Batumi, Georgia’s third-largest city, has become known as the ”Las Vegas of the Black Sea”, due to the reliance of its economy on gambling. It’s true you can’t stroll far in any direction without spotting a “Casino” sign, but the atmosphere of this popular resort destination is not one of gaudy, neon-lit hedonism. Nestled by the Caucasus Mountains, it wears its warm breeze, frequent rain showers and ample greenery with the nonchalance of a long summer winding down. There’s an offbeat elegance to its quirky blend of architecture, from the pastel-green, turreted roof of the Wyndham Hotel which, jutting up in the skyline beside more futuristic high-rise designs, looks like a stray set from a Wes Anderson film, to the flourishes of its many fin-de-siècle mansions, its balconies, and its climbing ivy. Here, in September, the Batumi International Art-House Film Festival held its 14th edition, bringing the local film industry together with international guests for a showcase of Georgian cinema past and present, and recent hits from the global festival circuit. And there was time to soak it all up. Batumi’s casual pace makes Tbilisi, Georgia’s dynamic, hipper-than-thou capital, seem almost frenetic by comparison. The ease was just as well, since lunches there were feasts that went on forever. Waiters were tireless in bringing Georgia’s famed food and wine to restaurant tables in staggered deliveries, even if the plates stood atop each other, while we toasted to everything from the world’s cinematographers to the New Zealand rugby team. But let’s not forget the films.

White Caravan

The shepherd: it’s a profession that dates back before Christ, we hear in Tetri karavani (White Caravan) – and it never gets any easier. Tending flocks is treated with the deep respect that comes with long tradition by the men who do it in this beautiful 1963 Soviet-era drama by Georgian directors Eldar Shengelaia and Tamaz Meliava, but the strain takes a heavy toll on their lives. “I’ve seen three generations of sheepdogs. Even they can’t bear the hardship of the job,” says one shepherd. Amid a strained romance and much inner turmoil, Gela (Imedo Kakhiani) decides the job isn’t worth the sacrifice of his personal freedom. He gives in to the lure of the city, abandoning the co-operative of shepherds, led by his father, that he is an integral part of. Will he regret it? Magnificently shot in black-and-white, the film, which screened in a restored version, is a tribute to the grit and integrity of rural work. Absent of the pastoral idealism often found in more shallow visions of country life, it refutes the idea that modern stress is concentrated in inescapable urban acceleration.

There is much in White Caravan that chimes with Independent People, Icelandic novelist Haldor Laxness’s sardonic ‘30s epic about eking out a living through sheep in brutal, blizzard-prone nature, and with the “man alone” cinematic and literary tradition I grew up with in New Zealand, about stoic farming pioneers toughing it out in a landscape they experience as psychically overwhelming. Vincent Ward’s Vigil (1984), for instance, begins with the patriarch of the household falling to his death down a ravine while trying to rescue a wayward sheep, in steep terrain shot with all the accentuated angles and dramatic foreboding of an Expressionist film. The rest of the family are left struggling to find a reason to stay in the godforsaken location, in a house precariously perched atop the mudslide-prone land, the alienation inseparable from colonisation feeding a sense of unease in their identity as unwelcome guests.

If we can claim there’s a whole canon about sheep-farmers in existential crisis, Georgian cinema is surely a part of it. But, while a stubborn single-mindedness bordering on the eccentric is a trait in works such as Vigil, White Caravan does not speak such a language of self-reliance in solitude. Befitting a country with a close fabric of family ties, its Georgian shepherds are social, even passionately romantic beings, who owe allegiance to the group. Security comes by working together, and carrying one’s load. To deny one’s place in this inter-reliant system, means tragedy inevitably ensues.

It’s not the only time Eldar Shengelaia has portrayed the struggle of the individual for a professional life of dignified self-fulfilment with wry-humoured empathy. One of Georgia’s directing greats, his satire of petty bureaucracy Tsisperi mtebi anu daujerebeli ambavi (Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story, 1983), focuses on a writer struggling to have his manuscript read by publishing house employees, who fob him off at every turn. In dealing with a more ancestral calling, White Caravan does not ultimately side with the egotistical and rebellious Gela. Though his forays into town are initially played for laughs (when he and his carousing companion order ten cocktails at once, we know their novice loutishness will bring trouble), the consequences of his final departure amid nature’s storm-lashed unpredictability are of the most serious kind. Still, the emotional burden on the shepherds of having to leave their loved ones at home for most of the year while they journey their sheep to pastures by the Caspian Sea is captured with sympathy, not to mention the physical and psychological pressure of ensuring that no sheep are lost from one’s fold and the ewes produce the required seasonal number of a hundred lambs.

