Discovering Georgian Cinema


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Discovering Georgian Cinema

A collaboration between curatorial departments at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Discovering Georgian Cinema is the largest retrospective of Georgian cinema ever mounted in North America. Featuring rare 35mm exhibition prints sourced from film archives around the world, this unprecedented series truly is an opportunity for discovery: an invaluable opportunity to explore the rich cinematic heritage of a region (now a nation) that has produced many wonderful films during the past century.

TIFF Cinematheque wishes to dedicate this series to the memory of our friend and colleague, Jytte Jensen, Curator, Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Wishing Tree

By Susan Oxtoby

Georgia is a relatively small country (approximately 26,900 square miles) with an extraordinarily varied terrain. The alpine regions of the Caucasus, bordering with Russia to the north and Azerbaijan to the north and east, are rich with forested lands and rapidly flowing rivers. To the east and south the lowlands are much more arid, and one even finds examples of savanna grasslands on the borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia.

As one travels westward, there is a tropical zone toward the part of Georgia that borders on the Black Sea with Turkey to the south. From the earliest days of the region’s film production, Georgian filmmakers have capitalized on the beauty and diversity of the land, shooting on location at monasteries and historical sites, using the rugged landscape as the backdrop for tales of heroism.

Through the centuries, the Georgian language (technically part of the Kartvelian family of languages that were spoken only in the Caucasus) has remained a language apart, preserving its integrity and unique script through many periods of invasion and political domination by foreign powers, be it the Persians, the Ottomans, the Russian empire, or the Soviet Union. Georgian religion has proved equally tenacious: Christianity has remained the dominant faith since the first Christian church was established in the early fourth century CE, and today most of Georgia’s nearly five million people are Christians. (However, one can also find worshippers of the Muslim, Jewish, and Bahá’í í faiths, as well as an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple in the capital of Tbilisi.)

In surveying the cinematic tradition that has emerged from this distinctive cultural milieu during the past century, this retrospective concentrates on three main periods of film production: the wonderfully creative films of the silent era; the flowering of narrative filmmaking that began in the mid-fifties, represented here by a concentration of films from the 1960s to the 1980s; and the new wave of Georgian cinema, which demonstrates the talents of the young filmmaking community today.

During the silent era of Georgian cinema (which lasted through 1934, well after the advent of sound), Georgian filmmakers produced a number of important and artful documentaries—perhaps most notably Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930), which deserves consideration alongside Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes for its brutally poetic real-life surrealism—in addition to strong dramatic films. The best Georgian feature films from the silent era evince high production standards (strong camera work, creative editing, and artful performances) as well as distinctive styles developed by leading directors; key early examples include Ivan Perestiani’s Little Red Devils (1923) and Three Lives (1924), Mikheil Chiaureli’s Saba (1929) and Khabarda (1930), and Mikhail Kalatozov’s A Nail in the Boot (1930/1932). Other silent-era films provide us with fascinating, still-relevant geopolitical themes and evidence of Georgia’s links to Western European countries, such as Nikoloz Shengelaia’s Twenty-Six Commissars (1928), Lev Push’s The Doomed: Russian Soldiers in France (1930), Leo Esakya’s Amerikanka (1930), and Kote Mikaberidze’s dadaist comedy My Grandmother (1929).

A Nail in the Boot 

By the late sixties, the films of such directors as Tengiz Abuladze, Otar Iosseliani, Sergei Parajanov, Eldar and Giorgi Shengelaia, Irakli Kvirikadze, Lana Gogoberidze, and Rezo Esadze had earned Georgian cinema an international reputation among knowledgeable critics and programmers, its heightened profile reflected in a growing national consciousness. The period from 1960 through the 1980s offers several examples of filmmakers critiquing the Soviet system (most famously Abuladze’s Repentance), while other films derived from classic Georgian literary works and telling stories set in the pre-revolutionary period (Giorgi Shengelaia’s Pirosmani, Abuladze’s Molba) asserted specifically Georgian concerns within the region’s Soviet-dominated cinema, a tendency that can also be found in a number of Georgian films from the silent era. Another theme that unites much of Georgian cinema is a profound love of the arts—from polyphonic music to traditional dance, literature, theatre, painting and architecture—which permeates the mise-en-scène of many of the films, most notably those by Iosseliani, Abuladze, and Aleksandr Rekhiashvili’s very fine The Way Home (1981), a work which evinces a kinship with the cinema of the celebrated Russian auteurs Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov.

For a country its size, Georgia in the past decade has produced a remarkable number of accomplished art films. The film community appears to be closely knit and acutely aware of the country’s film history, despite the fact that it is now almost impossible to see Georgian films (particularly the historical classics) presented theatrically in Tbilisi, apart from the annual Tbilisi International Film Festival and occasional screenings at the National Archives of Georgia. (Alas, the paucity of a theatrical market at home is not uncommon elsewhere in the world.) These challenges aside, there seem to be a healthy number of breakout films that have received critical praise, international awards, and occasionally theatrical distribution in the West, including Zaza Urushadze’s Georgian-Estonian coproduction Tangerines (2013), which deals thoughtfully with the idea of pacifism in the midst of regional conflicts, and Tinatin Gurchiani’s inventive and revealing documentary The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (2012), which picked up an award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Discovering Georgian Cinema offers an opportunity for audiences in several North American cities to see highlights from a century of film history from the Caucasus. While the rarity of the 35mm prints and restored digital copies assembled for this retrospective cannot be overstated, our hope is that the project has opened doors between many of the institutions that hold Georgian materials in Moscow and Tbilisi and the archives in Europe and the United States, and that there will be increased opportunities for cultural exchange in the years ahead.

Discovering Georgian Cinema is a collaboration between the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Organized by Susan Oxtoby, senior film curator, BAM/PFA, and Jytte Jensen, curator, Department of Film, MoMA.

The touring retrospective, organized by BAM/PFA, is supported in part by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Curatorial Fellowship program, which allowed for extensive research, and the National Endowment for the Arts. We are grateful to the Embassy of Georgia; the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia, the Georgian National Film Center and the National Archives of Georgia, Tbilisi; Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow; Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art, Berlin; La Cinémathèque de Toulouse; and the Pordenone Silent Film Festival for assisting with research materials as well as archival print loans. 

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