Georgian director George Ovashvili, whose ‘Corn Island’ was shortlisted in the 2015 foreign-language Oscar race, tackles the last days of his country’s first democratically elected president in his third feature.
The first democratically elected president of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, had a fascinating life. Starting as a scholar and human rights activist who helped usher in Georgia’s independence in the era of the Soviet glasnost, he in turn was accused of human rights abuses once he became the leader of a country with a population of which almost one-third consisted of minorities, barely represented at the legislative level. Additionally, he had to deal with pushback from not only the Russians but also two regions of the country, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that claimed their independence from Georgia, which led to a civil war.
But viewers of Khibula, named after the village where Gamsakhurdia died in 1993 under still-mysterious circumstances and while technically still in office, will be hard-pressed to find much biographical information in George Ovashvili’s portrait of the man’s last days that’s not already in the film’s opening title cards. Poetic and elliptical, politically and psychologically often cryptic but ethnographically and geographically quite lovingly detailed, this is the kind of arthouse film for which a lot of patience is required and which offers modest — and some might argue ambiguous — rewards.
Nonetheless, there is no denying the filmmaking prowess of Ovashvili, whose previous, largely dialogue-free film, Corn Island, won the top prize at the Karlovy Vary fest in 2014 and which managed to make the shortlist for the Foreign Language Oscar later that year. Seen the subject, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his latest, which also premiered at Karlovy Vary, again submitted by Georgia as their contender, though the film might be at once too historically and culturally specific and too narratively oblique to achieve a similar level of success.
Ovashvili again wrote the film with Dutch playwright Roelof-Jan Minneboo, who co-wrote Corn Island and also worked on this year’s Azerbaijani Karlovy Vary entry, Pomegranate Orchard. Their narrative here is one that has been emptied of any kind of background information, is set entirely in the present — there are no flashbacks — and focuses on the President (Hossein Mahjoob), his Prime Minister (Kishvard Manvelishvili), their small entourage and some armed militia as they move through the mountains of the Caucasus, from refuge to refuge. A military coup and a Civil War has made them fugitives in their own country and they hope to regroup and re-establish themselves as the democratically elected leaders that they are. An early scene illustrates the absurdity of the situation, as one of Gamsakhurdia’s men asks whether a mountain lodge will take guests for the night and the president then walks into the building and past a reception desk that still has his portrait hanging on the wall behind it.
It is through small moments such as these that Ovashvili hints at the much larger picture and people well-versed in Georgia’s recent political history will be able to pick up on all such references. For neophytes, however, it is harder to dig into the substrata of allusions to the immediately preceding events and the socio-political situation portrayed. And even so, some matters, such as Gamsakhurdia’s well-documented spiritual side, never some quite seem to break the surface, which seems odd in a film that uses the name of the place of his demise as its title, turning the film itself into a slow but sure march to a death foretold.
Interestingly, the director cast Iranian actor Mahjoob (The Color of Paradise), who has the appropriate patrician bearing, in the lead, rather than an actual Georgian. This should help local audiences see their own president as a clear outsider, even though he seems to be revered or at least respected whenever he runs into unsuspecting locals as they keep moving through the mountains, hoping to avoid being caught by the men of the junta. Throughout, Gamsakhurdia is a regal but also very stoic presence without any precise idea on how to recapture the country. It’s clear he doesn’t want to abandon his people again — he already fled the country once before — but there are virtually no discussions of a possible military or diplomatic plan that could help the delegation achieve their goal.
The film doesn’t seem to want to judge the president — and there’s only a brief mention of his supposed human-rights abuses — but this has the unfortunate result of leaving the reasons behind his inaction open to interpretation. Is he being foolhardy and delusional, hoping that he’ll somehow magically come back to power again as long as the new rulers don’t catch him first, or is he simply resigned to his fate but does he put on a brave poker face for those close to him who haven’t given up hope? “Fate makes plans, we just follow them,” he says toward the end, when he is handed a gun (he was later killed by a single gunshot). If the main idea behind Khibula was to illustrate this maxim, then Ovashvili succeeded, though audiences might have to do a little work themselves to figure out that he did.
The director knows how to make the most of his modest, $1.7m budget, especially through his cunning use of off-screen space. The president’s handful of men are thus all gathered in a claustrophobic log cabin when they hear — but we never see — helicopters overhead, suggesting the enemy is closing in on them and they might be trapped. Similarly, a breathtakingly staged nighttime sequence sees them chasing away howling wolves by swinging ropes over their head that have been lit on fire at one end. It’s a striking image that was created very economically, as not a single wolf comes out of the shadows and Ovashvili again relies purely on sound to suggest that unseen enemies are near. The spectral presence of these threats also work on a thematic level, as Zviad seems to be haunted by opponents that he can’t even see. The latter sequence also teases out one of the film’s underlying ideas, which is that both humans and nature can be fickle; they can protect or help you but also become your worst enemy. In this sense, Ovashvili’s film is as much a meditation on the nature of power and man’s place in the universe as it is the specific story of the country’s first post-Soviet president.
For roughly the first half, Ovashvili and his cinematographer, regular Tornatore collaborator Enrico Lucidi, approach their subject in a stately yet almost documentary manner. We get to see the gorgeous mountain landscapes, the faces of the people and the hardships of the small group having to constantly navigate difficult terrain in a dignified manner. Gamsakhurdia is always impeccably and presidentially dressed, even when he’s helping to push a vehicle stuck in the mud that’s threatening to tumble off a cliff in one nail-bitingly shot sequence. There is no music to accompany them except for the traditional, deep-throated Georgian songs the men like to sing occasionally.
As their trek continues and becomes more exhausting — the story seems partially monotonous by design, which won’t fly with all arthouse patrons — the director gradually introduces the film’s score, courtesy of Israeli-Georgian composer Joseph Bardanashvili (he also wrote the music for Corn Island and titles such as Late Wedding). The first piece of non-diegetic music appears some 50 minutes in and comes in the form of a flute-heavy passage that accompanies the sighting of a deer in the forest, lending the moment an almost otherworldly air. Was this a presidential epiphany in hindsight? For non-experts it might be hard to say but what’s certain is that Ovashvili has accumulated an impressive command of all the elements in his cinematic toolbox over the course of just three feature films.
Production companies: Alamdary, 42film, Arizona Productions
Cast: Hossein Mahjoob, Kishvard Manvelishvili, Nodar Dzidziguri, Zurab Antelava
Director: George Ovashvili
Screenplay: George Ovashvili, Roelof-Jan Minneboo
Producers: George Ovashvili, Eike Goreczka, Christoph Kukula, Guillaume de Seille
Director of photography: Enrico Lucidi
Production designer: Teona Kavelashvili
Editor: Sun-Min Kim
Music: Joseph Bardanashvili
Sales: Pluto Film Distribution Network
No rating, 98 minutes