Transitions from one political system into another are never easy. Especially if a country is just gaining its independence. Until ideological theory turns into political practice, one can never know how the former dissidents will behave as statesmen and how the opposition, as well as the general public, will react to the exertion of power of the newly elected elite.
Georgian director George Ovashvili is a regular guest at the Karlovy Vary IFF. He served here as a jury member, and received the Crystal Globe for best film for Corn Island three years ago. This year he returns to competition with the world premiere of a political film, loosely based on the events that happened in Georgia in the first half of the 1990s.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia became the first democratically elected president after Georgia gained its independence in 1991. He won by a landslide but faced increasing inter-ethnic violence and other tensions soon. He responded with actions that were deemed to violate human rights. By the end of 1991, the criticism led to a military coup d'etat, resulting in a de facto civil war. On New Year's Eve in 1993, Gamsakhurdia died in the village of Khibula under circumstances that are still unclear.
Ovashvili has chosen to show us the last days of the president's life. The story is reduced to a hike through mountains. The president (Hossein Mahjoub) persists to be dressed accurately. He keeps on his business suit and a close-knit tie even when escaping through mud and snow. His small entourage is armed, his only accessory is a briefcase. It is his cross to bear when they are travelling in their version of the Via Dolorosa, from cabin to cabin, looking for a bit of hope. The violence from which the group is escaping is kept well in tune by the director. It lurks around the corners and makes itself recognisable only through the interferences of sound. When the only drops of blood appear, they enhance the scene with added value. Khibula is a film about the rise, fall and struggle of a cultural phenomenon. It assumes the role of a commentator. The journey is interwoven with encounters with horses, birds, wolves and other animals, granting some scenes allegorical power.
The film however, has a structural problem, grounded in its logic. Portraying an escape under these conditions, you might not have much dramaturgical flexibility, and yet their journey, and the way they have to flee from every station, becomes exhaustingly repetitious. So when someone enters the room for the umpteenth time to tell start going again, the situation becomes unintentionally, absurdly funny. Although the director uses plot devices like the president's daydreaming and the group's outbursts of song and dance to break up the monotony of the escape, one also end up wishing for broader characterization of men. The women they encounter along the way are scarce but still more outspoken.
Ultimately, this journey is first and foremost visually stunning. The production designer Agi Dawaachuhas constructed battered, yet architecturally appealing wooden cabins. The star of the film is the director of photography Enrico Lucidi, who presents a remarkable sense for the use of lighting, colouring and fine-tuning the frame compositions and tracking shots.
Ovashvili managed to assemble a poetical interpretation of a crucial period in the history of his country. It concentrates on the battle of an individual to regain dignity. The film doesn't aim to explain the motivations, moral and actions of the forces that led the country during that time. It doesn't want to take a side. Maybe even for the better. Post-communist countries have a troubled relationship with their past anyway.
C. Photo Credit: Khibula (2017)
"Khibula" by George Ovashvili (DE, FR)
KVIFF 2017 - Karlovy Vary International Film Festival - Official Selection (Competition)
Name: Miha Veingerl