GEORGIA ON MY MIND: Sheila Seacroft’s dispatch from the Tbilisi Film Festival (1 of 2)

Published on: December 1st, 2012

 

old Tbilisi (photograph by Maia Barateli)


Ah, Tbilisi – when I mentioned to people I was coming here, it was surprising how many faces lit up with a kind of envious yearning. I hadn’t realised so many others harboured my own fascination with the place.

It’s partly my admiration for Georgian cinema – even though many of the film-makers are based in France – and partly the place: Europe but exotic; a staging post on the Silk Road (a hundred years ago western travellers reported camels in the streets); edgy, a place of fascinating culture and wonderful food; as far east as Moscow and as far south as Naples. Also curiosity about a place so absolutely on the front-line of the Russia/west border, that only four years ago was briefly at war, with fighter planes flying low over the city and refugees cramming in.

So – one black December night I found myself flying over the light-show that is Istanbul, eastward across the Black Sea, and swooping down in an arc, taxiing in front of a modern airport building bearing those seductive letters of the city’s name, red, round and mysterious, like plump cats sitting in a row:

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The festival, a relatively modest one by European standards, organised by the Tbilisi Prometheus Cinema Arts Centre, began in 2001 with the twin aims of bringing other European cinema in original versions to a country where it’s very hard to find – even in its capital – and to showcase and support Georgian cinema, both to festival guests and local people. Underlying these aims is undoubtedly a will for Georgia to represent itself as a strong participant in mainstream European cultural life. So my intention was to see as much Georgian cinema as possible, also taking in such other films as I could to get a flavour of the European dimension.

Surprisingly, there seem to be no old cinemas still open in central Tbilisi, which means two modern cinemas were used: both screens of the Amirani (beneath Tbilisi’s grand Philharmonic Hall) and the smaller screens of the multiplex Ruvalemi, down the other end of the city’s wide central boulevard. A pity for the likes of me who love visiting characterful old cinemas, but with the benefit of being “shop-windowed” where lots of ordinary cinemagoers might be tempted to try something different. Appetite for film was evident in the fact that that most evening screenings were full – often to bursting – including the larger (450 seats) Amirani.

To look at the European input first:

Michael R Roskam’s debut feature Bullhead (Rundskop) is a grim thing, set in the murky world of the Belgian illegal cattle-hormone trade. Farming here isn’t the healthy sunlit occupation of myth, but a business undertaken mostly in shadowy sheds crammed full of animals: their stench in your nose; their manure under your feet. A farmyard-brown patina of grimy misery hangs over this world of crime and its characters. For farmer’s son Jacky the idyllic freedom of the countryside of his boyhood ended in a trauma which has affected his whole life.

In a tremendously brooding, physical performance by Matthias Schoenaerts, this young man trapped inside a beefy and violent body – as he, like the dumb animals with whom he is compared, bulks up on testosterone – becomes gradually more human as the reasons for the condition of his mind and body are shown in a horrific flashback. Although not graphic, it makes for queasy viewing (half the row in front staggered out), and the crime aspect of the film suddenly assumes a secondary role to the personal drama.

It’s frustrating that Roskam – his approach a little “bull-in-a-china-shop” one might say – takes on more threads than he can successfully manage to weave together, because he shows he’s capable of delivering a world of phenomenal intensity. But lost love, curdled childhood friendships, murder, revenge, psychopathic farm boy, hard-bitten female cop, and a gratuitous gay strand spreads the action too thinly and at times confusingly. But I did like the comic relief provided by two dimwitted French-speaking car-mechanics – a Flemish in-joke no doubt. Both the director and leading man in this Oscar-nominated (Foreign-Language) affair are names to watch, and Schoenaerts has already gone on to bigger things courtesy of Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone.

