Corn Island begins with a prologue of three title cards that announce the film's setting in an almost ethnographic tone:
With the annual spring torrent, the Inguri River washes rocks and soil down from the Caucasus to the Black Sea, creating tiny islands in its wake.
These islands are a blessing to the local peasants who leave the sodden riverbanks for the firm, fertile island soil.
Between spring and fall they can grow enough corn to feed their families during the long, cold winter. But only if nature is willing…
Starting from the second title card, we hear the sound of water, which gradually grows louder, accompanied by what we begin to recognize as insects, birds, and eventually, the sound of rowing, as a fourth card appears, displaying the film's title. We then see a close-up of water, shot from above, and soon, the prow of a rowboat comes into view from the right and brings with it the figure of a man standing in it and rowing; the camera then follows this figure, keeping it centered in the frame. From this prelude of sound and words and the first shot, in which the human figure drifts into the frame before being caught by the camera, we realize that we are watching a film that belongs to the emerging international art-house trend of 'slow cinema.' Corn Island, shot in gorgeous 35mm, tells the story of a single growth cycle of a small field of corn planted by a nameless grandfather and his nameless granddaughter on a small temporary island formed in the Inguri River, starting with the grandfather's first arrival at the island, progressing through the building of a cabin, the planting and tending of the crop, and ending with the arrival of another man, in spring, at another newly formed 'corn island,' presumably in the same location.
Lutz Koepnick defines slow cinema as "recent artistic work experimenting with extended structures of temporality, with strategies of hesitation, delay, and deceleration, in an effort to make us pause and experience a passing present in all its heterogeneity and difference." While the individual shots of Corn Island aren't terribly long (there is plenty of editing, and most of it follows continuity practices), the almost constant slow tracking and panning of the camera, directing attention to the details of everyday experience, the passage of time expressed in the growth of plants and the gradual passage from spring to fall, the absence of dialogue and the resulting focus on facial expression and gesture, and the central role of nature in the story connect this film to the 'slow cinema' trend. Yet as in the case of Andrei Tarkovsky (seen as one of the progenitors of 'slow cinema'), slowness doesn’t necessarily suggest an absence of plot intrigue: in fact, Corn Island manages to infuse the domestic activities of building a cabin and growing a crop of corn on the temporary fertile land of a seasonally appearing island with an almost unbearable level of suspense.
In part, the suspense is created by the very fact of new terrain appearing out of the river's depths each year, as the initial title cards explain: the man in the boat discovers and claims a territory which must disappear as inevitably as it has appeared, and the viewer in some sense realizes that the deliberate pace of the crop's progress is at the same time a race to harvest the corn before the islet dissolves back into the river.
The film begins with the grandfather's arrival at the island and proceeds for ten minutes as an almost ethnographic representation of his labor, as he inspects the island he has discovered, smelling and even tasting the earth, digging in it and discovering a small object that he places into his shirt pocket, then staking his claim, planting the poles that will frame the cabin. The only sounds we hear are natural ones, as the man returns by boat with tools and wood, and continues his work. The small object the man discovers, a bit larger than a pen cap, seems to give him pause: the camera lingers on his face in close-up and thereby raises the viewer's interest. (He inspects the object from time to time throughout the film.) Evidently this mysterious object was left behind by a previous farmer of a previous 'corn island:' the discovery of an untouched place is illusory: the island was also discovered in the past; it is part of a yearly cycle of man's interaction with nature. The director, George Ovashvili, called Abkhazia "the best part of the country, like paradise;" critic Elena Stishova notes that life on the island begins "literally from nothing, like on the first day of creation;" a French critic calls the island a "fluvial and seasonal utopia." The object reminds the man, and the viewer, that even this illusory idyll will end, and the island will disappear.
Suspense arises as well from the secondary plotline of the film: the story of the passage from childhood into adulthood of a young girl, the granddaughter. T he coming-of-age theme links this film with the Georgian film In Bloom (Grzeli nateli dgeebi, Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross, 2013), which has been described as heralding the rebirth of Georgian cinema. The gunshots echoing across the Inguri River, which signal the armed conflict lurking in the forested riverbanks across from the apparently idyllic island in Corn Island, can be compared to the patriarchal, decaying social fabric of Tbilisi that envelops the two girls of In Bloom: in both films, a barely contained (masculine) violence surrounds and threatens the (innocent) girl. As an army commander in Corn Island, passing the little island in a speedboat, informs the grandfather, "You've chosen a dangerous place."
But although both films cross a young girl's experience of adolescence with the chaos of the surrounding civilization (or, in the case of In Bloom, its ruins), there are substantial differences in how the two recent films treat the theme. The concrete setting (Tbilisi in 1992), neorealist aesthetic, feminine and feminist perspective of In Bloom contrast noticeably with the 'slow cinema' rural spirituality and symbolism of Corn Island, which defines a general location (the Inguri River, the border between the disputed territory of Abkhazia and Georgia) and timespan (one growing season), but refuses to specify the precise year. The director noted in an interview that the film focuses "just on my characters and their inner world," explaining that the war "is really just a background, just one of the elements which comes into their world and tries to break this relationship between nature and a human." The simultaneous concreteness and abstractness of the natural setting in Corn Island, together with the deliberate pace of the constantly moving camera and the perceptible movement of time, charges every shot of the film with symbolic weight. The Sisyphean struggle to till fertile soil that appears only briefly before being retaken by the river; the condition of being caught at the border between two warring armies; a girl's passage through adolescence: these overlapping threshold existences become metaphors for the universal human condition.
