The Identity and Place of Contemporary Georgian Cinema

By Zaza Rusadze

© Zaza Rusadze, 2011

At home it has become frequent for movie theaters to show several Georgian films simultaneously. Fortunately, the revival of Georgian cinema is tangible. A number of films made recently allow for a genuine discussion of modern trends in Georgian cinematography. The end of the crisis is palpable and the deficit of creativity that governed Georgia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union has been overcome. A new wave of Georgian cinema has begun to form its modern identity and create a sense of belonging.

The generation of filmmakers who shaped Georgian cinema and defined its characteristics belongs to the 60s. Metaphoric and poetic narration styles, the language of fable, humor and unique cinematographic characters have been main features of Georgian cinema, which determined the strength of Georgian films and led to their success both locally and internationally.

It is impossible to analyze Georgian cinema outside its political and cultural context. The generation of filmmakers of the 60s started their careers against the background of political realities: Stalin’s death was followed by Khrushchev’s Thaw, revealing the impossibility and falsehood of the idea of freedom in the Soviet Union. This idea was then reflected in the works of Georgian film-makers. A closed and artificial environment became the indirect object of the film narration as a background against which the protagonists led their lives. They were young people who preferred to be outsiders rather than conformists within the system; they were unable to find self-realization within a contrived reality.

Audiences felt sympathy for such characters, since life in Georgia and the problems of the film characters were very much alike. Individuals in the audience were not just neutral observers: their life experience was reflected on the screen. To put it simply, the films showed what people discussed in their kitchens, since speaking publicly about those problems was prohibited. Films became part of the social discourse; they went beyond any descriptive-journalistic function and reflected the pulse of the Soviet epoch with precision.


The popular film characters of those years were: Niko from Otar Iosseliani’s Falling Leaves (Giorgobistve, 1967), Aguli Eristavi from Eldar Shengelaya’s An Unusual Exhibition (Arachveulebrivi Gamopena, 1968) and Giya Agladze from Iosseliani’s Lived Once a Song-Thrush (Iko shashvi mgalobeli, 1970). These characters were of aristocratic origin: they represented the old culture and traditions. Albeit indirectly, films portrayed significant and large-scale events: after the Socialist Revolution, the Communists gained power, and films of the 60s reflected the long-term results of this process—the expected defeat of the newly-built Communist state, the outsider role of the aristocracy, the impossibility of dialogue between the winners and the losers.

ypoung composer
blue mountains
suram fortress

The 80s were marked by a triumph in Georgian cinema: it was a period when the generation of the 60s, having miraculously escaped the prohibition of their professional activity or emigration, revealed its creative potential. The prominent directors of this period were Eldar Shengelaya, Giorgi Shengelaya, Lana Gogoberidze, Tengiz Abuladze and Sergo Parajanov. Their films, such as Eldar Shengelaya’s The Voyage of the Young Composer (Akhalgazrda kompozitoris mogzauroba, 1984) and The Blue Mountains (Tsisperi mtebi anu daujerebeli ambavi, 1983), Parajanov’s Legend of Suram Fortress (Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa, 1984), Abuladze’s Repentance (Monanieba, 1986), Gogoberidze’s Whirlwind (Oromtriali 1986), Parajanov’s Ashik-Kerib (Ashug-Karibi, 1988), were successful in the international arena and promoted Georgian cinema worldwide.

repentenceOf course the success of these directors was not solely due to the political context, and it would be wrong to analyze their films from a narrow political perspective. Their films were unique because of their lively characters, cinematographic style, and post-modern expressive eclecticism. Fable-like, metaphorical narrative styles are important attributes of these films.

The political situation, including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic conditions caused by these processes, had a heavy impact on Georgian film making of the end of the 80s. The technical and material bases of Gruziafilm, the national studio, were completely destroyed and film production stopped altogether. The famous phenomenon of Georgian cinema became part of history, just as the Soviet Union itself became a construct of the past. In the 90s, however, Georgia gained independence and started to build a new state. Filmmakers were challenged to adjust their creative processes to the new reality. The theme of identity and belonging of the new Georgian cinema became an issue for the film critics to discuss. According to film critic Teo Khatiashvili:
“the reflection of reality which was so important and genuine during Soviet times became a heavy burden for contemporary Georgian cinema. As if by inertia, film makers still tell the stories of heroes that are totally alienated in the context of modern reality, yet current reality is completely different” (Khatiashvili 2009).

whirlwindThe inertia of film characters and their inadequate metamorphosis is caused by the long pause in film production after the collapse of the Soviet system. Despite the fact that genre cinema has never been a strong feature of Georgian cinema, the films of the Soviet period show that genre conventions gave film makers the possibility to exercise their profession in a regular way. Only a few representatives of the new generation managed to create interesting characters corresponding to the period. Among them are Tato Kotetishvili’s Anemia (1987), Aleko Tsabadze’s The Spot (Laqa, 1985) and Dance in the Night (Gamis tsekva, 1991) and Dito Tsintsadze’s On the Edge (Zghwarze, 1993).

Naturally, the crisis of Georgian cinema cannot be explained solely by economic factors or even the lack of production technology. The Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili commented that “the Georgian nation needs independence in order to see its real face” (Mamardashvili 1989).

To illustrate this, the development of social processes can be observed in Georgian documentaries of the 90s. Numerous documentary films were made during the 90s despite the fact that the “Mematiane” documentary film studio ceased to exist at that time, along with Gruziafilm. Compared to feature films, documentaries needed fewer financial means. They were made using the technical equipment of local television studios and that of private people and private studios.