Recently cinema has become frighteningly “grown up” and exercised itself very much with the notion of dying: not only Michael Haneke’s much garlanded Amour; last-year’s sadly rather overlooked Volcano from Iceland; Wrinkles(aka Arrugas), the bitter sweet, devastating animation from Spain; and the impish The Dead Man and Being Happy (see below).

But Andreas Dresen’s Halt auf freier strecke (rather clumsily translated as Stopped on Track, when Stopped in his Tracks would perhaps be better) is perhaps the most gruelling, and the one which feels most uncomfortably like death as we are likely to experience it in our own lives, in all its banal detail. At times almost unwatchable, it is the devastatingly simple account of the last few weeks of one ordinary man, Frank, after a sudden diagnosis of an aggressive terminal brain tumour.

Two blazing central performances, by Milan Peschel as Frank, a factory worker, and Steffi Kühnert as his tram-driver wife, hit a realistic note that never fails to convince, as the physical, emotional and practical facts of oncoming deterioration and death take hold of this ordinary family. The horror of a gradual erosion of day-to-day duties and pleasures – work, DIY, family trips away – and the guilt of those having to adjust is shown in magnificent ordinariness.

Unfussy camerawork, unrelenting close ups, and near-documentary style convey the piercing truth of mortality: the way a life can be cut short, and the stratagems of coping that most of us will need at some point to face. But in spite of the raw pain, it also, by the end, effects the kind of cleansing acceptance that sometimes comes after a death, and a recognition of the sweetness of life. A remarkable film.

Quite another take on death comes in Javier Rebollo’s Spanish-Argentinian co-production The Dead Man and Being Happy (El muerto y ser feliz). A curious affair. If road movies are more about trying to run away from something than arriving, then escape from death is the ultimate motive – as we see here. Terminally-ill hitman Santos (José Sacristán) takes a trip without a destination after he fails to make his last hit. His story is told, voice-over style, by a knowing and ironic narrator who makes no bones about the fact she’s aware of how this will all end. Haphazardly joined by a the younger Erika (Roxana Blanco) he travels across the country, telling and dreaming of his past life. Unsettlingly, narrative and action don’t always match.

Obsessed with remembering the names of those he has killed, yet simultaneously strangely unbothered, he fantasises about his bespectacled boss – an unlikely representative of death – and between him and the sly narration we are teased with the notion of what is real and what is imagined. Meanwhile Erika listens, administers his pain-killers, and the two eventually become unlikely lovers. I was never quite attuned to Santos and his situation, but it’s an engrossing, often humorous journey, finishing in a truly unnerving finale among Erika’s jolly but insidiously sinister family.

Christopher Hampton was a special guest at Tbilisi this year, and by all accounts gave a superb masterclass. Unfortunately the festival chose to show a film he directed, whereas his strength has always been in screenwriting. The fact that the eight-year-old Imagining Argentina was the most recent picture he’s directed might well mean he’s accepted that his strengths lie elsewhere.

Horribly well-intentioned, it’s set in Argentina of the Generals in the 70s, with Antonio Banderas wearing an almost perpetual grimace of agony as a stage-director whose journalist wife becomes one of the Disappeared, whereupon he discovers he has a sixth sense which enables him to ‘see’ the fates of the disappeared of other people. Much gasping, writhing and anguished working of the eyebrows ensues.

The magical realism of the original novel, clearly in the director’s sights, is missed by a mile. The film is just silly and embarrassing, and almost insulting considering it’s dealing with such a genuinely serious and tragic subject. Emma Thompson is woefully miscast as his wife – even with the dodgy Latin American accent she’s still Emma Thompson, well-bred Brit to the end. And she’s joined by whole troupe of English thesps all looking suitably solemn, including John Wood and Claire Bloom bringing in a gratuitous Holocaust strand, and Anton Lesser as moustachioed villain General Guzman. All the good people are good and all the bad people are bad, with the one exception of a troubled prison guard who’s ‘only doing his job’. Never for one moment do you believe in these characters – they’re just actors acting.

