Georgian Cinema before and after Independence

By Lela Ochiauri

© Lela Ochiauri, 2011

apolloGeorgian cinema is nearly as old as cinema in general. Georgia’s relationship with the tenth muse started on the threshold of cinema’s Golden Age, a period full of events. The road from the birth of cinema to modern film-production was hard and diverse.

Georgian cinema was an exact reflection of Georgian history, and it continues to reflect current Georgian reality. Georgian cinema developed alongside the country’s political, social, economic and cultural life. It constantly changed, developed, paused, and then continued in its development again... The events in the country were not only reflected in films, but they influenced film production in general. 

The train has arrived
The first film screenings in Georgia started a year after the first screenings at the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The announcement in the newspaper Tsnobis Purtseli read: “Today, on 16 November at 8 p.m., the Aristocratic Theater will screen a film: the photographic pictures of the Lumières, famous all round the world.” (16 November 1896).

journeyThe cinema Illusion first opened in 1904 on Tbilisi’s main street, Golovin Avenue (now Rustaveli Avenue) in the former building of a restaurant called “The Bear”. Prior to this, films were screened either at the Aristocratic Theater or at the Circus of the Nikitin Brothers— a natural choice of venue, both because it offered enough seats and because, prior to acquiring the status of art, cinema was considered a kind of mass entertainment.

In 1905 the Central Park of Tbilisi (Mushtaidi) launched the “Wooden House,” a summer venue with a small electric station. From 1907, various cinemas opened in Tbilisi, including the Muse, the Coliseum, the Apollo, the Lyre, the Moulin Electrique, the Empire, and the Cinema Disc.

In the same year film rental developed and the “Live Photographic Pictures” of the Lumière Brothers” began to appear in other Georgian towns. Thus, cinema became a part of life of all social layers, just like theater, opera and the circus. Thanks to the film rental system, cinemas could screen foreign films, until the first Georgian films appeared.
After seeing the first foreign films, Georgians were charmed by the glow of the Laterna Magica and started to make their first attempts in filmmaking. The first Georgian films consisted of episodes of Georgian life and the reality observed during the Caucasian trips of directors and cameramen: Alexandre Dighmelov (Dighmelashvili), Simon Esadze and Vasil Amashukeli. Their films have disappeared, as has the first documentary on a Georgian national celebration by Alexander Tsutsunava, Berikaoba-Keenoba (1908). Information about the film exists only in written records and documents.

tsutsunavaIn 1912 Vasil Amashukeli made the first Georgian full-length documentary, Journey of Akaki (Akakis mogzauroba, 1912); this film has no equivalent in world cinema at the given time. This is a film about the trip of the “king of Georgian poetry”, Akaki Tsereteli, to Racha and Lechkhumi, and his relationships with the people living in the mountainous areas of Western Georgia. The film was first screened in Kutaisi, at the Radium Cinema. The first document describing the screening of the film is dated 15 May 1912, which is therefore celebrated as the birthday of Georgian cinema.

In 1916 Alexandre Tsutsunava started to shoot the first Georgian feature film, Christine, based on a story by the famous Georgian writer Egnate Ninoshvili. This film formed the foundation for Georgian feature film production, as well as establishing the tendency to make film adaptations based on works of Georgian literature.

Following the October Revolution of 1917, Georgia gained independence from the Russian Empire (after 200 years of being its colony) and the process of the formation of an independent state began, which involved Georgia’s attempts to integrate itself into the European and American cultural space. However, in 1921, Georgia was annexed by Bolshevik Russia. This was followed by communist rule, dictatorship, repressions, communist ideology, censorship, and Bolshevik propaganda, and the restriction of personal and creative freedom. Naturally, the tragic events, tyranny and economic hardships were aggravated by the fact that Georgia, similar to other Soviet republics, was separated from the civilized world for the next seventy years.

Foundation and birth
The establishment of the Soviet regime led to changes in every sphere of life, including art and cinema. The new ideology formed the basis of building a new, socialist state.

In this period, film directors of non-Georgian origin started their creative activities in Georgia: Ivan Perestiani, Vladimir Barskii and Amo Bek-Nazarov. They were attracted by Georgia’s exotic and unknown world, unique stories and adventures of “wild Caucasians.” The above-mentioned, very talented directors made films based on stories by Georgian and Russian writers, thus creating new, revolutionary cinema. However, they penetrated the spirit of the country only superficially; therefore, their manner and style were “alien” to Georgian cultural tradition.


