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Georgian Film, Celebrated Abroad, Under Fire At Home

As Georgian cinema enjoys a burgeoning reputation abroad, critics say the government is taking aim at the independence of the country's filmmakers. (file photo)
As Georgian cinema enjoys a burgeoning reputation abroad, critics say the government is taking aim at the independence of the country's filmmakers. (file photo)

TBILISI -- Over the past several years, Georgia has become a darling on the international film circuit, with the country's films taking honors at festivals around the world.

And invariably, the films that make a splash have gotten their critical start-up funding from one source: a small, modestly funded government body called the Georgian National Film Center.

Now, though, Georgia's increasingly illiberal government has the center in its crosshairs, embarking on a reorganization that Georgia's leading filmmakers say is intended to sanitize the content of the films the country produces.

The Culture Ministry, which oversees the film center, has been replacing its leadership with political loyalists with little experience in the film world, who have been feuding with the remaining staff.

The tension boiled over this month, after the ministry announced another staff reshuffle. When the film center published a Facebook post in June expressing concern about its independence, it was later deleted. Staff then reported that they had lost access to the Facebook page.

The country's film elite responded with a series of demonstrations around Tbilisi, including one on July 12 in front of the ministry building that attracted roughly 200 protesters including some of the country's top film professionals. They held signs saying things like "Georgian cinema is at risk of censorship" and adopted a manifesto:

"We reject unambiguous art. We refuse to participate in backroom politics. We will have nothing but scorn for failed censors and their intentions to tame Georgian cinema."

A demonstration in Tbilisi against developments at the Georgian National Film Center
A demonstration in Tbilisi against developments at the Georgian National Film Center

The protesters have demanded an end to the reorganization and a transparent process, overseen by a committee of film professionals, to select a new director.

The crisis has galvanized the country's filmmakers and encouraged them to set aside internal rivalries, said Alexandre Koberidze, director of one of Georgia's biggest recent films, What Do We See When We Look At The Sky. "One good thing that has happened is that through this protest, a very divided group of people, filmmakers who never were friends, became a group which meets almost every day," he told RFE/RL at the demonstration. "We found points where we understand each other."

Spurred To Action

Georgian filmmakers say they were spurred to action because the neutering of the center could wreak deep damage to the country's cinema, given the critical role that the institution plays in the industry.

"In every single case, any medium- or feature-length film I have made, the film center always [provided] the initial funding," said Salome Jashi, perhaps Georgia's most well-known director today. The seed of Georgian funding is necessary for filmmakers to then seek co-producers with bigger pockets, usually in Western Europe, Jashi told RFE/RL. "Even if it was a very small amount, it was still essential because it was the first funding we got," she said.

Jashi's most recent feature film, the 2021 documentary Taming The Garden, has been one of Georgian film's greatest recent successes, winning prizes at festivals from Mexico to Switzerland and nominated at Sundance, the biggest independent film festival in the United States. But it has also been the country's most controversial film at home, as it takes on -- albeit obliquely -- Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is still believed to control it from behind the scenes.

A scene from Taming The Garden by Salome Jashi
A scene from Taming The Garden by Salome Jashi

The film depicts Ivanishvili's creation of a tree park on the Black Sea coast by uprooting and replanting trees -- usually massive and more than a century old -- from around the country for prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. It documents how poor villagers wrestle with the choice of losing either their beloved trees or forgoing a potentially life-changing payoff -- and the violence involved in wrenching the deeply rooted trees from the soil.

Ivanishvili is invisible in the film, and his name is barely mentioned; the documentary focuses on broader themes of humans' control over nature rather than the minutiae of Georgian politics. But the background is well known to any Georgian viewer -- including Ivanishvili's political allies, who took umbrage. When Jashi tried to screen the film in Georgia last year, she repeatedly ran into roadblocks and was told it was because of its political sensitivity.

As the controversy around the film center began to heat up this year, Georgian Dream's chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, said that films like Taming The Garden were the problem.

"This is a unique dendrological park, having no analogies. It's a shame when you make such an ironic film about this. Should the Georgian National Film Center be financing such shameful films?" he asked in comments to journalists on June 19. "A film with such shameful content should not be made, and films with the right content should be made."

'They Want Movies With Happy Endings'

As for what the government considers to be the "right content," the film center's new management has already begun to show its hand. Last fall, for the first time, it announced a call for proposals for a television miniseries. And in another break with standard practice, the center specified the topics: recent Georgian history, the history of Georgian sports, or an adaptation of a Georgian novel.

Such directives "go against the ethos of the center, which is to encourage artistic freedom," Jashi said. The winners are promised production grants of between 500,000 and 1 million Georgian laris (roughly $200,000-$400,000), which could eat up half of the center's entire annual budget.

Georgian director Salome Jashi (file photo)
Georgian director Salome Jashi (file photo)

For many in Georgia's film world, it all points to a future in which the government wants to control how life in Georgia is portrayed. It appears that they want "movies with happy endings, patriotic movies," said Tina Lagidze, an actress. "They won't care about the artistic quality, they only want to show that Georgia is flourishing and there are no social problems here."

