Issue 1, 2015. February-March



An interview with the director of the Georgian National Film Center, Nana Janelidze, about the new wave of international success for Georgian films and filmmakers using art to grapple with Georgia's complicated recent history.

Paul Rimple

Art imitates reality, as the saying goes, and few art forms are as representative of this axiom as cinema. Georgia understands this well, having been at the forefront of cinematography for over 100 years. Even within the strict framework of Socialist realism during the repressive Soviet period, Georgian directors battled with censorship to create some of the most highly acclaimed films in the world.

The days of state-imposed restrictions on art are behind us; now it's the market that sets the conditions of what can be made. The tumultuous decade following Georgia's independence in 1991 was disastrous for the country's cinematography industry, as the state could no longer afford to support the expensive art of filmmaking, and cinemas closed across the country.

Today, however, Georgia appears to have turned the corner, as Georgian directors are finding the means to make internationally acclaimed films. In 2014, Zaza Urushadze's Estonian-produced film Tangerines picked up a Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film, while Giorgi Ovashvili's Corn Island, won the Crystal Globe at the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and was shortlisted for an Oscar.

"We are seeing a new wave in terms of theme and style. It's a new generation with a new style - not a Soviet type (of filmmaking)," said Nana Janelidze, director of the Georgian National Film Center. She should know.

Tangerines, short listed for an Oscar

Janelidze has witnessed Georgia's cinematographic arc from its height as a co-writer of the screenplay for Monanieba (Repentance), Tengiz Abuladze's 1984 Cannes-winning masterpiece about the Georgian experience during Stalin's purges. Her own debut feature, Iavnana (Lullaby), based on a short story by Iakob Gogebashvili, was shot during the 1991-1992 civil war and released in 1994. She spent much of the next two decades directing theater, but returned to the screen in 2011 with Netaviik teatri aris?! (Is There A Theater Up There?!), a captivating documentary about the renowned actor Kakhi Kavsadze and his family's relationship with c ommunist Georgia and the USSR.

One common theme for many of Georgia's contemporary filmmakers is life during the rough-and-tumble decade of the 1990s. Levan Koguashvili's 2010 drama, Street Days, was about drug addiction, Nana Ekvtimishvili's celebrated 2013 coming-of-age film, In Bloom, was set during the Abkhazia war years, along with Tangerines and Corn Island.

"For today's filmmakers, it's hard not to reflect what's been happening since independence. They have lived through our violence, our collapse; twenty years of inspiration. All flowers grow from a dirty earth. They feel it in their flesh and blood and have to reflect their artistic nature, which is filled with passions. There are lots of stories, rich stories. They have something to tell. And storytelling through film is a tradition deep in the genes."

Although the Soviet experience quashed artistic freedom, the state nevertheless funneled a nearly bottomless amount of resources to film production. There were 25 film production companies in the Soviet Union. Of these, Tbilisi's was considered one of the top three, along with Moscow's and Kiev's. Studying cinematography was serious business. Most professionals got their credentials in Moscow at the State Cinema Institute (GIK). Today, Georgia's film institute lacks the seasoned professionals that make the study of cinematography so valuable.

"Georgian cinema in the USSR was highly educated. The (Tbilisi) film institute doesn't have experience in film, at least not by filmmakers like before. There's TV directors. You need a master or a good system to draw kids.

There is no practice of connecting students to big directors. My generation had Abuladze, Chkheidze, Danelia, who gave us hands-on training... Of course, our films were also the product of friction within the totalitarian system. It took three years to write Repentance. Now you don't have the budget to write like that. Before, writers worked in the cinema. Now, directors are writing their own scenarios. There are no screenwriters."

The Georgian National Film Center (GNFC) was established in 2001 under the Georgian Ministry of Culture to support the production and distribution of Georgian films. However, it is severely under-funded, with a current budget of 5.2 million lari. A turning point in the GNFC came in 2011, when it became a member of Eurimages, a Council of Europe entity that promotes European cinematography. While this helps Georgia get international exposure, Janelidze feels more must be done promote cinema domestically, starting with putting people back in the cinema.

"There are only two cinemas in Tbilisi. One in Batumi. That's it. We had 120 before. Tickets were 20 kopeks. You could go to the cinema at ten in the morning and stay till eleven at night. All the villages had cinema clubs. Now, tickets are so expensive and in the regions, you can't watch a film on the screen with an audience. But this year, we began a 'cinema in schools' program for the regions. Village kids can go see films after school: Chaplin, Visconti, Fellini, Abuladze... And after each screening, there is a discussion. They come to Tbilisi and meet directors. It's like a bead of light in a dark society. But even with a very low budget, we are starting to grow the audience. We now have children thinking in terms of a 'cinema civil society.'"