After this first wave of filmmaking, several new film directors appeared in 1923-26. In this period Georgian directors created a new wave with films such as My Grandmother (Chemi bebia, 1929) by Kote Mikaberidze, who was stopped from continuing his filmmaking by Soviet censorship; Caucasian Love (Eliso, 1928) by Nikoloz Shengelaya; Salt for Svanetia (Jim Shvante, 1930), a documentary by Mikheil Kalatozishvili—who, in 1958, would be awarded the Golden Palm at the Cannes International Film Festival for the Mosfilm production The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli); Samanishvili’s Stepmother (Samanishvilis dedinatsvali, 1927) and Amok (Amoki, 1927) by Kote Marjanishvili, the reformer of Georgian theater; and Saba (1929) and Out of the Way (Khabarda, 1931) by Mikheil Chiaureli, who would proceed to make films about Stalin: The Great Dawn (Velikoe zarevo / Diadi gantiadi, 1938), The Vow (Kliatva, 1946), and The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina, 1950). These directors found a way of escaping Soviet ideology, and were able to apply new forms to express national sentiments and a creative vision full of new forms, genres and conventions.


Despite the barriers of censorship (at a great risk to life and freedom) some artists managed to reveal individual creative thinking and overcome obstacles. Hence, from time to time, works of individual artists shone like stars on the sky of a severely restricted Soviet culture. Nowadays their works are regarded as classics.

Unfortunately, the wave of cinematic development stopped when the Soviet government imposed Socialist Realism as the only acceptable method of artistic expression in the 1930s. This tendency made the development of art impossible and led to the creation of a surrogate pseudo-art during the Soviet era.

In the bubble-bomb
In an essay about Alexander Blok, the writer Evgenii Zamiatin notes: “... we were locked in a steel bomb—darkness, lack of space, with a whistle we flew not knowing where... Something had to be done in the agony. We had to arrange our lives in a bubble bomb” (A. Shpagin, Istoriia kino, 1991, pp. 22-34). For many years Georgian cinema tried to survive in this bubble bomb, flying by inertia, unable to change the direction of the flight.

saakadzeNew characters and heroes were required for the new myths and legends of Socialist Realism, since cinema was the best means for mass propaganda and for the delivery of ideological content. The Soviet system and its ideology affected life in all its spheres. The artists of the Soviet era had to comply with ideological requirements, invent pseudo-romantic plots, and represent life (which was far from wonderful) as beautiful and perfect.

In this period, ridden with repressions and the annihilation of innocent people during the Great Purges of 1937-8, art was subject to Socialist Realism, which became the basis of art with its didactics, linear propaganda, restriction of themes, artificial conflicts and characters, and a varnished reality.

World War II brought certain changes in life and art: the propaganda of building a new life was complemented by war propaganda. Only a few films were made in Georgia in this period, among them Mikheil Chiaureli’s historical epic Giorgi Saakadze (1942-3). The films of this period were aimed at encouraging people and strengthening their patriotic feelings.

Art is genuine only if it serves the truth. During the 1930s and 1940s art was deceitful, and false ideas led to false forms. One lie caused a whole chain of other lies. Cinema was on the way of half-truths and the falsification of reality.

New Times
Despite the closed space of Soviet Georgia, which hampered an awareness of the surrounding cultural space, there were small holes in the Iron Curtain that yielded rays of freedom. These holes were broadened by people who loved freedom and who could think freely.

The first stage of overcoming borders began during the late 1950s, in the period of Khrushchev’s Thaw. Of course, this was not a genuine and perfect freedom: the Soviet Empire remained strong for a long time, but the changes in the political climate caused certain changes in other fields, and the flight of the “bubble bomb” slowed down.

pirosmaniOn the one hand, the opposition to the communist dictatorship, civic rights and new creative thinking, and on the other hand, the youth movement in Europe in the 1960s, the protests aimed at the destruction of the old order, new visions and new hopes—all this led to invisible links between Georgian filmmakers and the West.

These protest and the search of new forms and ideas established the basis for Georgian films of the 1960s. This search defined not only content and problems, but also form and style, as well as new creative thinking and visions, thus leading to new discoveries.

Unlike the 1930s and 1940s, when a series of super-heroes were created in the context of Socialist Realism, the 1950s and 1960s were dominated by a rebellious approach to art. The mythological “we” of the collective art of the 30s returned to the individual “I,” revealing the inner human features, searching for something unique and special, something that was close to the individual and society, but also to the nation he represented. The times of nihilism were over, and new ways of creation had to be found.

