Paula Pena, a filmmaker from Andorra, admits that when she submitted her film to the Sukhum International Film Festival, she didn’t know where it was. “I had no clue,” she said.
But her short film, The Blizzard, was accepted, and along with artists from 20 other countries she made her way to Abkhazia for the event earlier this month. “The hardest part has been explaining to friends and family where exactly I was going. It’s kind of a country, kind of not,” Pena told Eurasianet.
The second iteration of the festival, which organizers say will be an annual event, attracted more than 3,000 entries; those accepted were mostly from Europe but also included films from around the former Soviet Union, Iran, and China.
The festival was partially financed by the de facto government: the chair of Abkhazia’s State Committee for Youth Policy, Timur Kvekveskiri, headed the event, and the committee covered travel expenses for foreign participants.
“I had this dream five years ago, but we didn’t have the resources,” Zanda Kakalia, one of the chief organizers, told Eurasianet. “Then I met Timur in Moscow, where we were both studying. We got some government support, and it started coming together.”
Promoting Abkhazia – which few of the filmmakers other than those from the former Soviet Union had ever heard of – was high on the agenda. Participants were treated to numerous excursions over the course of the festival, including visits to the Orthodox monastery at New Athos and a high-altitude mountain lake, Ritsa, the site of one of Joseph Stalin’s dachas.
Another top priority was to nourish an indigenous film industry. “In the Soviet period, Abkhaz directors mostly could not make films,” Kakalia said. One of the few exceptions was Vyacheslav Ablotia, who shot some of the Soviet Union’s first Abkhaz-language films in the 1980s. He was in attendance at the festival.
Kakalia herself was not only an organizer, but also the screenwriter for the festival’s sole domestic entry, The Guest. Based on a short story by the 20th-century Abkhaz writer Mikhail Lakrba, the film – entirely in the Abkhaz language – explores apsuara, a traditional honor code.
The festival also represented a way to improve ties between Abkhazia and the rest of the world. Since breaking away from Georgia in a bloody civil war as the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazia’s contact with the outside world has been limited. Financially and militarily it is backed by Moscow. Only Russia and a handful of allies recognize Abkhazia as independent; the rest of the world still views it as part of Georgia. Tbilisi insists that any international agreements or aid to the territory be organized through Georgian government channels, sharply limiting Abkhazia’s options. (Tbilisi also uses the Georgian-language spelling of the de facto capital: Sukhumi.)
And other than the Russian tourists who stream in every summer to Abkhazia’s Black Sea beaches, few outsiders visit, daunted by the logistical difficulties.
The Georgian authorities officially require all visitors to enter via the bridge across the Inguri river that forms the de facto border. That is an arduous process involving Georgian, Abkhazian, and Russian checkpoints.
Entering via Russia, as most visitors from the former Soviet Union do, carries the danger of incurring charges of “entering the Republic of Georgia illegally” from Georgian authorities, and a fine or possible arrest if a traveler then attempts to visit Georgia proper.
“I would say the number of [non-Russian] foreigners visiting Abkhazia in recent years probably decreased,” said Liana Kvarchelia of the Sukhum-based Center for Humanitarian Programmes, an NGO. “Georgia creates problems at their border post, and our authorities create problems at ours, even if you have all your documents.” She laments the state of affairs. “If we want the world to recognize us, we shouldn’t shut the door to them.”
Abkhaz authorities have tried new tactics to establish links in recent years. In 2016, Abkhazia hosted the “Alternative World Cup,” officially known as the Confederation of Independent Football Organizations World Cup, a tournament of 12 teams representing unrecognized states, isolated territories, and ethnic minority communities.
Tbilisi was not pleased: It called the event illegal and was wholly uninvolved. Georgia has likewise been absent from the film festival. “We had some submissions from Georgia the first year, but not this one,” Kakalia said.
But the festival was a reminder that Abkhazia also was not always this disconnected. “As a Greek, I understood the myths, that this was where Jason [and the Argonauts] came to search for the Golden Fleece,” said Kyriakos Chatzimichailidis, a producer of the Greek entry, Umbrella. (The ancient Greek myth describes the voyage of Jason and his crew to Colchis, a classical kingdom lying along the Georgian and Abkhaz coast.) “Now I realize that this is the place where Medea [Jason’s wife] came from.”
This year’s festival included only short films, but the organizers hope to keep growing. “We want to expand next year, have different categories for documentaries, art films, others,” Kakalia said. “We already had so much success in just two years.”
It’s clear the local Caucasian hospitality had an impact on the guests as well. As one of the Dutch judges, Mike Naafs, put it at the closing ceremony: “I know I will be back, because Abkhazia stole a piece of my heart, and I have to come reclaim it.”
Neil Hauer is a Tbilisi-based writer. Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.
Neil Hauer is a Tbilisi-based writer.