Natvris khe/ Drevo zhelaniy/ The Wishing Tree (Georgia/USSR, 1976), dir. Tengiz Abuladze

March 28, 2009 at 1:00 am

The IMDb does not list any DVD details, but a nicely produced DVD of this Georgian classic does exist with subtitles in several Western languages. I bought it from a stall at Hong Kong’s Star Computer Arcade, alongside the DVD of the other earlier Abuladze film on which I wrote here some months ago, Verdreba. I remember having seen the film first on its release in my teenage years; it had left a great feeling of cinematic poetic and a memory of fabulous colours. On this viewing, the memory of colours was confirmed, and the feeling of poetic superiority — to some extent as well.

Natvris Khe/Drevo zhelaniy/ Wishing Tree (Tengiz Abuladze, 1976) is based on the work of a Georgian classic, Georgi Leonidze, and the subtitle of the film is marked as ‘Pictures from the Life of a pre-Revolutionary Georgian village’ (in case one may think that the patriarchal mores depicted here could have continued existing after the socialist revolution). By its very nature, most of the film’s humour and stories remain best understood by Georgians, and thus, even though one can grasp some of its charm, it remains of a somewhat limited local appeal. While viewers like myself would probably be able to appreciate many of the jokes and gather that there should be even more endearing qualities to these village stories (as it becomes clear from reading the user’s postings on the IMDb), these are mostly of interest to people who are really familiar with the culture of the region. And as I am not one of them, I must admit that many of the episodes came across as straightforward self-exoticism to me, a quality that makes films from smaller cultures travel among international audiences but ultimately, in my view, operate on the principle of voluntary self-denigration. The humor is occasionally too specific to be appreciated by those who are not in the know.

There is, however, one story of universal appeal: the account of the tragic love between the young Marita and Gedya (reminiscent in many aspects to the love story between Ivan and Marichka in Sergo Paradjanov’s amazing Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors). As soon as Gedya hears that Marita is promised to someone else, he runs to fight the contender, and is killed in the squabble. Marita is promptly married, as planned, a stupefied numb bride who soon grows totally alienated from her husband (once again we see the image of the sad bride, prevalent in the cinema of the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus).* It does not take long before, at the end of the film, Marita is forced to mount a mule (seated backwards) and then taken to her death, an act of local popular justice which is meant to punish her for ‘shaming’ the village. The inhabitants of the village are shown as good-hearted idiots for most part of the film, but now things have changed and they show a different violent and rough side in practicing their patriarchal justice. It is an exercise in destroying love and beauty, and ultimately, in the context of this film, an indictment of patriarchal society. Some dare objecting, but the community is stronger in naming the victim a villain, as it has been consolidating during all these long ‘pre-revolutionary’ years.

Sofiko Chiaureli, one of the greatest actresses of the region who is also known from her roles in Paradjanov’s Color of Pomegranate and Abuladze’s Repentance, appears here as Pupala, an aging bag lady of picturesque appearance, who keeps telling stories of her great romance with Shiola, a man who loved her so much that it was a matter of life and death. She would sit among a group of black clad village women and entertain them for hours, her exotic rags and heavily made up face in contrast with their austere appearance. In the course of the film Pupala, frequently an unwanted stranger, is revealed as a gentle soul who subtly combats the patriarchy and injustice that are shown to ultimately dominate the lives of local women.

Apparently, all films by Tengiz Abuladze (1924-1994) have had a huge influence and can be considered as stages in the development of Georgian cinema. His Monanieba/Pokayanie/Repentance(1984) was one of the most important films of the perestroika times, and probably the first film to make direct indictment of the totalitarianism of the Stalin/Beria era, a critique which soon thereafter was to become commonplace. Yet another classic of the director is Me, bebia, Iliko da Ilarioni/ Me, Grandma, Iliko and Ilarion (1962), a comedy based on Nodar Dumbadze’s work which again focuses on village life and the endearing aspects of patriarchy.

Ultimately, to me, the achievement of The Wishing Tree is that is represents an exquisit study in the use of colour. I would compare it to the more recent film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Gabbeh (1996), which is openly focused on studying colour and carries the name of the specific tapestry from the region. The mountainous landscapes, the blossom of flowers, the picturesque valleys and villages, and some of the scenes are as if taken directly from great masters like Pieter Breughel (a painter whose work Tarkovsky sought to recreate in Andrey Rublev) or like naivist painters from the region. Thirty-odd years after its original release, The Wishing Tree remains an amazingly beautiful film with its vivid colours and its ability to create mode through the tonality of the landscale.

* See my text “Balkan Wedding Revisited: Multiple Meanings of Filmed Nuptials.” October 1998. Working Papers Series of the Centre for Austrian Studies Available on-line: , Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

© Dina Iordanova
28 March 2009

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Gagma napiri/ The Other Bank (Georgia, 2009): Transnational cinema at the periphery

March 2, 2009 at 1:58 am

Talking to Georgian Tbilisi-based director George Ovashvili last week at Belgrade FEST about his gripping humanist tale Gagma napiri (The Other Bank), where it was featured as part of the competition Europe outside of Europe, led to the emergence of yet one more amazing composite picture of the subdued dynamics of transnational filmmaking ‘at the periphery’.

