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Although Georgian cinema enjoyed some international attention from the late 1950s to the 1980s, it is no longer a central part of broad arguments about world cinema. That is even more true of the country’s silent-era filmmaking, which, when it is discussed at all, is too often consigned to being a quaint subsection of Soviet cinema. But the archival situation in Georgia is unusual, and moreover, it is rapidly changing: sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. As I try to show here, a lot of good work is being done there, but it is impossible to ignore the serious material deprivation that defines most of the country’s cinematic institutions. To put it in a post-Soviet way, this makes the question “what is to be done?” seem nearly impossible to answer. [End Page 11]
SOME RECENT HISTORY
The republic of Georgia (known in Georgian as Sakartvelo) has a long history of being dominated by neighboring Russia, having been a quasi-imperial possession since 1800.1 In the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution, the country enjoyed three years of independence, first as part of the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation (also including Armenia and Azerbaijan, it lasted for a few months of 1918), and then as the social-democratic Menshevist state of the Democratic Republic of Georgia (which lasted until the Bolsheviks invaded in 1921). The successor state was the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, which, like other Soviet socialist republics, lasted until 1991. Among Soviet republics, the cinematic situation of Georgia was quite solid. Its regional film studio (known as Georgian Film Studio or Sakhkinmretsvi) was second only to Ukraine’s in terms of films produced and resources available, and the 1950s saw the emergence of a group of internationally well-regarded auteurs. These included Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkheidze (who often worked together, most famously on the 1955 film Magdana’s Donkey) as well as Mikhail Kalatozov (Mikhail Kalatozishvili, who began making films in Georgia before directing such classics of Soviet cinema as 1957’s The Cranes Are Flying and 1959’s The Letter That Was Never Sent, to say nothing of his film maudit of 1964, I Am Cuba), Otar Iosseliani (whose Georgian films Falling Leaves and Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird were widely acclaimed and who has worked in France since 1984), and Sergei Parajanov (who was born in Tbilisi and made films there as well as in Armenia and Ukraine). This sense of international excitement about Georgian cinema persisted well into the 1970s and 1980s; the February 1977 issue of Films and Filming featured Derek Elley’s laudatory article “Light in the Caucasus,”2 and 1988 saw the Centre Georges Pompidou’s publication (as part of its “cinéma/pluriel” series) of Jean Radvanyi’s comprehensive and equally laudatory anthology Le cinéma géorgien.3
Three years later, Georgia would be independent again. The early years of independence, though, were difficult, beginning with a coup that was directly followed by a three-year civil war. That civil war was mostly fought over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where ethnic conflict would also lead to a short but still traumatic war with Russia in 2008 (during this later conflict, Georgian forces had to pull back, and Russian forces continue to occupy these areas). By the time the civil war ended, Eduard Shevardnadze (who had served as Gorbachev’s final foreign minister) was president. The Shevardnadze regime was marked by political instability and continual anxiety about (mostly low-level) corruption; its breaking point came during the 2003 parliamentary elections, which were widely seen as having been rigged in favor of [End Page 12] pro-Shevardnadze parties. This led to the peaceful Rose Revolution, wherein after massive protests, Shevardnadze stepped down and the Columbia-educated Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president in 2004. In the parliamentary elections of 2012, partially because of widespread accusations of (again, mostly low-level) corruption and police brutality, as well as because of lingering anger about the 2008 war (where Saakashvili was seen by some as overly provocative toward Russia), Saakashvili...