The uniqueness of mythological characters turned into the uniqueness and individuality of a creative person. Old systems were destroyed, and new ones began to emerge. The historical reality in which artists had to live acquired new dimensions.

The new voices of the revolution in Georgian art, a group of rebel artists, were aware of their function and had precise aims. The first film setting a sign for the restoration of Georgian cinema was Magdana’s Donkey (Magdanas lurja, 1956) by Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkheidze, based on a story by Ekaterine Gabashvili. The film was awarded a special prize at the Cannes International Film Festival, along with Albert Lamorisse’s Red Balloon (Le ballon rouge, 1956). 

In 1962 Giorgi Shengelaya made the film Two Stories (Alaverdoba), which was a kind of creative manifesto of the 60’s generation. It was an expression of a civic position, offering creative stimuli and discoveries. The film set the path that would be pursued by Shengelaya and his contemporaries.

These directors, as well as their colleagues of the 1970s, Eldar Shengelaya, Otar Iosseliani, Aleqsandre Rekhviashvili, Tengiz Abuladze, Rezo Chkheidze, Lana Gogoberidze, Mikheil Kobakhidze, Merab Kokochashvili, Rezo Esadze, Nodar Managadze, and Irakli Kvirikadze spoke of problems which concerned them personally and society at large. They managed to circumvent the authorities and censorship by using “Aesopian language” and resorting to fables, legends, and myths, and sticking to genre conventions of comedy or tragicomedy. This freed them from their responsibility, as their films had no direct links with the reality that surrounded them: the truth was expressed in an allegoric manner.

two stories

The main feature of this individual, poetic cinema was the independent mind of its authors, leading to new discoveries in style and form, as is evident in the best-known films of this period: Abuladze’s Magdana’s Donkey, Children of Others (Skhvisi shvilebi, 1959), and Prayer (Vedreba, 1967); Giorgi Shengelaya’s Two Stories, He Didn’t Want to Kill (Matsi Khvitia, 1966), Pirosmani (1969) and Voyage of the Young Composer (Akhalgazrda kompozitoris mogzauroba, 1986); Aleqsandre Rekhviashvili’s Georgian Chronicles of the 19th Century (XIX saukunis qartuli qronika, 1979) and The Way Home (Gza shinisaken, 1981); Nodar Managdze’s Uprising (Amaghleba, 1976); Merab Kokochashvili’s Big Green Valley (Didi mtsvane veli, 1967); Eldar Shengelaya’s An Unusual Exhibition (Arachveulebrivi gamopena (1968) and The Eccentrics (Sherekilebi, 1973); Otar Iosseliani’s Falling Leaves (Giorgobistve, 1966) and Lived Once a Song-Thrush (Iko shashvi mgalobeli, 1970); Rezo Chkheidze’s Father of a Soldier (Jariskatsis mama, 1964), Lana Gogoberidze’s Under One Sky (Erti tsis kvesh 1961), Rezo Esadze’s The Nylon Christmas Tree (Neilonis nadzvis khe, 1985), Mikheil Kobakhidze’s Wedding (Qorcili, 1964) and Umbrella (Qolga, 1967); Mikheil Kobakhidze’s short Musicians (Musikosebi 1969); Soso Chkhaidze’s Shepherds of Tusheti (Tushi metskhvare, 1978), Rezo Khotivari’s Adventures of Lazare (Lazares tavgadasavali, 1973); and Irakli Kvirikadze’s The Swimmer (Motsurave, 1981). In these films the individual consciousness was freed from the collective sub-conscious. These films opposed ideological and political, as well as social cinema. The narration of these films was poetic rather than prosaic and the filmmakers developed multiple plot lines.

soldier fatherThe action takes place in an arbitrary world that has no definite historical link. The films are characterized by the abstraction of truth and indefinite contours. No realistic elements destroy the integrity, yet life (with its material and temporary characteristics) is one of the main acting powers. The anesthetization of the shooting object, picturesque and literary reminiscences, the arbitrary world and the poetic manner of narration are the key features of these films. The film world is metaphoric, symbolic, and unreal; it is a modeled microcosm.

The main ideas of these films are national and universal problems, moral issues, traditions, personal ethics the and struggle to retain moral principles, as well as the ability to make one’s choice which turns an ordinary human being into a hero.

The generation of the 50s and 60s won their unequal struggle because they had faith, and they pursued a goal. They knew that the change in the world view should be accompanied by a change of language. The generation defeated old ideals and celebrated new ones; they justified their existence in the given epoch by going far beyond it.

