Issue 60 (2018)

Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Gross: My Happy Family (Chemi bednieri ojaxi, Georgia/Germany/France, 2017)

reviewed by Julie A. Christensen© 2018

my happy familyIn Nana Ekvtimishvili’s and Simon Gross’ latest film, My Happy Family, Manana Mkheidze, a 52-year-old teacher, wife, mother, and daughter, moves out from the flat occupied by her parents, husband, and children, into an apartment of her own, where she has peace and quiet and can make her own decisions about what and when to eat, how to arrange her belongings, and structure her day. Manana’s quest for a room of her own is a universal tale, but the real appeal of the film comes not from the general and universal story, but from the specific people, places, and culture so masterfully portrayed in the film. Directors Ekvtimishvili and Gross spent a year casting and long days rehearsing in order to capture the emotional ups and downs of this extended family, filmed on Tbilisi’s streets, in markets, in a real flat borrowed from a large family, in a run-down cheap apartment in a working-class neighborhood outside of the capital. Acting, space, sound, camera, editing, and music all add up to a film that draws us in, but has no easy answers to offer.

The lead role is played by Ia Shugliashvili, a stage actress from Georgia’s renowned Marjanishvili Theater. Merab Ninidze (who first appeared in the role of Tornike in Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, 1984) and Berta Khapava as Manana’s mother Lamara are known film actors, while most others in the cast come from the theater. Given Georgia’s rich theatrical tradition, the directors had much to choose from. Eka Babluani, one of the stars of Ekvtimishvili’s and Gross’s previous film, In Bloom plays a small but crucial role in this film—a wise young voice speaking to her teacher and senior.

my happy familySpace is key in the film, from the streets of Tbilisi, ancient capital of Georgia, to the two apartments where much of the action takes place. Director of Photography Tudor Vladimir Panduru (who shot Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation [Bacalaureat], 2016) managed to capture the overcrowded family flat, with no privacy, three generations tripping over one another, continually in each other’s gaze; an old wardrobe holding everyone’s clothes too big to be removed from the “master bedroom” where Manana’s daughter and husband, as newlyweds, sleep. The directors relied on extended rehearsals and walk-throughs in tight, crowded spaces before filming. Especially impressive is the birthday party scene, when guests and extended family are squeezed into a small room with hosts moving in and out of the room, filmed in one long take.

Sound in the film is diegetic and adds to our sense of realism. After the noise, chaos, complaining, and din of the extended family flat, with Manana’s mother’s continual bitching, the silence of Manana’s new apartment (however grimy and dilapidated) is liberating. In this “room of her own,” Manana listens to the music she chooses, sits in silence, re-strings her guitar, and hums through a song from an old notebook: “The Almond was in Bloom.” While there are two balconies in this small apartment, noise from the street rarely rises to Manana’s attention. Instead, the dominant sound from outside the apartment is the wind blowing, and the wind in the trees. 

Manana’s return to her guitar and singing is repeated at her class reunion, where classmates beg her to sing for them, to hear her voice again. This scene is far from idyllic, however, and supports a common theme emerging from the story and from the songs in the film, that speak of love and loss. My Happy Family is filled with music, but it is important to note that it is, like sound in the film, diegetic and performed by the actors themselves. Georgia is known for its singing—polyphonic, four-part harmony typical of table songs sung generally by men, but also of folk and urban traditions of solo and trios.

my happy familyThe motif of blooming is key in both films by Nina and Simon. There is not, however, an easy answer, or a hint of a “happy ending” in either film (although there is growth and understanding). “Happy” is a term that is complicated by these films. Happiness is fleeting, people and relationships are often not what they seem. In an almost double irony, “happiness” may actually be found in the extended family, or perhaps rather in the greater family of the tiny, rich culture of Georgia: in music, theatre, painting, personal relationships, and performed history.

