Transitions: Cinema and Video Art from Georgia

By James Norton

niko-pirosmani.jpgNiko Pirosmani

The October Bristol Festival ‘Cinema and Video Art from Georgia’, celebrating 20 years of the twinning of the city and Tbilisi, followed with bittersweet timing last summer’s deadly conflict between Georgia and Russia. The festival consisted of eight Georgian film classics ranging from the dazzling silent satire My Grandmother (1924) to the stoner road movie A Trip to Karabakh (2005) and culminated in a day-long event in which short films and video works were interspersed with panel discussions involving Georgian film professionals.

The event was introduced with a rousingly undiplomatic speech by Gela Charkviani, Georgian ambassador to Britain who, with native wit and righteous anger, celebrated his country’s cultural riches and condemned the aggression lately visited upon it.

Two films offered snapshots of the harsh realities facing today’s Georgians, Sandro Jandieri’s Poppy Season, following a Tbilisi teenager’s day from his elegantly faded apartment where old women chat in Russian and books and classical music reign in harmony, to a brutalist tower block where he traffics narcotics in order to survive; and Levan Koghuashvili’s The Debt, a bleak vignette of Georgians hustling to recover their wages on a grim and wintry New York roadside.

Lasha Bakhradze, head of the archive department at the Georgian National Film Centre explained that 2008 was also the centenary of filmmaking in Georgia and outlined the early success of the form in the Soviet years, emphasising that The Cranes Are Flying, the most celebrated Russian film between Eisenstein and Tarkovsky, was made by a Georgian, Mikhail Kalatozov.


Zaza Rusadze, director of the revealing documentary Bandits, concerning a Cold War hijack crisis in Tbilisi, shared his experiences of the difficulty of finding film funding in today’s independent Georgia and the need to seek international co-production finance, notably from Germany and the Hubert Bals Fund at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Like all of the artists present, Rusadze finds it necessary to spend a lot of time working abroad. He is currently trying to set up a drama concerning an imaginary Soviet state and argued that the film industries of smaller nations should not compete with the scale and genre of Hollywood entertainments but play to their local creative strengths. In the current climate, patriotic subjects are being favoured by local producers and he disclosed an absurd proposal by the authorities to revive their industry by inviting Oliver Stone to make a blockbuster epic on the life of a medieval Georgian king.

James Norton, director of ITV’s Comedy Classics series, discussed a triumvirate of great Georgian auteurs: Otar Iosseliani, whose rural comedy of manners Pastorale shows the Georgian character at its best, successfully transplanted to France in his recent Gardens in Autumn; visionary genius Sergei Paradjanov, who laid out his vivid fresco Legend of the Suram Fortess at the historic crossroads of the world, and Tengiz Abuladze, who tore open the nation’s vibrant and troubled soul in Repentance, his taboo-busting satire against Stalin.

Nino Andjaparidze, director of the Tbilisi Film Festival talked about the Georgian National Film Centre’s production and promotion of cinema. The Centre, which was established eight years ago, runs educational and technical development programmes as well as restoring Georgian film classics, and selects film projects for funding to which it can contribute up to 75% of the budget.

Sumptuous Georgian dishes were served with Pirosmani wine, named after the country’s greatest painter. Georgia, distinct from other former Soviet republics, has a Mediterranean exuberance and the influence of Italian cinema on its own is clear, an appreciation reciprocated by Fellini: “Georgian film is a strange phenomenon. It is special, philosophically bright, sophisticated and at the same time childishly pure and innocent. There is everything in it that can make me cry and I have to say that it is not easy to make me cry”.

Another pair of short films showcased genre cinema, Khatuna Giorgobiani’s If This Day Never Happened, a gritty gangland portrait of Tbilisi vice and narcotics, deepens as the context of desperate refugees from the disputed enclave of Abkhazia is revealed. Irakle Metreveli’s A Fig Tree On The Road, was a rustic comedy of crafty children and drunken, feckless fatherhood, full of the poetry of the open fields and the glow of the family hearth.

debt-levan-koguashvili.jpgThe Debt, 2006

Two video works were specially commissioned for the occasion on the subject of ‘My City’ by artists from the twinned cities. Louise Short's A Momentary portrayed Bristol as a liminal metropolis where chimerical kites float in the sky, men grow old in aged pubs and the hopes of youth reside in a multicultural future, embodied by the Somalian immigrant community. Koka Ramishvili's Tender Transitory Transport fragments Tbilisi in a sequence of rotating windows that are both sensuous and forbidding as they reveal then conceal vistas of the city like an optical key.

A collection of short video works were shown, followed by a discussion with their creators. Koka Ramishvili demonstrated his versatility and combined the oldest and newest of art forms with Drawing Lesson in which an artist‘s hand sketching pencil portraits is subjected to mechanical acceleration and manipulated by stroboscopic video editing. Previously a painter, he described his evolution into the moving image in pragmatic terms. Although video may be the more expensive medium, for a Georgian artist with few platforms for exhibition and distribution, the expense of transporting paintings around European galleries is prohibitive compared to the ease of sending video. This mode of diffusion creates its own new world of meaning: a video installation is dependent on space, and the space it is shown in is part of the work, the global space of the exhibition.

Wato Tsereteli contributed the pulsing geometric animation Energy. An inspirational figure, Tsereteli put to shame Western artists who blame their inertia on lack of funding, with his protean recombination of Georgian artists into collectives, academic programmes and “the distribution of creative energy through informal means.” Starting with the maf_media art farm, founded in 2001 to run courses in media studies at the time otherwise unavailable in Georgia, maf since Jan 2006 has evolved into the Caucasian Institute of Photography and New Media. Tsereteli currently runs the Institute of Optical Imaging, the first academy in the Caucasus to offer a photography degree. Despite the economic adversity faced by artists, Tsereteli prizes Georgia's geographic location as it has roots in both Eastern and Western aesthetic thought.

my-grandmother-kote-mikaberidze.jpgMy Grandmother, 1923

Mamuka Japharize, who divides his time between Bristol and Tbilisi, showed the beautiful and unsettling Eye Tree in a Mirror, based on a photographic series of the circular bark forms found on silver birch trees and digitally multiplied into mythic, staring creatures. Japharidze traced the origins of video art in Georgia back to the 1980s and claimed that the national character is reflected in the art form, although, as befits a medium without a tradition it does so free of cliché: “an open heart is even more important than an open mind”.

The event closed with the witty and mournful Hollywood, constructed from photographs taken in the city of Kutaisi by the Swiss video artist Daniel Brefin, a mosaic of images wandering across a square containing a church, a statue of Stalin, a public toilet and the remains of a derelict cinema, its screen now a blank wall, this bleak picture of absence counterpointed by the good-humoured commentary of passers-by, quintessential Georgian survivors all.

Cinema and Video Art from Georgia, at Arnolfini and Cube Microplex Bristol, 12th - 18th October 2008, was initiated and co-organised by Anthea Nicholson, Bruce Allan, Colin Evans and Mamuka Japharidze.

James Norton is a writer, researcher, producer and director of the ITV series Comedy Classics.