Chelidze. When Koberidze starts shooting his next film in April in Georgia with a pandemic-friendly crew that can fit into a single car, his father will appear in the lead role. “I’ll shoot with my old cell phone again, all over the country,” he says. “It’s a road movie where the character goes after his daughter, accompanied by a friend that has an invisible body. So, it’s kind of a fairytale again.”
In the meantime, Covid-19 has hampered large productions. Yet while Koberidze has been forced to put one larger project on the backburner, he is still focusing on the positives. He was editing What Do We See When We Look At the Sky? when lockdown first hit: “It was very good for the film, because I could concentrate,” he says, “I knew I couldn’t go meet friends or play football.” Meanwhile, the normalisation of limited contact bubbles and a stunted social life has only heightened the film’s charms for audiences too. The film itself channels nostalgia for an era in which bumping into a stranger was not only possible — but could shake your world.