Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian Films Lose Direction

The Georgian film industry mourns the passing of its heyday, while its directors fight tooth and nail over the last few crumbs of state funding
By Kakha Tolordava

"I'm leaving. Going to Moscow," says Alex Tsabadze, an internationally acclaimed young filmmaker. "I've got no choice. I'm over 40 and making films is all I can do. My new screenplay is finished and I can't wait six or seven years for the movie to be made."

Tsabadze smiles nervously over his cup of tea. It's a bold decision and one that has caused him a good deal of soul-searching. But the director has refused to sell out by channelling his considerable talents into advertising, TV or the nightclub scene.

Soviet era grants for film projects are little more than a golden memory.In those days, Georgia Film - the main Tbilisi studio - was the pride of the republic. Back then, you could step into a taxi, pronounce the magic words, "Georgia Film, please!" and the driver would refuse to take a penny. Actors and directors were national heroes.

Georgian films were then imbued with hidden protests against the system, boasting an elaborate aesthetic language that defied the propaganda machine. Directors employed fables or fairy-tales to realise their artistic vision: allegory and symbolism became their weapons in the ongoing battle against the censors. Meanwhile, the film-going public developed an uncanny ability to read between the lines.

Today, the challenges are different. With the ideological burden removed, state funds have dried up to an irregular trickle. Many Georgian filmmakers are forced to go cap in hand to foreign investors in their search for financial backing. Others simply take their talents elsewhere, to Russia or the West.

Productivity has reached an all-time low. Of the handful of films made since the collapse of the Soviet Union, "Lost Killers" by Dino Tsintsadze was made in Germany and Otar Ioseliani's "Brigands" was shot in France.

Quality, however, doesn't seem to have suffered. "Lost Killers" was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year.

Otar Shamatava, the newly appointed executive director of Georgia Film, said, "In better times, the studio used to produce more than 20 films a year, not to mention documentaries, TV features and cartoons. Today, we have to finish off 13 films that went into production four to five years ago. We even have one that was started in 1992. We hope to shift the backlog by 2002."

But the director says the industry must move with the times. "The main problem is that there's a power struggle between two different mentalities," he said. "One lobby holds that the state should subsidise all culture in Georgia, including filmmaking. The other is more market-orientated and I stand wholeheartedly behind this approach."

Shamatava has opened a pioneering Producer's Centre, which is aimed at giving both directors and businessmen the chance to produce their own films. Projects are entered into a competition judged by Georgia Film and the winners receive state grants to supplement the producer's own investment.

"In the beginning, it'll be a hard job for all newly established producers," admits Shamatava. "But I believe they will gradually improve. We have to teach producers to think independently."

The project marks an attempt to solve the problems created by Georgia Film's director general, Revaz Chkheidze, who has held the post for 30 years. With the state budget allocation barely sufficient for making two films annually, Chkheidze has tended to allocate the money as he sees fit, usually favouring old-guard directors at the Tbilisi studios. The practice has provoked angry protests from younger filmmakers who are often left out in the cold.

Shamatava hopes to introduce a new spirit of competition - but his ideas have run into heavy resistance from the conservative cabal. A major scandal blew up two years ago when the studio's creative council - responsible for approving projects and supervising production - decided to halt two film projects over creative and financial squabbles.

The dispossessed directors accused the council chairman, Giorgi Shengelaia, of favouritism. Shengelaia countered that certain big-budget projects should be shelved to allow for more promising low-budget films. He said that Shamatava's Producer's Centre was the only realistic way of dealing with the problems.

The scandal erupted into open conflict, with directors in the opposing camps entering into angry shouting matches or even coming to blows. One director remembers, "I was in a traffic jam when a colleague of mine - one of Chkheidze's supporters - signalled to me to pull over. Then he called me a traitor, accusing me of supporting a person [Shengelaia] whose only intention was to take over Chkheidze's job. I only escaped a fist-fight because there were other people in the street."

Another director, David Janelidze, comments, "I respect Revaz Chkheidze but his approach fails to keep pace with today's demands. He's slowly turning into a statue. He gives the green light to virtually every project and I'm sure he has the best intentions, but he must know the studio won't have enough money to finish them."

Meanwhile, the Georgian film community does its best to survive, waiting eagerly for another golden era. "Have a look at this," said one director, proudly opening his fridge to reveal rows of Kodak film canisters. "I bought them really cheaply a couple of years ago. Now, if I find money for my project, at least I won't have to buy film."

Set designer Jemal Mirzashvili says the industry is further handicapped by a poor distribution system and a growing lack of interest from cinema audiences. "It takes so long to finish a film," he said, "that directors simply throw all their ideas into one movie. No one cares about the local audience or genre diversity. Everyone wants to produce auteur cinema."

As a result, most employees don't even get paid for the films that make it on to the silver screen. "I've just finished a film that I've been working on for three years," says Mirzashvili, "and I swear I haven't got a penny yet."

The studio lot at Georgia Film looks like a bomb-site. Half the equipment has been sold while many of the studio pavilions have been rented out to sausage and wine manufacturers. A half-built church stands outside the main studio building.

"It's like in American cartoons," says Alex Tsabadze. "Have you seen the one where the cat chases the mouse and suddenly everything goes black and white? They go back to see what's wrong and there's a sign which says, 'Technicolour ends here'. It's the same for us. Everything today is black and white. The colour has run out."

Kakha Tolordava is a scriptwriter in Tbilisi