Some of the most celebrated Georgian films document the difficult lives of some of the country's most marginalized communities: queer Georgians, labor migrants, prisoners, and religious minorities.

"Young directors in Georgia today are most interested in exploring social themes and human dramas," said Gaga Chkheidze, who was head of the film center until he was dismissed last year just weeks before his term was supposed to expire. The Culture Ministry said it was because of financial irregularities they uncovered, although charges have yet to be brought against Chkheidze. The former film center head said it was because he challenged the ministry's policies. "[The government] doesn't want these types of films. They want to show that everything is good and there are no problems in society," he said.

Gaga Chkheidze, the former head of the Georgian National Film Center (file photo)
Gaga Chkheidze, the former head of the Georgian National Film Center (file photo)

The new director of the film center, Koba Khubunaia, has served in a variety of government bodies and ministries but has no experience in film. A deputy, Bacho Odisharia, who filmmakers say is now the de facto head of the center, came from the Georgian television network POSTV. The network is the media arm of People Power, a new spin-off of the Georgian Dream party that has been behind many of the government's latest conservative turns, including promoting anti-Western conspiracy theories and introducing an ill-fated law that would designate media and organizations taking funding from abroad as "foreign agents."

When Odisharia was appointed in June, he professed to have "no idea" why filmmakers were unhappy. The Georgian National Film Center, the Culture Ministry, and Odisharia all did not respond to requests for interviews from RFE/RL.

The reorganization of the film center is not happening in isolation: other institutions under the Culture Ministry, including the National Book Center and various major museums, have undergone similar reorganizations, with political loyalists with little cultural expertise taking over.

Many in Georgia's film community believe that the new culture minister, Tea Tsulukiani, who used to be the justice minister, is prioritizing other forms of art, such as theater programs, which in Georgia are often considered more popular and less experimental forms of entertainment. "They are playing with their electorate. Their level of education is so low that you are going to buy them with this kitschy and absolutely vulgar" art, said filmmaker Tamar Kalandadze.

The lack of experience in the new leadership team will also harm Georgian films' prospects of securing international funding and exposure, Jashi said. "Film is a very international industry. And the people who are coming now have no connections to or understanding of the international film industry," she said.

If the film center is neutered by a culturally conservative government, Georgia would be following an already well-trodden path. The reaction from many of Jashi's foreign colleagues has been, "'welcome to the club,'" she said. "Because we have seen the same in Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. In the international circuit this is not a new story, but it's a new story for us. We're part of this club that seems to be growing."

'One Of World Cinema's Current Hotspots'

The film center's reorganization comes as the country's cinema has been gaining unprecedented prominence. Georgia was one of the most significant centers of the Soviet film industry, but Georgian cinema collapsed (along with much else in the country) in the chaotic 1990s transition period. The film center was established in 2001, and within a decade Georgia was again producing significant films like 2013's In Bloom and Tangerines. A decade later, films of such significance are still coming out at a regular pace.

Many in Georgia's film industry have expressed disquiet about Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani's approach toward the country's cinema. (file photo)
Many in Georgia's film industry have expressed disquiet about Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani's approach toward the country's cinema. (file photo)

The British Film Institute called Georgia "one of world cinema's current hot spots." The art film streaming service Mubi heralded the "arrival of a major new wave in world cinema."

"For a small country that doesn't make huge investments in arts and culture, it has a huge impact reaching audiences," said Brigid O'Shea, a co-founder of the Documentary Association of Europe who has worked with Georgian filmmakers for more than a decade. "Georgian cinema speaks a universal language, so even though you have this very small ethnic and language group, it captures the hearts and minds of audiences internationally."

Georgian cinema has gained fame for its "exceptional cinematography, beautifully captured moving images. Also, a very particular Georgian sense of humor, a celebration of life despite absurdist, super-challenging realities," O'Shea said. "Georgian cinema for me is about celebrating both the beautiful and ugly reality that we live in."

The process under way in Georgia "stifles creativity because it encourages cronyism, and it limits the kinds of stories that can be told," she said, particularly of people on society's margins. "Of course, I'm concerned about Georgian cinema, no doubt," she said, but added: "Georgian filmmakers are entrepreneurial, so I think they will keep telling their stories."

Filmmakers in Georgia are already trying to plan for a future in which the protest movement doesn't achieve its goals, and the film center no longer effectively works for them.

As an established filmmaker, Jashi will likely manage to fund her films even without the film center. But for Georgian film generally, "it will become more difficult," she said. “To start a co-production with Germany, for example, or France, you need to be a Georgian production, and Georgian production means Georgian money. And if you don't have Georgian money, it's not possible to find a co-producer." The other option: "to make contacts with German producers and make a German film in Georgia. Which is much more difficult."

Giorgi Tavartkiladze, another participant at the July 15 protest, has completed his first feature-length film, Ascension; he has submitted to festivals and is waiting to hear back. But he's not sure how he's going to approach funding for his next project, for which he has written a screenplay.

"If everything keeps going as it is now, I am not going to submit it if they announce a competition. I don't trust them," he said. But what other choices are there? "The only choice is to wait and fight against this injustice."

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