In Georgia, a country empty of non-commercial movie theatres, the local cinephiles’ only destination for art-house cinema is the Tbilisi International Film Festival (TIFF). Since 1999 TIFF has provided its audience with international and local program sections and competitions every December. 2019 was different however in that the festival held only the Georgian competition, as well as retrospectives and outstanding new movies from bigger festivals. Generations of Georgian directors with vastly different visions and approaches were presented in a competition of six features. The decision of the jury infuriated the local spectators as the main prize (called the Golden Prometheus) went to Chaisuntke-Amoisuntke (Inhale-Exhale, Dito Tsintsadze), widely despised by local critics for its narrow political and social perspective. Though Tsintsadze attempts to probe socio-economical issues associated with being transgender, his characters come across as superficial bordering on caricature. It was hard to ignore the boos from the (mainly local) audience when the prize was announced, which illustrated the gulf between the domestic viewers and international film professionals (only foreign people comprised the jury).

Many of the selections in the 20th TIFF revolved around human rights and minorities, outraging local right-wing conservatives, often described by Georgian media as xenophobic, nationalists, pro-Russian and etc. Oftentimes the principal entrance of Amirani (the festival’s main cinema venue) was crowded with nationalists protesting the “LGBT-propaganda” pushed by Kometebi (Comets, Tamar Shavgulidze), which depicts a meeting of two female ex-lovers. After the first protest right-wingers discovered other “unacceptable” pictures such as Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma), also exploring lesbian love, or Gospodpostoi, imetoi’ e Petrunija (God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, Teona Strugar Mitevska), a Macedonian grotesque about a dysfunctional religious institute. Walking through the corridor carved out by police for viewers entering the cinema and later watching films reflecting confrontations of the individual against hegemony was a remarkable experience.

Accidental Captive of Naivety: Comets Leaking Obtuse Poetry

Narrating middle-aged female love Shavgulidze makes an extraordinary poetical overture of cinema in Comets. After Nana (Ketevan Gegeshidze) and Irina’s (Nino Kasradze) love story leaked into a homophobic society when they were just teens, Irina went abroad. Nana got married and named her daughter Irina. Decades later Irina visits Nana at the country house where their affair began, and the two reminisce about their teenage memories of their socially-proscribed love and joy.

With its low budget (45,618 EUR / 136,854 GEL) Comets is technically fragile, which exposes its unusual cinematic approach. The technical execution is sadly at odds with Shavgulidze’s cinematic ambition: the director aims for a transcendental aesthetic whereas the art direction is banal. Its linguistic presentation is so different to any Georgian dialect that it comes across as fake. However, one detects the promise of a cinematic talent: there is a twirling mysticism on-screen in the prologue as the obscure, “alien” music is heard over two girls sitting contemplating the night sky. Indeed the director has spoken of the film’s inspiration coming from the poem, “Sakhli Tkis Pirad(House on the Edge of the Forest) by Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze.

Kometebi (Comets, Tamar Shavgulidze)

After this strong start, DOP Giorgi Shvelidze’s static camera observes Nana and her daughter in a somewhat cold and empty way. However when Irina arrives, the image softens, the atmosphere seems to melt, as the bodies of two middle-aged women are situated in a yard full of memories. Flashbacks invade the screen, occasionally recollecting a character’s memories as dreams. The same “alien” music is heard in the epilogue, with a godlike voiceover, and a woman in black walks through the forest and afield. Nationalists in the audience were not the only ones disappointed with Shavgulidze’s film: some people are afraid of non-traditional sexuality and others, non-traditional ways of filmmaking.

Construction of Nightmares: The Criminal Man

Though bringing with them more experience and a more sophisticated cinematic outlook, the older generation of Georgian film directors still wrestle with various issues. Where Inhale-Exhale perceives local culture and landscape as more than exotic, Okros Dzapi (The Golden Thread, Lana Ghoghoberidze) comes across as an exaggerated character study and too-linear reconsideration of Soviet trauma, and Dmitry Mamuliya’s Borotmokmedi (The Criminal Man) offers a deeper and more interesting discourse.