Most Georgian documentaries are historical and ethnographic films. They are far from the so-called “observational-creative” documentaries which would have reflected the pulse of that interesting decade. Even the film titles are interesting to study with their religious-apocalyptical content, reports of historic events and the lives of famous public figures. Numerous films explore Georgia’s relations with the West and with famous foreigners enchanted by Georgia.

In the first decade of Georgia’s independence social issues became key concerns; however, they were not frequently the subjects of Georgian films. In some films social issues were reflected with dull journalistic precision. It appeared that Georgian documentary cinema escaped from reality and tried to compensate its offended dignity by turning instead to historical events. The documentary filmmakers’ choices of themes continued to be directly linked to political events of the given period.

subordinationAfter independence, Georgia largely started to withdraw from one cultural space and attempted to join another. However, this development filled people with fear and confusion. It became necessary to change public attitudes. A painful process of re-evaluation began. At that time, documentary film-makers said that themes for films could be found on every street corner. However, the proper interpretation of and reflection on themes was not achieved in documentary films. As for feature films, only a few video-films of low artistic quality were created in the 90s. 

In 2000, the Georgian National Film Center was established. This gave hope for the revival of Georgian cinema. State subsidies for films appeared again and they rose. Today, funds are distributed based upon decisions by an expert committee appointed by the Film Center. Naturally, State subsidies alone are not enough, yet the establishment of a new model of film production is an important step aimed at the revival of Georgian cinema. The period of stagnation has come to an end, and the number of Georgian films is increasing; perspectives for further growth are tangible. Examples include Giga Chkheidze’s Lake (Tba, 2002), Levan Zakareishvili’s Tbilisi Tbilisi (2005), Levan Tutberidze’s A Trip to Karabakh (Gaseirneba Karabaghshi,2005), Archil Kavtaradze’s Subordination (Subordinacia, 2007), Zaza Urushadze’s Three Houses (Sami Sakhli, 2008). These films remind us of the existence of Georgian cinema, and Georgian audiences started again to buy tickets for Georgian films.

The new Georgian cinema is currently in the process of formation and transformation, just as the country. However, contemporary themes that have become part of public discourse and discussion have not yet been fully reflected in Georgian films. After the “Rose Revolution” of 2003, a painful process of large-scale reforms started in Georgia. The young representatives of the government attempt to modernize the country.

susaModernization and Georgian traditions, the difference of opinions, social and economic problems, the fear of cultural emancipation—these are extremely painful issues in Georgia today and, fortunately, they are discussed publicly, unlike during the Soviet period. There is a still long way to go until new and interesting images appear in Georgian films, however. The results of the Soviet past have to be analyzed, not through high-budget films with costumes and special effects. The main thing is to analyze the content of the epoch and to identify the links between the Soviet period and the present.

Modern Georgian cinema and its audiences are expecting the birth of contemporary, new, genuine, lively and active characters. Unfortunately, women – genuine heroines of the hard period of transition - have not yet been the focus of Georgian film-makers. Levan Koguashvili’s documentary film “Women from Georgia” (2008) is an exception. In this film women are the main characters and they draw a true picture of current reality. The analysis of current reality is the main theme of another film by this director, whose successful Street Days (Quchis dgeebi, 2009) tells about a lost generation. After civil war and confrontation, depression and the political environment in a deadlock, drug addiction has risen in Georgia. A significant part of the new generation that should have led the dialogue between grandfathers, fathers and sons, is ill, trying to escape from reality through drug abuse.

Alongside the stories of strong women and weak men, film makers tell children’s stories: Rusudan Pirveli’s Susa (2010, script by Giorgi Chalauri) and Giorgi Ovashvili’s The Other Bank (Gagma napiri, 2009). Both films are dedicated to social problems and tell about the absence of a future for their protagonists. These films have achieved recognition at international festivals, especially “The Other Bank”, which was awarded numerous prizes and nominated for a 2009 European Film Academy award for “Discovery of the Year”.

The revival of the film industry and a gradual increase in the number of films produced will enable closer observation and more detailed analysis in the future. We hope that more Georgian directors will soon have an opportunity to make films and that it will be easier to identify general trends of modern Georgian cinema.

The Georgian National Film Center is currently the sole state institution allocating subsidies for film production. In 2010 the annual budget of the Film Center comprised 4.1 million GEL. Out of this amount, 2.7 GEL was allocated for film production. This confirms the necessity for finding alternative sources of funding. Hence, it is logical that film producers hope to find support from the Georgian private sector as well as western film funds. Currently Georgian film-makers face a totally different reality to that of the Soviet period.

Criticism of the Soviet system and political order resembles a struggle between good and evil, black and white. The cinema of the Soviet period was based on energy born amidst an existential struggle, which was successfully translated into the creative processes in cinema. Currently, modern filmmakers have to generate interesting ideas and develop, refine and revive these ideas in the creative process. But they also have to implement their ideas, adjusting them to the frameworks of industrial production and finding admissible limits of compromise. Self-criticism to their own profession and work is a new challenge for modern authors and directors. 

Hopefully, envisaging these difficulties of the film industry, the new generation of film-makers will manage to retain the uniqueness, diversity of genre and national peculiarity of Georgian cinema. Multi-layered, vivid artistic images, the cinematic language of fable and philosophy intermingled with southern humor will return to the screen and continue to charm both Georgian and international audience. The charm of Georgian films is in the true identity of Georgian culture and not its surrogate. Cultural uniqueness should become the basis of modern Georgian cinema, which, hopefully, will play an important role in world cinema. 


Works Cited

“Ninia Kakabadze Interviews Filmcritic Teo Khatiashvili,” Georgian Cinema 1960–2009,

Mamardashvili, Merab, 1989. Public Speech. People’s Front Assembly. Tbilisi, June.