While this appears to be a distinctly Georgian film, in that it is set in Georgia and Abkhazia and features the specific realities of the country, it is also one that involves creative ‘above the line’ contributions from professionals that belong to no less than seven other national cinematic traditions, none of which is Western. Kazakh Sain Gabdullin co-produced the film with Ovashvili, while Kyrgyz Marat Sarulu acted as an associate producer. The adaptation of the novel was assisted by Rustam Ibragimbekov, a screenwriting veteran of Soviet cinema responsible for classics such as Beloe solnce pustyni (White Sun of the Desert, 1970), who is based in Baku, Azerbaijan today. The cinematography of the film is by Iranian Shahriar Assadi, best known for his work on Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can’t Fly (2005), the sound mixing — by Czech Ivo Heder, while Jew Israel David is listed as score recordist.

When he came to think of editing the film, Ovashvili noticed that two of his favorite films, Kim Ki-duk’s The Coast Guard (Hae anseon, 2002) and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok, 2003) shared the same editor, award-winning Sun-min Kim. Clearly, a South Korean editor would be out of reach for a director based in Tbilisi in these turbulent times, be it just for the sake of the differences in language and the geographical distance. Nonetheless, George Ovashvili decided to use an e-mail address he found on the Internet and tried contacting Sun-min Kim by sending a message into cyberspace following the principle ‘if you do not try, you do not know,’ yet without expecting much. To his great surprise, however, he soon received a reply from the editor who was amazed that someone from a remote and isolated country like Georgia may know of her work and may be interested to work with her. When it transpired that the Georgian director’s budget cannot accommodate the usual fee that the editor would work for, she even agreed to reduce substantially, and worked on the project for a whole month in Tbilisi, giving it her full attention and dedication.

There is nothing surprising, really, in this configuration of transnational collaborators, especially as it is coming from a director who identifies Korean director Kim Ki-duk and Iranian Majid Majidi (alongside Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf) as his main influences. It is more and more often that major international auteurs trace their artistic roots to influences that come not from the West but from countries like Russia and Iran (take the example of acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for example, whose early work reveals a fruitful cross-pollination between Tarkovsky and Kiarostami). The trend of this ‘peripheral’ transnational cinema is getting stronger every year. I see it all the time in various instances, yet it appears it is best to foreground it one example at a time, as I have attempted to do in this short discussion of George Ovashvili’s film.

© Dina Iordanova
2 March 2009

Vedreba (The Entreaty/Mol’ba, Georgia, 1967), Tengiz Abuladze

July 25, 2008 at 4:32 am

Based on the work of Georgia’s national poet Vazha Pshavella (1961-1915), Vedreba is a loosely structured visual poem that follows the plots of Pshavella’s epics and talks about pride, honor, revenge, and mourning. Set amidst the mighty swipe of the Caucasus mountains and making full use of the inconceivable natural imagery of geological forms and unusual architecture, of strong facial features and costumes, of sounds and winds, this is a truly memorable cinema of image creation.

Watching the film I felt I was missing a vast array cultural references that could have helped a better understanding (the same feeling of cultural inadequacy one experiences when watching films like Sergo Parajanov’s Color of Pomegranates). Evidently, the people in the film were Muslim, whereas I know Georgia as a Christian stronghold, so I cannot say to what specific part of this truly multicultural land the setting referred to. Many other details remained out of grasp, but this only enhanced the attraction to the powerful imagery.

The most important realization that came to me in the course of watching this film is that this type of highly artistic cinema seems to be more or less exclusive to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is possible to point at singular Western films that have undoubtedly had influence over the development of the style (like Bergman’s 1957 Seventh Seal, for example). However, there is no movement and no strand of filmmaking in Western Europe that could be identified as corresponding to the phenomenon that is almost entirely restricted to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Because, it is important to understand, that making this type of films here was not a matter of singular breakthroughs of individual visionaries like Tarkovsky and Parajanov. There is an array of other directors, whose names are little known today beyond the borders of their own countries, who created similarly powerful visual poetry. One would need to uncover the works of these people and reconsider it in a context that would show that they really worked in creative dialog with each other.

Over the years, due to the isolation of the Cold War period and the turbulent changes in the years that followed it, many of the films that belong to the corpus of poetic cinema’s strand have fallen through the cracks of international distribution and remain unknown. Checking them out one by one at the IMDb leads to the realization that they are almost non-existent in the public mind today. I am talking of remarkable films such as Yuri Ilyenko’s A Spring for the Thirsty (1965) from the Ukraine, Binka Zhelyazkova’s Attached Balloon (1967) from Bulgaria, or Zdravko Velmirovich’s Dervish and Death (1971), all based on important literary sources from their respective countries. I do not know how to explain why it is that at least cinema historians from these countries have not bothered to make more information available. And why it is that so many years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, films from Georgia, Ukraine or Kazakhstan are still listed on the IMDb solely with their Russian titles (and not with the ones in the original language they were made), and as films in the Russian language (which is not really the case). Aren’ t there people in these newly emancipated countries (scholars, critics, film bureaucrats) that would take up the project of making at least some information of their cinematic heritage available to the world via this most frequently accessed source?

I obtained the Vedreba DVD at a seedy shop in Hong Kong, located on the ground floor of the infamous Star Arcade, but was nicely surprised to see that it is also listed on Amazon (even if difficult to find). The DVD is a RUSCICO release, the company that makes former Soviet films available internationally (I wonder how they cover for the copyrights of those creative personnel who are no longer part of Russia; in this case we are talking of a Georgian film, made almost entirely by Georgian contributors within Georgia). The film is featured both in its Georgian and Russian version, and has subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Italian.

© Dina Iordanova
24 July 2008