Over the past several years, Georgia has become a darling on the international film circuit, with the country’s films taking honors at festivals around the world.
And invariably, the films that make a splash have gotten their critical start-up funding from one source: a small, modestly funded government body called the Georgian National Film Center.
Now, though, Georgia’s increasingly illiberal government has the center in its crosshairs, embarking on a reorganization that Georgia’s leading filmmakers say is intended to sanitize the content of the films the country produces.
The Culture Ministry, which oversees the film center, has been replacing its leadership with political loyalists with little experience in the film world, who have been feuding with the remaining staff.
The tension boiled over this month, after the ministry announced another staff reshuffle. When the film center published a Facebook post in June expressing concern about its independence, it was later deleted. Staff then reported that they had lost access to the Facebook page.
The country’s film elite responded with a series of demonstrations around Tbilisi, including one on July 13 in front of the ministry building that attracted roughly 200 protesters including some of the country’s top film professionals. They held signs saying things like “Georgian cinema is at risk of censorship” and adopted a manifesto:
“We reject unambiguous art. We refuse to participate in backroom politics. We will have nothing but scorn for failed censors and their intentions to tame Georgian cinema.”
The protesters have demanded an end to the reorganization and a transparent process, overseen by a committee of film professionals, to select a new director.
The crisis has galvanized the country’s filmmakers and encouraged them to set aside internal rivalries, said Alexandre Koberidze, director of one of Georgia’s biggest recent films, What Do We See When We Look At The Sky. “One good thing that has happened is that through this protest, a very divided group of people, filmmakers who never were friends, became a group which meets almost every day,” he told RFE/RL at the demonstration. “We found points where we understand each other.”
Spurred To Action
Georgian filmmakers say they were spurred to action because the neutering of the center could wreak deep damage to the country’s cinema, given the critical role that the institution plays in the industry.
“In every single case, any medium- or feature-length film I have made, the film center always [provided] the initial funding,” said Salome Jashi, perhaps Georgia’s most well-known director today. The seed of Georgian funding is necessary for filmmakers to then seek co-producers with bigger pockets, usually in Western Europe, Jashi told RFE/RL. “Even if it was a very small amount, it was still essential because it was the first funding we got,” she said.
Jashi’s most recent feature film, the 2021 documentary Taming The Garden, has been one of Georgian film’s greatest recent successes, winning prizes at festivals from Mexico to Switzerland and nominated at Sundance, the biggest independent film festival in the United States. But it has also been the country’s most controversial film at home, as it takes on — albeit obliquely — Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is still believed to control it from behind the scenes.
The film depicts Ivanishvili’s creation of a tree park on the Black Sea coast by uprooting and replanting trees — usually massive and more than a century old — from around the country for prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. It documents how poor villagers wrestle with the choice of losing either their beloved trees or forgoing a potentially life-changing payoff — and the violence involved in wrenching the deeply rooted trees from the soil.
Ivanishvili is invisible in the film, and his name is barely mentioned; the documentary focuses on broader themes of humans’ control over nature rather than the minutiae of Georgian politics. But the background is well known to any Georgian viewer — including Ivanishvili’s political allies, who took umbrage. When Jashi tried to screen the film in Georgia last year, she repeatedly ran into roadblocks and was told it was because of its political sensitivity.
As the controversy around the film center began to heat up this year, Georgian Dream’s chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, said that films like Taming The Garden were the problem.
“This is a unique dendrological park, having no analogies. It’s a shame when you make such an ironic film about this. Should the Georgian National Film Center be financing such shameful films?” he asked in comments to journalists on June 19. “A film with such shameful content should not be made, and films with the right content should be made.”
‘They Want Movies With Happy Endings’
As for what the government considers to be the “right content,” the film center’s new management has already begun to show its hand. Last fall, for the first time, it announced a call for proposals for a television miniseries. And in another break with standard practice, the center specified the topics: recent Georgian history, the history of Georgian sports, or an adaptation of a Georgian novel.
Such directives “go against the ethos of the center, which is to encourage artistic freedom,” Jashi said. The winners are promised production grants of between 500,000 and 1 million Georgian laris (roughly $200,000-$400,000), which could eat up half of the center’s entire annual budget.
For many in Georgia’s film world, it all points to a future in which the government wants to control how life in Georgia is portrayed. It appears that they want “movies with happy endings, patriotic movies,” said Tina Lagidze, an actress. “They won’t care about the artistic quality, they only want to show that Georgia is flourishing and there are no social problems here.”
“Young directors in Georgia today are most interested in exploring social themes and human dramas,” said Gaga Chkheidze, who was head of the film center until he was dismissed last year just weeks before his term was supposed to expire. The Culture Ministry said it was because of financial irregularities they uncovered, although charges have yet to be brought against Chkheidze. The former film center head said it was because he challenged the ministry’s policies. “[The government] doesn’t want these types of films. They want to show that everything is good and there are no problems in society,” he said.
The new director of the film center, Koba Khubunaia, has served in a variety of government bodies and ministries but has no experience in film. A deputy, Bacho Odisharia, who filmmakers say is now the de facto head of the center, came from the Georgian television network POSTV. The network is the media arm of People Power, a new spin-off of the Georgian Dream party that has been behind many of the government’s latest conservative turns, including promoting anti-Western conspiracy theories and introducing an ill-fated law that would designate media and organizations taking funding from abroad as “foreign agents.”
When Odisharia was appointed in June, he professed to have “no idea” why filmmakers were unhappy. The Georgian National Film Center, the Culture Ministry, and Odisharia all did not respond to requests for interviews from RFE/RL.
The reorganization of the film center is not happening in isolation: other institutions under the Culture Ministry, including the National Book Center and various major museums, have undergone similar reorganizations, with political loyalists with little cultural expertise taking over.