Sitting in a bar in Tbilisi way back in 2012, I overheard a comment at the table next to me: a Georgian girl was explaining to her non-Georgian friend that, given she had survived the 1990, she could survive just about anything. In the vast majority of the former USSR, the 90s is less so a time period than a badge of survival of prolonged poverty, war and the various other destabilizing effects following the collapse of socialism and the independence of the republics. The popular appeal of many 21st century post-Soviet leaders, such as Putin, Saaskashvili, stemmed from their ability, or willingness, to break from this period and offer far greater stability than the likes of Yeltsin and Shushkevich had in the early days. Although, surprisingly, there has been a glaring lack of literature written about this historical period and, until recently, very few retrospectives, the 90s appear to be defined by that space where the hopes and aspirations of independence combined with the trauma of violence, of shock therapy and the societal unraveling that occurred.
With a resurgent interest in this period, Georgian filmmaker George Ovashvili‘s work has offered an invaluable insight into the emotional landscape of the 1990s. He has very recently finished the final film in his 90’s trilogy, Khibula, which depicts the final days of Georgia’s first democratically-elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia incapsulates so many of the contradictions of the 90’s in Georgia, and in other post-Soviet republics, with his long history of associating with human rights groups, but who became a genocidal authoritarian when in power. Much like the transition into the 90’s, Gamsakhurdia showcases how fantasies can swiftly turn to nightmares. Ovashvili’s track record 2012 film Corn Island garnered mass praise, while his criminally underrated 2009 movie The Other Bank promises that his upcoming release will meet all imagined expectations. He kindly spoke to us from Argentina about his views on the 90s, as well as his latest works.
Recently, there has been a surge of films portraying the 90s in Georgia, most notably your films. They showcase the misery and turmoil of this period. Equally so, there is a growing nostalgia for this era, with parties being held with food and music from that time. How do you believe this period should be remembered? Should it be mostly remembered for the wars? Or, should the euphoria of independence be the dominant narrative?
I think the the euphoria of independence in our nation went away soon after independence was declared. Freedom turned out not to be as sweet as we had seen in our dreams. People were not ready for freedom. We first got independence and then started thinking about how to use it. People wanted freedom to obtain a better life but they got the opposite. I think the reason why we refused to follow an evolutionary path, similar to the Baltic countries, lies in the emotional nature of Georgians. Our emotions made us ruin our own country. This period from our country’s history is still full of mysteries, many questions are still left unanswered. We do not know what the real reason was for the civil war that started soon after we declared independance. We don’t know why we could not have avoided ethnic conflicts. We don’t know in what circumstances our first president died.
I believe we need to explore these themes in cinematography. Firstly, there are many untouched subjects; secondly, this period is a great example, not just for Georgians, of how a nation shouldn’t treat its country. Therefore, with my films I ask questions, I try to analyze mistakes and start a conversation.
Music, dancing and parties in my films are not confused by nostalgia for the bygone times. With the superficial cheerfulness I try to underline the tragedy of a situation. I believe this period should be remembered for the irremediable mistakes that were made, so that we do not repeat them in the future.
In 2013, a photo series was completed by Speaking Stone, juxtaposing a number of photos taken during the civil war in Tbilisi with how the current locations appear now. It showcases the transition of a city in the midst of war to a city that is quickly transforming into a bastion of tourism. Can you speak about how you believed Tbilisi and the rest of Georgia was going to transform? Does the current city fit into your imagination?
As I mentioned we had to start everything from the beginning. First of all we destroyed everything and then started recreating from nothing. This is a very hard road. We refused heritage, continuation, renewal of old. I think one of the main problems in my country up until now is the fact that we always neglect what we have inherited. Each government tries to demean the predecessor’s work. Everyone tries to present themselves as a pioneer and not a successor. This attitude always stands in the way of our development and I’m afraid we’re following the same tendencies today as well.
Despite all of this, life follows its flow, and the country is transforming and developing. If you ask me, I like many things that are happening – tourism is on the right track, and Georgia has turned into one of the most interesting destinations for many travelers. I think we still cannot meet the demand in various things though. We lack the infrastructure and quality services. If our advancement in this direction doesn’t happen quickly, the euphoria about Georgia that we’re observing today will soon pass away.
So many fault lines in Georgia seem to be as a result of Zviad Gamsachurdia, who is the central character of your newest film. On the one hand, he was a human rights advocate and the first president of Georgia. On the other hand, he appeared to advocate for genocidal practices and propagated a very nationalist agenda. He symbolizes Georgian freedom and some of the worst aspects of Georgian politics. How do you believe he should be remembered?
I think at that time the nation made an emotional choice instead of a rational one. I believe that Gamsakhuria sincerely loved his country and had faith in the path he chose for the country and himself. However, he was not a politician and therefore, his way lacked rationalism. He was a poet and remained a poet. I think people used to accuse – and still accuse – him of some things he did not do. While researching him for my film, I often was left with an impression that people surrounding the president were the main political decision makers and not him. The expression “Georgia for Georgians” has been used in a very twisted context, which later caused many non-Georgian ethnic groups to leave the country. He has been accused of starting an ethnic conflict in so-called South Ossetia. However, to this day, we still don’t know who was causing and manipulating such issues.
To sum up, Gamsakhurdia to me is a tragic presonality and he represents not only himself, but symbolizes my country as well.