It may be a macho film for a macho way of life (chasing a prospective love interest on a horse to aggressively insist on her attention is presented as a legitimate courtship mode here), but the figure of Maria (Ariadna Shelgelaia), the young fisherwoman who becomes Gela’s fiancee, is as spirited as she is disarming. Her fleshed-out characterisation and human appeal is instrumental in conveying the complexity of the problems with a profession demanding long absences and an all-encompassing commitment to transient work. She does not tempt Gela away from his labour; rather, his inability to meet and combine her needs into a workable solution is presented as another aspect of his failure to support the wider group; as a symptom of his fatal self-involvement. When he moves to the city he leaves her behind, as well as his duty to his co-operative and herd. The demands on shepherds are high indeed, White Caravan suggests, but real men harden themselves to rise above them, while retaining their capacity to love.

Let There Be Light Shines in Competition

The International Competition suggested that tradition under pressure is a theme that resonates as urgently as ever, especially for a Georgian audience. It recurred in very different ways through the ten films, which together were testament to the festival’s commitment to supporting an arthouse sensibility and production. Regional neighbours such as Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan were especially well-represented in the selection.

A special Jury Prize went to Ende der Saison (End of Season), the debut feature of Azerbaijani director Elmar Imanov, which had its world premiere in Rotterdam. It mis-steps a little with some unnecessary stylistic flourishes and fantastical touches, but at its core it’s a fascinatingly ambiguous and emotionally complex portrayal of a marriage coming apart at the seams. A couple and their adult son cooped up in an apartment in Baku feel hemmed in by circumstance and diminishing emotional returns. A melancholic cover of Nena’s “99 Luftballons” echoes their urge to escape (the nod to Germany would feel slightly random, were it not for the fact Imanov is now based there, and it is a co-producing partner). The father Samir (Rasim Jafarov) resorts to frequent, semi-concealed drinking, but it’s his wife Fidan (Zulfiyye Qurbanova) that really brings tensions to a head when she inexplicably disappears on a day trip to the beach. Imanov wisely resists over-explaining, instead allowing the kernel of mystery and unknowability that exists in even the closest of relationships space to work on our unease and imaginations.

Ende der Saison (End of Season, Elmar Imanov)

More conventional in form but packing a heavier punch in terms of substance was Czech director Marko Škop’s Nech je svetlo (Let There Be Light), which came away with the Grand Prix. It takes on Europe’s contemporary ills, but resists simplistic messaging in its exploration of the psychology of rising nationalism and radicalisation. An itinerant carpenter and avid gun collector (Milan Ondrík) returns home from well-paying work abroad to Slovakia for Christmas to find his son (František Beleš) has joined a far-right paramilitary group. In the aftermath of the suicide of another youth in the organisation, bullied over his sexual orientation, villagers are soul-searching – a questioning of the status quo that is unwelcomed by the influential and underhand local priest. Tension builds to a devastating nail-biter of a climax in this powerful, unsettling drama. It is a chilling wake-up call on just how pervasively harmful ideology can infiltrate a society when unchecked and countered by positive guidance within families or institutions.

Turkish director Emin Alper’s Kız Kardeşler (A Tale of Three Sisters) is tonally uneven and somewhat over-jammed with incident, but when its scenes really work, they do so with a wicked-humoured charm and Gogol-like affinity for the human side of the grotesque that is wholly disarming. Strong acting is crucial in this (it picked up both Best Actor and Actress awards, for Kayhan Açıkgöz and Ece Yüksel respectively), and its majestic lensing of the mountain landscape doesn’t hurt either. It tells of siblings in a mountain village longing for life in the city, allies-cum-rivals who vye to serve a better-off household as “besleme” (foster children who work for their carers). Beset by character flaws and bad luck, they suffer a string of misfortunes in a film that suggests some people are cursed by fate (or just stupidity) to repeat the mistakes of their forebears.