A crucial element of the film for me is the unscripted duet of lead actors Ia Shugliashvili and Merab Ninidze that accompanies the final credits. Inola Gurgulia’s song “The Almond was in Bloom,” that Manana found in an old notebook and worked through in her new apartment, is now sung in its entirety. In this film about family, one must note that Gurgulia (1929–1977), one of the most popular Georgian folk composers and singers of the Soviet period, was Shugiashvili’s mother. The repetition of the lead actress’ mother’s song in the action of the film and during the credits echoes the repetition of Otar Ramishvili’s “Every Night” in In Bloom (see the review in KinoKultura 43). Songs about love lost, about the fleeting nature of love, also tell the story of music and culture surviving, not forgotten, performed again and again by new generations who honor those who went before them.

The almond was in bloom, the sun shed a rosy glow, almond blossoms in my heart.
I awaited my love. You came and caressed me, but didn’t believe my love.
Look, the almond is in bloom, in my heart, as before
My heart is pounding, but you stand silent, perhaps tender, perhaps full
And you won’t believe, that I love you again as before.

Ia Shugiashvili, together with her sister and brother, performed recently in an evening devoted to their mother, Inola, in the courtyard of a famous Tbilisi “house” on Ingorovka Street 14, where dozens (if not hundreds) of leading artists and activists, lived—a house featured in many of Otar Ioseliani’s Tbilisi films, with an incredible treatment of music and sound (most exquisitely demonstrated in his Once There Was a Singing Thrush, 1970). Georgian film is in so many ways a “family affair,” and in this film and their previous one, Ekvtimishvili and Gross honor and join that great tradition. At the same time, they do so with a plea for more space and respect for women, for mothers, daughters, and wives. A Georgian woman deserves a room of her own and the freedom to make her own decisions. Yet she enjoys a rich cultural history and tradition, with ties to family and art and music and cinema. Hence the far-from-simple title of this film, My Happy Family.

my happy familyLike their heroine, Ekvtimishvili and Gross are asking for more respect from fellow Georgians as well. After selling the film to Netflix for “global distribution,” they made a plea to Georgian internet providers and users to remove all pirated copies of the film on Georgian sites. Violation of copyright is a global issue, of course, and perhaps especially common in the former Soviet and East European bloc where censorship kept many works from the public for so long that individuals did what they could to have their “own copy.” It is also clear to me that Georgian viewers may indeed grow impatient as some of the best films produced in Georgia in recent years premier in film festivals all around the globe before screening in Georgia. By the time My Happy Family was widely available to the Georgian public, it had received 13 awards and 9 nominations at festivals worldwide and overwhelmingly positive reviews by leading film critics.

It is my hope that Netflix will do more to feature this film, which deserves a wider audience, and may help introduce viewers to the growing number of masterful and inspiring films from Georgia by women filmmakers.

Julie A. Christensen
George Mason University

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Further Viewing

For information about making the film, see an interview with the directors at MOMA, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Dec 6, 2017.

The issue of copyright is discussed in Georgian news broadcasts as here.

The concert dedicated to Inola Gurgulia is available on youtube (in Georgian).

My Happy Family, Georgia/Germany/France, 2017
119 minutes, Georgian language
Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Gross
Screenwriter: Nana Ekvtimishvili
Producers: Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo, Simon Gross
Director of Photography: Tudor Vladimir Panduru
Production Designer: Kote Japharidze
Costume Designer: Medea Bakradze
Editor: Stefan Stabenow
Cast: Ia Shugliashvili, Merab Ninidze, Berta Khapava, Tsisia Qumsashvili, Giorgi Khurtsilava, Giorgi Tabidze, Goven Cheishvili, Dimitri Oragvelidze
Production company: Augenschein Filmproduktion, Polare Film, Arizona Productions
Sales: Memento Films International
Distribution: Netflix

Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Gross: My Happy Family (Chemi bednieri ojaxi, Georgia/Germany/France, 2017)

reviewed by Julie A. Christensen© 2018

Updated: 2018