The New Wave
In 1972 the Department of Filmmaking was founded at the Tblisi Theater Institute (now Shota Rustaveli University of Theater and Cinema). This allowed for the creation of a national film school and brought forth new generations of filmmakers.

Since the 1980s the directors of the new generation—Temur Babluani, Goderdzi Chokheli, Dito Tsintsadze, Dato [Davit] Janelidze, Otar Litanishvili, Nana Jorjadze [Dzhordzhadze], Nana Janelidze, Tato Kotetishvili, Gogita Chkonia, Aleko Tsabadze, Levan Glonti, Levan Tutberidze, Levan Zakareishvili, Zaza Khalvashi, Marina Khonelidze—have given rise to new trends, themes and styles. They were interested in new heroes, their fates, relations, lifestyle, and problems.
sleeplessIn this period the interest in a poetic way of expression gave way to a more prosaic manner, since the issues that worried the generation of the 80s were more concerned with the new reality that surrounded them.

In the films of the 80s, such as Temur Babluani’s The Flight of Sparrows (Begurebis gadaprena 1980), The Sun of the Sleepless (Udzinarta mze, 1992), and Brother (Dzma, 1981); Goderdzi Chokheli’s Mother of Nature (Adgilis deda,1982), Nana Jorjadze’s A Journey to Sopot (Mogzauroba Sopotshi, 1980), Nana Janelidze’s The The Family (Ojakhi, 1985), Aleko Tsabadze’s The Spot (Laqa, 1985), Marina Khonelidze’s The Night Illusion (Gamis iluzia 1985), Dito Tsintsadze’s and Levan Eristavi’s Quasimodo (Kvazimodo, 1981), Dato Janelidze’s The Lodgers (Mdgmurebi, 1990), Tato Kotetishvili’s Anemia (1987), Zaza Khalvashi’s Here, at Our Place (Aq, chventan, 1990), life is shown as extremely hard: there is an atmosphere of hopelessness and disappointment. Life is full of filth, immorality, cruelty and lack of spirituality. People have lost their humane features: they kill with ease, they are unable to comfort and pity others, or share their joy. Social life is dull, monotonous, and devoid of faith: people have nothing and no one to rely on, there is no hope. People are lonely: those with a stronger psyche can survive and withstand temptations, but the weaker ones make fatal moves, destroying themselves and others. Ultimately, cruelty is triumphant. 

The long-desired freedom
In 1991 drastic changes took place in Georgia’s political and social life, when a new rule was established in the country. The curtains and borders collapsed, and old heroes were replaced by new ones, making way for new ideals and myths.

spotThe country regained independence after 200 years of occupation. The socialist order was replaced by capitalism, which had yet to be understood and developed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people could access a broader space. However, freedom had not been gained yet. Spiritual or physical freedom was affected by some invisible fate, and self-realization (which involves harmony, creative will, and self-expression) was hampered by total disharmony in the first years of independence.

Peace did not last long. Within a year after gaining independence, a military coup took place in Georgia, which was followed by civil war. Then in 1992 a war broke out in Abkhazia and Georgia lost a large portion of its territory. The economic, political and spiritual crisis went on for years. Therefore, steps towards development, including the development of cinema, were extremely slow.

The loss of a meaning in life, of a solid ground as well as eternal moral values (which were so significant in the films of 60s and 70s) led to a crisis in the cinema of the post-Soviet period. The creation of an artistic reality identical to the new world, the reflection of contemporary problems and the inner state of society posed a great problem. All this was aggravated by an economic crisis and a lack of understanding of how to adjust to the new reality.

The 21st century: crisis over?
In 2003, after the Rose Revolution forced the resignation of president Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s history changed again and the state began to develop in a new direction. The country has only just started to overcome its crises. Therefore, Georgian cinema (and culture in general) has to search for new ways and forms. Processes of construction, of freedom and of development also influence Georgian cinema. There is a tangible step forward, aimed at the revival of the glorious past and at finding new directions.

karabakhAlongside the Georgian National Film Centre, a state regulatory body in the field of cinema, new independent film studios have appeared (Aisi, Remka, Sanguco, Independent Film Project, Cinetech), as well as the first independent film producers (Levan Korinteli, Archil Gelovani, Zurab Magalashvili, Guka Rcheulishvili and others). These studios and independent producers lead Georgian film production, creating independent products and cooperating with State structures in the course of the development of Georgian cinema.

The system and forms of film production have changed. The State still holds the leverage for film financing and for the development of quality products. The only requirement for financing is good quality.

