When director Alexandre Koberidze’s film What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? first screened to international audiences at the Berlinale in 2021, its disarming playfulness and charm made it the talk of the festival, only confirming what viewers had come to realise over the past decade: Georgian cinema is in a moment of creative flourishing.
A wry, offbeat fairytale about tricks of vision, chance encounters and the transformative properties of the camera’s eye, the film portrays the ancient city of Kutaisi as a sentient, watchful place of hidden wonders and perils, as a pharmacist and footballer are left lovelorn after their first encounter when a spell makes them unable to recognise one another again.
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Now coming out in the UK, it’s a gentler, more whimsical film than the director’s feature debut Let the Summer Come Again (2017) – a cell-phone venture into Tbilisi’s illegal worlds of underground fighting and gay prostitution – but is no less of an experiment with ideas of perception and city exploration.
Koberidze is one of several directors today drawing on Georgia’s rich legacy of cinema – which suffered a break during war in the 1990s and its associated hardships – while often challenging the nation’s deep-rooted patriarchal traditions and opening up space for the imagination through innovative visual poetry.
To herald its release, we’ve gathered 10 films – from past, Soviet-era classics to notable works pushing Georgian cinema in fresh directions today – that offer a taste of the scope and aesthetic splendour of the country’s filmmaking.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, and on BFI Player from 25 November.
There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (1970)
Director: Otar Iosseliani
Otar Iosseliani’s charming, wry comedy There Once Was a Singing Blackbird riled the Soviet authorities by lampooning their reverence for an industrious work ethic. Gela Kandelaki plays Gia, who we follow over the course of 36 frenetic hours around Tbilisi. A gregarious musician who plays drums for the city orchestra and still lives at home with his widowed mother, he just wants to have a good time without being tied down by responsibility.
Defined as much by his tardiness as his talent, he juggles his orchestra role with a frantic social calendar, often arriving just in the nick of time to perform, much to the conductor’s chagrin, until the vicissitudes of fate deal him the ultimate blow. The rich soundscape of Tbilisi’s streets and cafés, and a musical sweep from Georgian folk to classical Bach, makes this as much a pleasure for the ears as the eyes.
Director: Giorgi Shengelaia
Niko Pirosmani, a turn-of-the-century primitivist artist, was perhaps Georgia’s greatest painter. Director Giorgi Shengelaia spent hours as a child gazing at his works in the homes of his parents’ friends, and later made the painter the subject of his idiosyncratic, melancholic masterpiece, Pirosmani.
Played by Avtandil Varazi, who was himself a painter and was partly responsible for the art design, Pirosmani was an orphaned peasant who felt a calling to create. He died an impoverished alcoholic, unable to feel at home in society, before he posthumously reached fame as a national icon. Rather than simply charting a chronology of events in the artist’s life, the gloomy, painterly tribute visually echoes the essence of Pirosmani’s vision. It exemplifies the archetype of the artist as a troubled misfit, as out of place in Tbilisi’s climate as the spectacular giraffe in his famed painting that hangs on a restaurant wall in the film.
Some Interviews on Personal Matters (1978)
Director: Lana Gogoberidze
A key feminist film that links the private with the political, director Lana Gogoberidze’s drama Some Interviews on Personal Matters is focused on Sofiko (Sofiko Chiaureli), a dedicated journalist who interviews women about their lives, dreams and labour. She’s struggling to balance the day-to-day work of the newspaper and her own desire for self-fulfilment, as she dashes about town with a photographer in tow, with the demands of her ailing mother, her rambunctious children and her husband, who she discovers is having an affair. After all, this is a patriarchal society that believes women should prioritise family responsibilities and domestic chores over a career.
Lana is the daughter of another pioneering female filmmaker, Nutsa Gogoberidze, a close associate of Soviet directors Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko, whose career was cut short when her husband was purged and executed during the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s, and she was exiled.
Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story (1983)
Director: Eldar Shengelaia
Satirical comedy Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story is a classic directed by another member of the talented Shengelaia family, Eldar (both Eldar and Giorgi are the offspring of Nikoloz Shengelaia, a founder of Georgian cinema, and actress Nato Vachnadze, one of the first Soviet movie stars.)
In this critique of petty and ineffectual bureaucracy, a writer submits a manuscript, titled ‘Blue Mountains or Tian Shan’, to a publishing house to be read, only to be ignored and rebuffed by the employees with increasingly Kafkaesque levels of absurdity, as they shuffle the text from person to person. With razor-sharp wit and brimming humanity, the film sides with the underdog in his futile struggle for dignity in work and artistic creation, against a corrupt system of state-controlled bureaucracy that cares nothing for the fruits of his labour. One devoted reader, at least, appears: the worker hired to paint the publishing house’s walls.
The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985)
Directors: Sergei Parajanov and Dodo Abashidze
Born in Tbilisi of Armenian descent, Sergei Parajanov is one of the Caucasus region’s most unique cinematic visionaries. He transformed its folklore into arcane visual poetry, even though his subversive vision saw him persecuted by the Soviet authorities.
