Gela Babluani: Tzameti (13), 2005
reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2006
Gela Babluani’s debut Tzameti caused a stir at the Venice International Film Festival 2005, where it was awarded the Lion of the Future. Indeed, the return of Georgian cinema to an international level had been signalled earlier this year when Levon Zakareishvili’s Tbilisi-Tbilisi (2005) received a lot of critical attention at a market screening in Cannes.
The Georgian-born 26-year old Gela Babluiani is the son of Temur Babluani (b. 1948), whose film The Sun of the Wakeful (Udzinarta mze, 1991) was awarded the Grand Prix at the Kinotavr Open Russian Festival in 1992 and the Silver Bear in Berlin in 1993. As a civil war raged in his native Georgia, Temur Babluani sent his children to France to study; Gela was 17 at the time. The experience of violence, which the Babluani family witnessed every day during their life in Georgia, stayed with them and now dominates Gela Babluani’s feature film. Babluani’s characters are immune to violence; instead, their world is divided into winners and losers.
The Sun of the Wakeful dealt with a family father, a kind man who devotes his life as a doctor to helping people and testing cancer treatments. His criminal son is ultimately responsible for the father’s death: he performs an operation on him with unsterilised equipment. The loss of humanist values in a society doomed by meaninglessness and violence is opposed here to the criminal energy displayed by the younger generation. The realisation of human values comes when it is already too late. Temur Babluiani’s film explored, as Zakareishvili’s more recent film, the collapse of social structures in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, where both The Sun of the Wakeful and Tbilisi-Tbilisi were made.
While Gela Babluiani sets his film in France, the country is indiscernible from the opening frames: this could just as much be a village in his Georgian homeland as a village in the French provinces. True, the trains and cars, the reliability of the postal service, and other small details make it clear that the locale is France, but there are no specific reference points that mark the derelict, crumbling houses of a small, isolated village as typically French. Indeed, the protagonist’s family home, too, could be any émigré household, were it not for the family’s traditions and the use of the Georgian language. In fact, the family almost resembles the one in Temur Babluani’s film: a caring mother, an invalid brother, and a gentle and kind father. They talk very little, but their eyes and gestures communicate more than enough—hopelessness. They lead their lives, trying to integrate themselves into the community and to find work in a world doomed by unemployment: Sebastien earns money by tiling the roof for Godon.
Godon is a morphine addict, cared for by his girlfriend, before he dies of an overdose. Unpaid for his work, Sebastien decides to take Godon’s fate upon himself; not knowing what to do with own life, he continues that of another man, unaware of what that life holds in store. Although Sebastien does not know that Godon was a criminal and had served a prison sentence, he knows that Godon had once made a lot of money and was about to so again. This is just what Sebastien sets out to do in order to support his family and to get some pay for his work on the roof.
The film is shot in black and white, with the contrasts kept stark and almost painful to the eye; the camera angle frequently captures faces from below to make them appear sinister. Sebastien (played by the director’s brother Georges Babluani) is a cold, almost emotionless character; he refrains from showing any emotions until he finds out what is involved in the scheme that may make him a rich man: death. Babluani relies on the camerawork of Tariel Meliava, who makes shadows appear black and gloomy, and on drawn-out episodes to stress the fear of his protagonist. These are set against fast-paced episodes that underline Sebastien’s decisiveness, but also deprive him of psychological depth. This approach to character portrayal through visual means distinguishes the film and makes it different from the portrayal in The Sun of the Wakeful of the sordid life in Georgia back in 1991.
Indeed, Sebastien is a streetwise kid: he manages to escape and elude the people trying to follow him; he manages to deceive the police and to convince them that he never took part in “the game”; he devours the postal receipt for the parcel he sent to his family, the only proof that he participated in and won “the game.” The game that Godon was about to play is Russian roulette: Sebastien takes Godon’s place and his number—13. But this “game” is a cruel variation of Russian roulette, played for the life or death of someone else: rich men place their bets on “their” man (former prisoners, criminals, or people with health problems), who then fire at one another. The luckiest survives—and gets paid. Of course, this game with human lives is illegal, and it is for that reason that the police have been observing Godon and follow Sebastien.
The long-drawn rounds of the roulette—with guns charged, triggers pulled, empty barrels echoing—ultimately leads to a duel, heightening the tension of this film to that of a thriller. There is nothing unexpected in the event, except for the viewer’s compassion for a character who ended up in this game without knowing what was in store. But then, how could he be so naive as to think he would make a fortune easily, legally, and quickly? Still, the audience worries about this innocent (?) young man, who has done no harm other than meddling in somebody else’s life.
Sebastien survives the game, which he has entered purely for want of money and from which there is not escape once he is involved. Yet he, too, has to pay a price. Like Godon who was scarred for the rest of his life after having survived the game once, Sebastien has to give up his life to a trivial, petty criminal who wants a share of the fortune Sebastien has made. Sebastien, however, has wisely dispatched his winnings to his family by post.
The film raises the question of the value of human life and condemns outright the materialism of modern society, in France, in Europe, and beyond. This is not a film that juxtaposes East and West—former communist upbringing with Western capitalism—in a bold, black and white manner. On the contrary, this is a finely and subtly nuanced portrayal of a society, in which people are driven to take extreme action in the absence of work and income, meaning and home; and in which those who are bored with their wealth surrender to extreme acts in order to be entertained. Ultimately, everyone implicated within the film—the rich who bet their money in a game about life and death; the losers of these games; and the immigrants who cannot make ends meet—are all victims of a modern world that provides neither guidance nor moral values, leading people to a meaningless existence characterised by a lack of emotions (verbal and physical) and a lifestyle in which only extreme actions (gambling with life, taking on the mission or fate of another person) provide some sense of satisfaction, even if both lead to destruction.
This is the bleak picture of the human condition that Babluani skilfully and poignantly presents in his debut film. And whereas the characters of Temur Babluiani’s Georgian film eventually realise the danger posed to their humanity, or—to paraphrase the lines of Tengiz Abuladze’s old woman in the final frames of Repentance (1984, released 1986)—to see the road that leads to the church, Gela Babluani leaves no future for Sebastien, only a legacy for his family.
Birgit Beumers (University of Bristol)
Tzameti, France and Georgia, 2005
Black and White, Dolby Digital, 93 min
Director: Gela Babluani
Photography: Tariel Meliava
Screenplay: Gela Babluani
Cast: Georges Babluani, Aurelien Recoing, Pascal Bongard, Fred Ulysse,
Production: Les Films de la Strada, Quasar Pictures, Solimane Productions, MK2
Released in the UK by Revolvergroup on 6 January 2006
Pictures courtesy of Revolvergroup.
Gela Babluani: Tzameti (13), 2005
reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2006