However, the global economic crisis has also affected Georgia and the situation was aggravated by the Russian attacks on Georgian territories in August 2008, which brought with them great human and material loss. All this hampered the development of film-making and culture in general.

There were times when theoretical manifestoes preceded all cinematographic and artistic innovation. Currently an artist pursues his search without any prescriptions. During recent years there are obvious tendencies in the development of Georgian cinema, which can be seen in the number of films made, as well as the quality of these films.

die without youToday, the main principle of cinema is the here-and-now, which should be captured on screen. As for the professional assessment and analysis, the main aim is to liberate critical discourses from stereotypes that hamper the perception of works of art due to the experience of society.

The key problems reflected in current Georgian films are the dramatic and even tragic events that occurred in Georgia and in the Caucasus region in the post-Soviet era: civil wars, the wars for the territorial integrity of Abkhazia and Ossetia, the Chechen war and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which caused drastic changes in a region that remains divided into conflict zones. All this affects human lives, as well as the present and future of society.

These problems and Georgia’s recent history are reflected in Levan Tutberidze’s A Trip to Karabakh (Gaseirneba Karabaghshi, 2005), Aleko Tsabadze’s Russian Triangle (Rusuli samkudhedi, 2007), Vano Burduli’s The Conflict Zone (Konpliktis zona, 2009) and Giorgi Ovashvili’s The Other Bank (Gagma napiri, 2009). These films are totally different from the poetic cinema of the past, yet they all share a narrative about the recent events in the Caucasus.

A Trip to Karabakh tells about the life of some youngsters against the background of the civil wars in Georgia and the Azeri-Armenian fight over the territory of Karabakh. This is a story of a lost generation influenced by a false sense of morality and protest against the established laws of cruelty. The youngsters have to make a choice between morality and immorality, obedience and protest. They attempt to escape the claws of slavery.

other bankIn Tsabadze’s Russian Triangle the events unfold in modern Russia after the Chechen wars. The film tells of the participants of the Chechen wars, whose adventures occur against the background of life during wartime. The film is about the personal tragedy of people who survived the hell of war, and whose sufferings continue afterwards. In this situation people are forced to take up arms and travel between the past and the present—in a world without real borders. These people continue their desperate struggle years after the war, when the events of the past seem to have been left behind and there is an illusionary peace.

Giorgi Ovashvili’s debut film The Other Bank is the story of a twelve-year-old refugee boy who lives with his mother on the outskirst of a Georgian town, while his father has stayed behind in his native Abkhazia. So the boy travels to Abkhazia—the other bank—to find his father and his house, although no one expects him there. His fate is influenced by war and violence—aspects of a country that has just survived a war. Ovashvili tells us what happens when people are separated by war: the country is divided into two camps and a bridge serves as border. The loss of peace has destroyed people, their homes, streets and towns—and this destruction has affected both banks.

Vano Burduli’s Conflict Zone is a sequel of A Trip to Karabakh (the first sequel in the history of Georgian cinema), taking us back into the Abkhazia of 1993. However, the film is an attempt to show a world full of conflict zones and hidden mines.

street daysAll these films tell the tragedy of Georgia in the beginning of the 1990s and the division of the country into “conflict zones.” The authors remind us that, while there are wars that destroy everything and everyone and take away people’s lives, there is a danger of returning to the past with new tragedies, revenge, crime and victims.

Contemporary Georgian film-makers are all concerned with the hardships of human life, with spiritual suffering, relationships, opposition to society, the search for one’s place, new morals, new ambitions, and new community. This is true of films such as Levan Zakareishvili’s Tbilisi Tbilisi (2005), Levan Koghuashvili’s Street Days (Quchis dgeebi, 2010), Zaza Urushadze’s Three Houses (Sami Sakhli 2008), Dito Tsintsadze’s A Man from the Embassy (Der Mann von der Botschaft, 2006 ), and Reverse (2006), Dato Janelidze’s Jako’s Lodgers (Jakos Khiznebi, 2009), Levan Tutberidze’s I Think I’ll Die Without You (Ushenod mgoni movkvdebi, 2010) and Archil Kavtaradze’s Subordination (Subordinacia, 2007).

Georgian cinema is still in the process of search of its identity, of new possibilities and a new film language of cinema, and of new forms of expression. Its history started with the journey of Akaki Tsereteli, while the history of cinema started with the arrival of a train. This road, begun a hundred years ago, has been a hard and interesting one, full of adventures and encounters, tragic and joyful.

Now, in the 21st century, Georgian cinema continues along its path. The train on which Georgian filmmakers once embarked is still travelling towards new spaces and stops.