Nech je svetlo (Let There Be Light, Marko Škop)

While British director Mark Jenkin’s debut feature Bait was one of the selection’s more experimentally intriguing oddities, his untempered fetish for aesthetic stylisation ultimately leaves it feeling rather empty. A fishing village in Cornwall is the setting for a class war between a gruff fisherman (Edward Rowe) who grew up there, and the posh London couple to whom he has been forced through economic hardship to sell his cottage. There is wry commentary in the way the time-honoured tradition of fishing is reduced to mere ironic decor by the touristic interlopers, who appropriate its visual vernacular in remodelling the house as a vacation getaway, from a fake porthole down to the sign “Skipper’s Cottage” on its outer wall. But the retro, scratchy look of the film, shot with a vintage Bolex on black-and-white 16mm stock that was hand-processed by Jenkin, is as distracting as it is quirkily nostalgic. Its jumpy montages are eagerly showy, and the clash between authentic local grit and uppity modernity feels overly schematic. The film’s critique of gentrification is too heavy-handed, and its formal fussiness too contrived, then, for it to really let its characters breathe and come alive on the screen.

Arabesques on the Theme of Pirosmani (and a Toast)

The program Beyond Soviet Propaganda presented four shorts from the Soviet era. It was a further reminder that Georgia’s bold and inventive cinematic tradition stretches back far before the disruption to the nation’s creative life and historical continuity that was wrought by the Soviet Union’s collapse and ensuing civil war. The roots have not been forgotten, then, of Georgia’s recent re-emergence as a film powerhouse amid a new wave of talent. As with White Caravan, the grind of tough physical work also drives Tudzhi (Cast Iron, 1964) by Otar Iosseliani, one of Georgia’s most famed directors, through the depiction of blast-furnace operators in a metal foundry. The glorified worker of Soviet ideology striding toward the future is not mythologised here; the fires and roar of this den of physically gruelling labour seem to reflect hell more than some imminent utopia.

Perhaps most striking of all was a short by Sergei Parajanov, that Soviet-Armenian master of oneiric, imagistic tableaux and surreal legends, who was born in Tbilisi. His Arabeskebi Pirosmanis temaze (Arabesques on the Theme of Pirosmani, 1985) is a visually opulent tribute to Georgia’s famed primitivist painter Niko Pirosmani, who starved to death before he reached prominence posthumously. The film is no straight-up, didactic biopic of the artist. Georgians are probably too infused with poetry to ever opt for that – Eldar Shengelaia’s brother Giorgi made the best-known film about Pirosmani, 1969’s feature-length masterpiece called simply Pirosmani, and, while it is more in line with biography in its narrative format than Parajanov’s film, its quality lies in its idiosyncratic visual richness, channeling the spirit of the painter by renouncing the petty and commercial. Parajanov’s tribute, too, is not just about the paintings, but seems to inhabit or embody them. It hones in on their details, just as the eye does when confronted with one of Pirosmani’s canvases teeming with incident, be it a banquet table of toasting revellers at a feast, or the giraffe that died because it couldn’t stand Tbilisi’s climate – an outsider animal too alien to fulfil the pragmatic basics of survival in society, just like him. A woman in an elaborate headpiece of flowers, greenery and lace blown by the wind gazes out of the frame at us, red-lipped, moving with the flourishes of dance or ceremony, or playing a concertina. Pirosmani’s paintings are displayed around on a kind of makeshift stall amid windows and doors that, attached to no building, stand suspended in space, surreally framing a barren landscape in a way that conveys the mystery of art as hallucinatory vision, or near-impossible materialisation. We might almost be in an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, but the air of esoteric mysticism is gentler, less provocatively psychedelic. A horseman canters up from deep within the frame, a white city in the background, while the artist kneels, holding the painting of a white lamb aloft (covering his face, eclipsing himself or becoming it), and the woman twirls far back toward the vanishing point. Cinema traverses planes, opening up toward oblivion and perhaps collective memory this territory of dream, legend and transformation, sacrifice and humbly conjured offerings.

Arabeskebi Pirosmanis temaze (Arabesques on the Theme of Pirosmani, Sergei Parajanov, 1985)

At the end of my third visit to Georgia in the last two years, it was clear that my enthusiasm as a convert to its cinema still holds. Not to mention, to a kind of celebratory maximalism you don’t find alive and well much in the online era of petty “Film Twitter” squabbling, but you might just start believing in again after a few days of endless Batumi toasts. Who can get enough of Pirosmani? And old Georgian masters? And why would you want to? I’ll raise my next glass of red, wherever I am, to them.

Batumi International Art-House Film Festival
15-22 September 2019
Festival website: http://www.biaff.org/

About The Author

Born in New Zealand and now living in Berlin, Carmen Gray is a freelance film critic and journalist for London-based publications Sight & Sound, The Guardian, Screen International, The Calvert Journal and Estonian culture weekly Sirp. She is also part of the team launching independent cinema Wolf in Berlin.