In a small Georgian village by the Black Sea, life is peaceful and the community seems tight. Only one man, Eliko, is considered an outsider — whether it’s due to his fancy clothes and different taste in music, or the fact he keeps to himself. Yet when Eliko is found dead by suicide, nobody wants to bury him. At the titular Wet Sand bar, some locals even suggest that he should be left out in the street. So it’s up to Amnon (Gia Agumava), his secret lover of the last 22 years, and Eliko’s estranged granddaughter Moe (Bebe Sesitashvili), visiting from Tbilisi, to make the necessary arrangements and honour his memory.
Wet Sand offers a contemplative portrait of resistance, never shying away from the oppression that queer people still face in the Caucasus. Georgia is known as one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, with 84 per cent of citizens saying that same-sex relationships are wrong in the recent survey. This summer, Tbilisi Pride was cancelled amid protests and unrest, while photographer Lekso Lashkarava died after injuries sustained at an anti-Pride march. The film captures this media and political climate well: a news report playing in the bar tells us how the Orthodox Church countered May 17th’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia with their own ultra-traditionalist “Strength of the Family” Day.
Directed by Elene Naveriani, Wet Sand premiered in the Cineasti del presente competition at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival, to praise from critics and jury. Debutant Agumava also took home the festival’s Best Actor award, despite not being a professional performer: in real life, he teaches Latin at a university. You wouldn’t know it’s his first performance from the quietly-observed melancholy he provides throughout the film, often captured in medium-length shots that keep the audience distant from his pain. In one standout scene, accompanied by the gorgeously-mixed sound of rain pattering outside, he reveals to Moe the moment he laid eyes on Eliko for the first time. Their relationship is mirrored and refracted by Moe’s own burgeoning connection with barmaid Fleshka (Megi Kobaladze), hinting that the future needn’t look the same as the past.
Naveriani says that casting for this film proved a particularly difficult challenge: “Nobody wanted to be a part of it. When they got the story and read a scene of physical contact with another man, they refused. They took it very personally, somehow forgetting that actors can do anything.” In the current climate, it comes as no surprise. As the director, who identifies as non-binary, tells The Calvert Journal, queer people “basically don’t have a life [in Georgia]. You’re constantly hiding who you are, what you want and who you desire. This is the biggest personal drama that a lot of people are living through every day.”
This cover-up continues even after death. Wet Sand is inspired by the death of Naveriani’s real-life friend Bianka Shigurova, the transgender star of short film Gospel of Anasyrma (2014). She died after a gas leak. “When I went to her funeral, she was treated in this dark and absurd way,” says Naveriani. Not only was Shigurova buried under her dead name (the name given to a transgender person before they transition), but the coffin wasn’t big enough for the grave. The same scene is tragically replicated in the film.
Naveriani worked on the screenplay with their brother, Sandro Naveriani, taking his words and “minimising it in a way so, instead of 10 words, I would just use one. For me, cinema is just about the tiny movements and nuances of gestures that tell a lot.” This restrained filmmaking approach, inspired by the long takes and carefully detailed style of Japanese auteur Kenji Mizoguchi, helps articulate the emotions that simply cannot be expressed out loud.
Ultimately, Wet Sand finds its spirit in the resilience of outsider Moe, with her short, dyed-blonde, masculine haircut. The film repurposes Western movie tropes: “You have a classical hero who kind of saves the village,” Naveriani says. And, like the best Westerns, the movie represents a community rallying together against oppression through the power of solidarity: “I wanted to have very different people living together and see how their relationships create a kind of micro-society.”
Georgian society, however, is still in crisis for LGBTQ+ people. “This summer everything became clear: that this is how they treat us and what our position is in Georgian society. The painful part is there’s not really any hope,” Naveriani says. Nonetheless, the director believes that cinema can make a difference. “[Film] really helped me to get out of depression when I was a teenager. I believe that it has the power to move something in you. And I believe that if it touches you, there’s going to be some change possible.”
Are they worried about the film’s eventual screening in Georgia, especially considering the intense reaction towards 2019’s And Then They Danced? The director says not. “I know that [a backlash] is going to happen. I think it’s a path that every society has to go through. These are the kinds of situations that help us grow up. I’m happy if people are going to get angry or throw stones. It’s good for the film.”