Giorgi Ovashvili is a Georgian screenwriter and film director. His first film, The Other Bank, premiered at Dhaka, Fribourg, Granada, Nuremburg, Paris, Seattle, Tromsø, Warsaw, and Palm Springs, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. Both The Other Bank and Ovashvili's second film, Corn Island, were selected by Georgia for consideration for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd and 87th Academy Awards, respectively.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Giorgi Ovashvili discusses ethnic conflicts arising from the Soviet collapse, the power of cinema to restore trust, and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: You've made two films to date that address the conflict that arose from the de-facto independence of Abkhazia from Georgia. What does this chapter of Georgian history mean to you?
GIORGI OVASHVILI: Georgia is separated at the moment. In the last 25 years our country has lost a quarter of its territory. In my mind, this is a major psychological problem for Georgian citizens. It all started after the collapse of the Soviet Union, because the beginning of the empire's collapse is when ethnic conflicts emerged within its component parts. Ethnic conflicts were the only chance to stop the process of collapse.
I have spent my entire adult life in this reality. I have been working in this reality and therefore it was impossible for me to avoid the topic. In my opinion, art is a much more powerful tool for restoring trust between people, than politics.
FLMTQ: Does the conflict still exist today— and if so, in what forms?
GO: Abkhazia is under Russian control right now. After the war between Georgia and Russia in 2008, Russia succeeded in legitimizing its conquered territories. These territories are free from any military action for now, but relationships between Georgians and Abkhazians essentially don't exist.
FLMTQ: How did you come to embrace cinema as a tool for coping with this dark chapter of history? Do you believe that cinema is unique in its power to foster discourse, or help societies heal, and if so— why? What is it that makes cinema special?
GO: As I mentioned, art is more powerful than politics. I am strictly convinced of it. We— humans, due to our nature— are governed more by feelings than by reason. In my thinking, recovering trust between people depends on feelings.
FLMTQ: Your previous film, The Other Bank, examined the conflict from the Georgian perspective. Corn Island, however, is told from the Abkhaz perspective. What motivated you to change perspectives for this film? Why did you believe it was important?
GO: I always thought I was entitled to talk about this conflict only if I managed to take a distance from the problem, if I managed to not be biased towards either side. I strove toward a purpose of balance while working on both films so it is natural that I embrace the Georgian perspective in one case and Abkhazian— in the other.
FLMTQ: Have you encountered any controversy for the choice to portray the Abkhaz perspective? If so, how have you understood and/or reacted to this controversy?
GO: Only after I completed the film and presented it to the audience, I was criticized for shooting the film about Abkhazians and not about Georgians. These kind of radical evaluations always exist when you work on things like that. That's why you should be ready for criticism as well. Even The Other Bank was considered to show Georgians negatively and Abkhazians positively. I have no idea what Abkhazians think.
FLMTQ: While the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict pervades Corn Island, it is frequently in the form of passing boats of soldiers, or gunshots that punctuate the otherwise quiet, isolated daily life of the old man and his granddaughter on the island. In other words, there are no massive war scenes— the tension is effective because it remains mostly under the surface.
Why did you choose this manner of addressing the conflict, instead of showing it directly?
GO: War is the external expression of our internal states. For me, and I think for the audience as well, it is more interesting to investigate our internal states than watch people shoot and kill each other.
FLMTQ: The grandfather and the young girl are often observed in their rituals of working the land. How essential are the traditions— of farming, of catching and drying trout, of living off the land and water— to the Georgian identity, and likewise to the Abkhaz identity? Does the disruption of these traditions represent a destabilizing force in the lives of people on both sides of the conflict?
GO: Farming is Georgia's historical trait. Like Georgians, Abkhazians were always oriented toward the land for survival. The land gave them life, the land gave them food. It is a very important tradition for these people still today.
FLMTQ: The primacy of nature is felt throughout the texture of the film— from cinematography to sound. Can you please reflect on the presence of nature in this story, and how you conceived of ways to translate that experience to screen?
GO: Nature is one of the main characters in this film. Corn Island is more about nature and humans than it is about conflict between humans.
It was not simple for me as for the director to create this character, as nature does not have a specific shape, or face. It permeates everything and everywhere. It does not have any specific language, though it talks to us all the time in different forms. We tried our best to use all possible means to visualize this character.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects? If so, can you tell us a bit about them?
GO: A month ago I finished my new film: Khibula. It continues the theme of my two previous works, forming the third part of a trilogy. The topic, once more, is Georgia during the 90s— the most painful period of our recent history.
More specifically, Khibula is about the first democratically elected president of Georgia— Zviad Gamsakhurdia— and specifically the last months of his life, perhaps the most complicated and mysterious episode of our recent history. It is a psychological drama with elements of a thriller and a road movie.