Georgian cinema builds it, and the audiences come

By bne IntelliNews May 6, 2015
bne IntelliNews
Monica Ellena in Tbilisi

Giorgi Ovashvili is the Georgian film director who built an island and almost brought it to the Oscars. “‘Corn Island’ was a tale waiting to be told, the real story of peasants taking over little pieces of land created by the Enguri river in spring and using them to cultivate corn,” he explains to bne IntelliNews. “But we could not find an island in a river where we could film for two seasons, let alone control the water level. Heaven sent us Temo Albekioni, a builder. And he built it.”

“Corn Island” is the almost wordless tale of an aging farmer and his granddaughter set against the backdrop of the Abkhaz war in early 1990s; the Enguri river separates the breakaway region of Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. The film is the latest in a run of award-winning Georgian films that have taken international festivals by storm. It was shortlisted for an Oscar alongside Zaza Urushadze’s “Tangerines”, a powerful Estonian-Georgian production where an idyllic tangerine plantation becomes a battle zone for the Abkhaz war.

“This new wave of Georgian film markers has a strong message and powerful stories to tell,” says former film director Nana Janelidze, now head of the Ministry of Culture agency the Georgian National Film Center (GNFC), founded in 2001 to support the production and distribution of Georgian films.


Control, chaos and creativity

Georgian cinema dates back to November 16, 1896, when the Aristocratic Theatre screened the first film in Tbilisi, just one year later than the Lumieres’ screening at Paris’ Boulevard des Capucines. But its subsequent development was far from smooth.

During the Soviet period, Tbilisi’s film studios were on a par with those in Moscow and Kyiv; Ukranian film director Roman Balayan once said that, “there was always a Soviet cinema and a Georgian cinema”.

But while the USSR provided plenty of funding, it imposed heavy restraints on artistic freedom. “We had to dig deeply into our imagination to say what we wanted and avoid censorship at the same time,” says Janelidze, who co-wrote Tengiz Abuladze’s Cannes award-winning “Mananieba” (Repentance), an allegory of the Georgian experience during Stalin purges, which was released in 1987 thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost.

Under Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw, Georgian cinema hit a high point – the varnished reality of socialist realism gave way to an introspective narrative. Directors like Mikheil Kalatozov, Rezo Chkheidze and Tengiz Abuladze surfaced in festivals beyond the Iron Curtain. Abuladze’s film “Magdana’s Donkey” (co-directed with Rezo Chkheidze) won the “Best Fiction Short” prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, and one year later Kalatozov’s “The Cranes are Flying” was the first Soviet feature to win the Palme D’Or.

Indeed, Federico Fellini, the renowned Italian director, defined Georgian cinema as “a completely unique phenomenon, vivid, philosophically inspiring, very wise, childlike.”

Source of inspiration

The dissolution of the Soviet Union hit Georgian cinema hard as the country fell into chaos: cinemas closed, funds ran out, institutes disappeared and would-be directors left. “The 1990s were painful,” recalls Janelidze. “Civil wars, power cuts, criminality, bread lines, you name it. Still, those years gave food for thought to new filmmakers who have now returned to that period to tell stories of when they were children, teenagers and make beautiful films.”

Yet money remains a problem. The GNFC’s allocation for 2015 is a meagre GEL5.2mn (€2.15mn), plus additional €120,000 coming from Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s film support foundation that Georgia joined in 2011 and unlocked key access to the European distribution network. Directors have to dig into their pockets to shoot on shoestring budgets. Ovashvili knows it well. “’Corn Island’ cost €1.5mn, which included building the island. GNFC provided about 22%, while the remainder came from Germany, France, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Kazakhstan and Eurimages. Going around looking for investors consumes time and energy,” he sighs.

But the results are plain to see. In 2013, Berlin-based Nana Ekvtishvili shot “In Bloom”, a delicately engrossing coming-of-age story set in Tbilisi in 1992, on a budget of about €1mn. The film won over 20 awards at festivals across the globe, including the Berlinare. The same year Tinantin Gurchiani won the award for best director of a world documentary at the Sundance Film Festival with “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear”, a 100-minute documentary shot in 20 days at a cost of €24,000. And Levan Koguashvili’s €650,000 tragicomedy “Blind Dates” grabbed awards from Abu Dhabi to Zagreb.

“It took 20 years to our films to blossom again, now we are on strong footing,” states Janelidze.

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