Set in the hills of Georgia, The Legend of Suram Fortress is based on a well-known story that writer Daniel Chonqadze committed to literature as a novella, and uses Parajanov’s signature vivid, surrealistic tableaux. The son of former serf Durmishkhan (Zurab Kipshidze) bricks himself up in a fortress wall on the advice of the freed man’s jilted lover Vardo (legendary actor Sofiko Chiaureli), a fortune teller who foresees this as the only way to prevent the defence structure crumbling, as Georgia in its adherence to Christian Orthodoxy braces for a coming Muslim invasion. It’s been said that any people with a man among them who could sacrifice himself in this way are unconquerable.
Director: Tengiz Abuladze
A nightmarishly phantasmagorical, black-humoured satire that is a thinly veiled critique of Soviet dictator Stalin’s brutal purges, Repentance sees the corpse of sinister, paranoid mayor Varlam Aravidze (Avtandil Makharadze) repeatedly dug up, as a mystery prankster in the town refuses him the dignity of a quiet burial – or the forgetting of his repression of artists.
Absurdity filters through all corners of society, as citizens struggle to find meaning, or forge effective resistance strategies, in a climate in which little makes sense. Aravidze is dead, but his legacy blights his descendants, who must choose between complicity in his lies, or repentance. The film is the final of a trilogy dealing with questions of love, moral conviction and power by Tengiz Abuladze, after The Plea (1968) and The Wishing Tree (1976), and was greeted as a symbol of the new cultural openness that came under Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev with Glasnost.
In Bloom (2013)
Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross
After the civil conflict of the early 1990s, which brought film production in Georgia to a halt, a new wave of directors emerged who grappled with the war’s legacy and the quest for newfound identity. Coming-of-age drama In Bloom, which director Nana Ekvtimishvili based on her own memories of youth in the early days of independence, was a key film in this industry revival. Co-directed with Simon Gross, it focuses on the friendship of two teenage girls, the self-conscious Eka (Lika Babluani) and more outgoing Natia (Mariam Bokeria), in a 90s Tbilisi still teetering on the brink of violence.
Macho bravado characterises the boys pursuing Natia, offering little respite from her family’s crowded apartment and her father’s alcoholism. Events spin out of control after one potential love interest gives her a gun for her protection while he’s away in Moscow – a gesture in line with the pervasive volatility.
Scary Mother (2017)
Director: Ana Urushadze
Ana Urushadze is among a new generation of directors who have gained global attention for audacious, inventive works that challenge the grip of patriarchal tradition in Georgia. Her wildly surrealistic, playful debut feature Scary Mother, which scooped best first feature in Locarno and the top prize in Sarajevo, follows the experience of Manana (Nato Murvanidze), a single-minded woman who has penned an erotic vampire novel.
She’s prone to disappear into fervid flights of imagination in the blood-red recesses of a stationery store, whose owner is convinced of the worth of her talent – unlike her husband, who regards her literary devotion as a personal affront and is ashamed of the potential notoriety her book could bring the family. Her father, a translator, is a fan but is unaware of her authorship. A gargantuan, brutalist high-rise lends atmosphere to this tale of oppression, ambition and inspired escape.
And Then We Danced (2019)
Director: Levan Akin
Swedish-Georgian director Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced is a love story between two male members of the Georgian National Ensemble, a traditional dance troupe. As Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) and rival newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) prepare for high-pressure auditions for a national dance spot, they are torn between adhering to the institution’s strict macho codes and following their desires. It features scenes shot in Tbilisi’s nightlife underground, including world-renowned techno club Bassiani, known as a safe space for LGBTQIA+ expression.
The film was received enthusiastically at festivals abroad, but in Georgia’s strongly divided society, where the Orthodox Church is hugely influential, it was met with controversy. Violent protests from far-right figures marred the film’s Tbilisi premiere, even as many other locals welcomed the opportunity to see such a story on the big screen. More globally successful Georgian arthouse films that give visibility to LGBTQIA+ experiences have followed on its heels.
Taming the Garden (2021)
Director: Salomé Jashi
The uprooting and transportation of centuries-old trees from the countryside to the private garden of a billionaire is the premise of Taming the Garden, documentarian Salomé Jashi’s poetic vision of modern absurdity. A sense of boundless entitlement and the idea that anything can be bought seem to have prompted Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s ex-prime minister and founder of its ruling Georgian Dream party, to order the operation despite its complex, mind-boggling logistics. Deals have been struck with the locals from whose environments the trees were taken, and the surreal image of a monstrous arbour floating down the river on a barge goes against any organic ordering principle.
Mythical and meditative in mood, the quiet film seems an eternal tale for the ages of powerful elites who have forgotten how to live in harmony with their natural surroundings, manicuring spaces not of holistic beauty but its crass, artificial parody.
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