In attempting to portray the psychological condition of a felon, The Criminal Man is absorbed with ambiguous formal decisions. After witnessing a murder, Giorgi Meskhi (Giorgi Petriashvili), an engineer living in a post-apocalyptic, industrial city, wants to commit a crime himself. Ill-advisably, the camera tries to convey his probable insanity each time he arrives at the location of the murder-to-be: he experiences live nightmares and observes strange human rituals. The viewer knows not what is real, what is fake. Only the television is a sure source of reality: on it Meskhi watches the news item about the murder he witnessed. You can only follow the storyline from the news as everything except TV is transcendental.  The representation of Georgian landscapes is unlike anything I have seen in Georgian cinema. The objects observed in long shots are reminiscent of the cinematography of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, 2011). In fact The Criminal Man is full of references to slow cinema auteurs from Andrei Tarkovsky to Carlos Reygadas, though the director succeeds in capturing a cohesive atmosphere of his own. This somewhat eclectic aesthetic could be due to the fact that the first cinematographer (Alisher Khamidkhodzaev) was replaced by Anton Gromov during the shooting. This difference between the cinematographers is noticeable if you are familiar with Khamidkhodzaev’s distinctive work on Bumazhnyysoldat (Paper Soldier, Aleksey German Jr., 2008) or Mamuliya’s first feature Drugoe Nebo (Another Sky, 2010). The first part of The Criminal Man is dialectical and consistent, genuinely reproducing the psychological thriller’s possibilities as a genre. However it starts to crumble in the second part.

During the Q&A, Mamuliya said he wanted to catch time flowing in characters and in existence beyond just faces, which is one of the biggest cinematic challenges known. This might explain why the film’s characters feel like caricatures, as we know almost nothing about them. One can hardly be conscious of their existence, meaning that we see people flowing through the existence of time but not time flowing through people’s existence.

Borotmokmedi (The Criminal Man, Dmitry Mamuliya)

An Unadorned Reality: The Younger Generation Cultivates Cinematic Controversy

Although there is, as to be expected, some naïve filmmaking around, it is refreshing to see a younger generation of Georgian filmmaking portraying a more unpretentious local culture. Uta Beria’s feature debut Uarkopiti Ritskhvebi (Negative Numbers), Lasha Tskvitinidze’s short Temo and Giga Liklikadze’s debut Ghori (The Pig) feature completely different approaches though one might classify them all in the realm of Social Realism. Both features convey an urban language of the peripheries, unapologetically portraying Georgia’s persistent social and cultural difficulties.

The predominant motif of Negative Numbers – a metaphor on venomous power structures – is the relationship between hegemony and the individual. Based on true events and set in a juvenile detention centre, the film tells a rigorous story of minor criminal authority Nika’s (Sandro Kalandadze) conversion. Two rugby professionals set exercises in juvie to help the prisoners get fit and healthy. Despite his initial protest, the protagonist, who manages the detention centre’s internal politics, becomes involved in the rugby training. Nika remains a leader but is forced to behave according to unwritten criminal laws that force him to control the prisoners’ behaviour and cooperate with prison staff. His identity starts to unravel little by little and he finally decides to give up his leadership. Meanwhile, a bookworm prisoner, employing ridiculous slang, narrates Nika Vazha Pshavela’s story of Aluda Ketelauri, a poem about the metamorphosis of a Georgian highlander leader. Before premiering Negative Numbers, the festival did a retrospective screening of Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) whose young protagonist (Tom Courtenay) also finds himself through a sporting activity while in prison.

Uarkopiti Ritskhvebi (Negative Numbers, Uta Beria)

The Pig and Temo also resemble each other in their camera work and overarching aesthetic however Temo has better insight into its characters. Like Negative Numbers, these two films were shot on the peripheries of Georgian society, in this case those living below the poverty line. Bachana, the protagonist of The Pig, is kidnapped with a ransom of 300GEL (100EUR), but due to their poverty, his family offers instead a pig in exchange, which is a genuinely funny premise that sets the stage for a portrait of social grotesque. The titular protagonist of Temo is also hard up, in debt and constantly swearing at his mother in law, making the film deceptively comical until he burgles a house with two underage boys and gets into a clumsy situation, which is when the audience also wants to escape.

I am unsure if the radical nationalists were aware of the rest of the program, beyond Inhale-Exhale and Comets, but I would be intrigued to know what they would say if they had seen such genuine and unpretentious derision of the current state of Georgia. What would they prefer: to object LBGTQI love or how the system is treating the individual? In my opinion, the answer is also unpretentious and severe: they are the system.

Tbilisi International Film Festival
1-8 December 2019
Festival website: https://www.tbilisifilmfestival.ge/

Ghori (The Pig, Giga Liklikadze)