Children of Sarajevo (Djeca),however, by the young Bosnian director Aida Begić, is a striking and honest piece of work, and a worthy winner of the Un certain regard award at this year’s Cannes (the prize shared by Dresen’s Stopped On Track last year). Twenty-something war orphan Rahim (a fiercely luminous performance by Marija Pikić) has custody of her schoolboy brother, holding down a low-paid job in the kitchens of a luxury restaurant/club run by a wealthy entrepreneur on the edge of the criminal and political world.

It’s clear Rahim has led a troubled life in the past, but now she has straightened out. She devotes all her energies into putting food on the table and making sure she keeps the brother on the straight and narrow. But the repercussions of the war are always there, even though the sounds of explosions are now only New Year firecrackers.

Life is hard. She’s mocked for wearing the hijab, harassed by the social worker when her brother gets into trouble at school, perpetually short of money and unable to respond to the kindly overtures from local shopkeeper Tarik (Nickola Đuričko). Real newsreel footage of the war recreates her past experiences, while her daily drudgery and anxieties are strongly felt, as she moves between workplace, grimy anonymous exteriors and their claustrophobic flat. It’s a bonus that out of the mess that is Rahim’s life, the mood at the end of the film is suddenly one of optimism, as if the will for everything to be alright might just make it so.

Gloom and more gloom are inescapable however in Zeki Demirkubuz’s dark Inside (Yeralti) from Turkey. It’s a film where his protagonist’s Dostoevskian world-view begins on a low note and descends even further down the spiral to the hell that is oneself as it triggers a crisis of despair and hatred.

Muharrem is an office worker who lives alone with only the neighbour’s maid for day-to-day human communication. Engin Günaydın, mostly known as a comedy actor in Turkey, plays a character intensely alone and detached from his world, including his old friends. When he engineers a night out with them to celebrate one’s success as a novelist, his contempt for what he sees as selling out, which may include not a little envy, brings only embarrassment and frustration for him and exasperation for them.

After a sexual encounter that shows signs of tenderness, things go from bad to worse. Set in a grey and charmless Ankara that reflects Muharrem’s own state of mind, we are plunged into his psyche. Not a good place to be. Masterly though the film is at conveying the kind of disgust that begins with the self and spreads to everyone around, it’s a hard journey for the audience.

Cheerfulness comes at last with Certain People (Katinkas Kalasby Levan Akin, a Swede of Georgian descent. This is a sour and funny comedy of manners set at a house-party the likes of which most people will have experienced, even if they don’t remember too well (or elect to forget.) Kati is the beautiful thirtysomething birthday girl. She’s throwing her usual party at the idyllic house in the country she shares with her over-earnest man Gregor, whom we meet spending precious prep time on the creation of a Georgian walnut and garlic paste (I’m with him from the off, because I ate just such a divine creation the previous day) though he soon comes through as a bit of a doofus.

Soon Kati’s boho friends arrive, all well-heeled, all apparently oozing confidence. There’s a sour wise-cracking one, a bespectacled insecure arty one who knows she’s second rate, a preening pregnant one along with her uxorious (to start with) husband. All’s going swimmingly until the arrival of Kati’s wayward twin brother with unsuitable blonde girlfriend in tow. Turns out she’s a gameshow hostess, whose direct ways soon prove to be a catalyst which begins the unravelling of the smart folk’s pretensions and shakes their certainties.

Divided into sections entitled ‘entrées’, ‘drinks’, ‘desserts’, etc, the party disintegrates into a mess of self-reproach and home truths. The camera catches to perfection the feel of maudlin wine-soaked self-analysis and doubt that descends on a darkening warm summer night in a garden among people you thought you knew. Half Friends, half Mike Leigh, the rather unoriginal set-up is compensated for by sprightly comic performances which are still subtle enough to present us with real vulnerable people even while we’re laughing at them.

Sheila Seacroft
19th December 2012

part two