Approximately ten minutes into the film, as the grandfather again rows back to the island, music is heard on the soundtrack for the first time, introducing the granddaughter's appearance in the story, and signaling the shift to the coming-of-age plot. The film continues without dialogue for another eight minutes as the granddaughter helps her grandfather and learns how to help with the building of the cabin and the catching, gutting, and cooking of fish; words are only spoken after a speedboat, carrying men in army uniforms, passes the island and the men exchange nods with the grandfather and stare at the granddaughter.
"Are they Georgians, Grandpa? Grandpa, is this their land?"
"There is their land"
"So, whose land is this?"
"This land belongs to its creator"
At this point, the viewer realizes the significance of the Inguri River, as the natural border dividing Georgia proper from the disputed territory of Abkhazia; the dialogue subtitles inform us that the girl and her grandfather are speaking in Abkhaz. The little island is not only lost to the river every autumn, it is a truly "dangerous place," located on the very line of violent conflict, a liminal zone (like adolescence), a place of myths and fairytales—but certainly not Paradise. Nonetheless, the cabin is built; gunshots are heard; the corn is planted; hunters come to the island at night, crushing the new corn plants. The pace is deliberate, constant, but the suspense increases: as the grandfather and granddaughter inspect the damage done to the corn by the hunters, the girl notices drops of blood on a corn plant, and curls into herself, grimacing in pain. The image of menstrual blood dripping onto the corn is associated first and foremost with the blood of the hunted animal killed for food, but later it connects to the blood that is shed in war. It embodies the threshold that the girl must pass over, becoming an adult whom the (grand)parent can no longer shelter from violence. When the speedboat next passes and a soldier stares at the granddaughter, she stares back; she soon puts away her doll. Soldiers across the water whistle at her, catcall, and look at her through binoculars, terrifying her; her grandfather scares them off by shooting a rifle into the air. She tries to bathe, but is afraid of being watched. The camera follows her voyeuristically, filming her around corners of the house like a horror movie.
The constant sense of looking and being looked at increases the tension: when a wounded Georgian soldier conceals himself in the cornfield and the grandfather nurses him back to health, the granddaughter wants to look at his wounded body; as he heals, he watches the girl; she starts to smile and play; the grandfather sends her away. The commander's speedboat passes once, looking for the wounded Georgian soldier; the boat passes a second time, and the Abkhazian commander and soldiers become more threatening, coming to shore to search the house and now-tall corn for the wounded Georgian soldier; the Georgian soldier leaves; when the girl returns to the island, she keeps looking sadly around, as though hoping to find him again. Looking is accompanied not only by gunshots on the soundtrack (which result in two wounded bodies: a deer, and the Georgian soldier); the grandfather also displays his own gun as an assertion of his (masculine) ability to defend his territory and his granddaughter.
In the end, however, it is not the conflict of mortals that destroys the liminal paradise, but nature, as was hinted in the title cards of the prologue: the flood comes early, the grandfather and granddaughter manage to load the boat with the harvested corn, and the young woman manages to row away, while the grandfather, seemingly pointlessly, stays with the house, and perishes. The dissolving of the island and the collapse of the house are filmed in black and white. But the final shots in color emphasize the natural cycle as another man arrives at a new, empty island, tests the soil and digs, and finds, under the fertile soil: the girl's doll.
In the end, both grandfather and granddaughter have crossed the threshold: from childhood to adulthood, from old age to death; but the focus on the girl's body (her self-observation as her body transforms; her need to wash herself and her desire for privacy) blocks a reading of the film as a simple allegory of the (Georgian) nation. When she first appears in the film, the relationship between the girl-woman and the elderly man has not been clarified: could she be his child bride? The silent girl, whose inarticulate efforts at words are cut off (by her grandfather's laconicism and by the Georgian soldier's inability to understand Abkhaz), who is the constant object of looking and who furtively attempts to return the look, whose face seems to express boredom, obedience, fear, and at times rage, is the unknowable Other.
A recurring framing that appears early in the film is worth considering: an elevated shot of the barren island in the mist, before the man starts building the house and planting the garden, an obvious reference to the end of Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972), where the camera pulls back and upwards, revealing the dacha as an island within the "intelligent ocean" of Solaris. Is the cabin built by grandfather and granddaughter an echo of the Tarkovskian object of nostalgic longing, the dacha? Is the girl a mere projection of the grandfather's deepest longing, like Hari in Solaris? (The grandfather hints that her parents are dead: is the girl also dead, present only as a memory?) Is the grandfather's death meaningful, a sacrifice that ensures the continuity of life in the form of his granddaughter, her achievement of adult autonomy, and her cargo of harvested corn? Or is it not a sacrifice at all, but simply a resignation to the unknowable otherness of nature—or, rather, of the Other as embodied in the girl?
Corn Island produces a strong impression of documenting natural processes, an impression that seems crucial to a 'slow cinema' project of recuperating time, of presentness. But this impression was cultivated quite deliberately: the film crew built two islands (one in an artificial lake, to allow for ease of filming) and, in order to simulate the growth cycle of corn, planted and uprooted corn stalks at four different stages of development. The film's high production values and reliance on continuity editing ensure an international audience in spite of its 'slowness.' And the film is quite conscious of its own constructedness, its project of looking and being seen, as established early on in the presentation of the cabin's frame as mise-en-abîme. In this sense the slowness of Corn Island might be read as a self-reflexive meditation on the potential of cinema itself for recuperating time.
Associate Professor of Russian and Film Studies
University of Maryland
© Elizabeth Papazian 2015
“Georgi Ovashvili: Corn Island (Simindis Kundzuli, 2014)” reviewed by Elizabeth Papazian© 2015
Originally published in KinoKultura issue 50 (2015)