I tried to focus on the movie screen, but could not help looking at my friend out of the corner of my eye. She insisted on coming along, but I was not sure it was a good idea: The movie was about a war, the very war that left her homeless 30 years ago.
As the film went on with its brutal yet creatively animated depictions of horrors of the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia, I was worried that these scenes were going to aggravate my friend's still-bleeding emotional wounds as it did for thousands of Georgian viewers.
Then in her early teens, my friend stood aboard the last, overloaded ship that took surviving Georgians out of their hometown of Sokhumi, as Abkhaz rebels - aided by fighters from the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia - took over the city. Not knowing if there were any other survivors in her family, she watched the burning city, her native shore and her childhood disappear from her sight forever.
Director Nana Janalidze's new film, Liza, Go On, viscerally captures that moment. It describes the exodus of Georgians from the secessionist region and the dire fate of those who could not make it out. In one chilling episode, what looks like an animated child's drawing shows countless pairs of batting eyes peeking from below the earth to illustrate people thrown into mass graves.
But the film also takes a rare and unsparing look at the Georgians' share of blame for the tragedy that unfolded in what to the rest of the world then was an obscure edge of the freshly dismembered Soviet empire.
A good part of the movie is dedicated to depictions of the cruel ways of the Georgian army, which went into Abkhazia in a futile attempt to prevent the region from drifting away. In one scene, the titular Liza confronts a retired and disabled army general, modeled after ex-defense minister Gia Karkarashvili, over the military campaign he led to quell separatism in Abkhazia. Liza describes the campaign's goal as genocidal.
This hit a national nerve in Georgia. The film was booed at the September 21 premiere in Tbilisi. A follow-up discussion had to be canceled amid the turmoil. On TV shows and social media, many excoriated Janelidze for disrespecting the memories of fallen war heroes.
That side of the movie also added to my concerns on that night as my friend's older brothers fought in the war. When the movie described the suffering of the Abkhaz at the hands of the Georgian fighters, my friend leaned over to me. I thought she was going to excuse herself and leave, but instead she simply said: "I don't know what all the fuss is about. There was a lot of marauding and bad things happening on all sides. This film shows it just as it was."
She had her criticisms, but they were mostly artistic ones. She did not think that Ekaterine Togonidze, the journalist and actress who played Liza, was up to par in an emblematic scene when Liza argues with a young hitchhiker long after the war.
Meant to represent a cosmopolitan, hipster category of Georgian youth, the hitchhiker is sick of his grandmother's constant moaning over the shore, the house and the tableware set she left behind in Abkhazia. Neither does he care for Georgia's national goal of restoring its jurisdiction over the region.
"If I want to see a beach, I'll go to Portugal or Thailand," the boy says blithely. "Your grandmother did not just leave a tableware set behind, she left her heart there," says angry Liza as they bicker in the middle of a busy highway.
As it attempts to hold a mirror up to the societies on either side of the conflict line, Liza, Go On, draws on works of Georgian and Abkhaz writers, soldiers' diaries and the experience of Georgian reporter Lia Toklikashvili, who served both as scriptwriter and as an inspiration for the protagonist.
Ultimately, the film almost literally tries to reach across the Enguri River, which serves as a boundary between Abkhazia and Georgia proper. "Thirty years went by and a wall of silence and mistrust had been raised between us and the Abkhaz," Janelidze wrote on Facebook. "We should not be afraid to face our mistakes, come correct, make the first move and apologize."
The main message of the film is about healing and mutual forgiveness - delivered in a very on-the-nose, peace award-ready fashion to my and my friend's tastes. (With both of us being graduates of an acting school, we are very picky on thespian matters.)
The film raised hackles for meting out the blame for the war equally, which detractors argue is unfair given that it was the Georgian population that suffered ethnic cleansing. But Janelidze said she expected the outcry. In her own words, her film's mission was to reopen the "forgotten and anesthetized" wound, and rekindle national conversation.
In that, the film has certainly succeeded and the ongoing national debate displayed not only a difference of opinion on how Georgia should deal with the consequences of the war in Abkhazia, but also what exactly happened there decades ago.
Who's the Bad Guy?
Perhaps the most tormenting national memory for Georgia is the mass escape of Georgians from Abkhazia, on foot, through a treacherous mountain pass. Many of the displaced then froze to death or died of exhaustion in the snowy, alpine heights.
"They march on, children and elderly, women and men, […], the good and the evil," Abkhazia-native Georgian writer Guram Odisharia wrote in his account of the exodus, the Refugees' Pass. "What a great life we had and how miserably we are dying," moans an elderly man, who stays next to his dead wife while the caravan of refugees plods on.
The book, which inspired parts of Janelidze's film, mentions an incident in which displaced people confront a politician, who is marching along with everyone else. "Why didn't you stay to confront the Russians?" They ask.
Understating Russia's role in the Abkhazia conflict is one of main criticisms against Janelidze's film. Predominant opinion in Georgia is that it was Russia's military involvement rather than the fight put up by a tiny Abkhaz army that sealed the fate of that war.
When the Soviet Union was going through its mitosis – splitting into constituent republics and the republics splitting up for their part – long-suppressed ethnic grievances were erupting into conflicts. Although itself in turmoil, the Soviet Union's parent cell, Russia, picked sides in the conflicts raging around its borders and strategically placed itself in the middle of them.
Moscow styled itself as a peacemaker in ethnic confrontations, but, from the local perspectives, Russia played both hands against the middle to maintain a foothold in its former imperial stomping grounds. Moscow eventually, in 2008, recognized Abkhazia as an independent state, and now uses it both as a military base and an R&R destination.
Part of the reason many in Georgia found fault with Liza, Go On is because it gives agency to the Abkhaz side independently of Russia's support for the breakaway region.
"Friends, the war in Abkhazia, just as every other war we saw on the territory of Georgia, had two sides: Georgia and Russia," said Tamara Chergoleishvili, founder of Tabula magazine.
Tabula and the European Georgia, a party led by Chergoleishvili’s husband Giga Bokeria, made it their mission to tell the world about Russia's involvement in the Abkhazia war. As the ongoing war in Ukraine brought global attention to Russia and more international consensus on the nature of Russia's involvement in the post-Soviet conflicts, European Georgia seized the moment to start campaign billed "Before Bucha, there was Abkhazia" – a reference to the Ukrainian city that became a site of Russian war crimes.
As part of the campaign, the group pulled together archival footage of paramilitary Russian groups making threats and talking of atrocities they committed against Georgians in Abkhazia, and also collected accounts of survivors of Russian fighters' unspeakable crimes. The campaign asserts that the war was carefully stoked and choreographed by Moscow.
But then Liza, Go On came along and was perceived as clashing with the Russian-centric narrative as Janelidze's film brings Abkhaz-Georgian fratricide to the fore, while the Russian theme is kept in the background. "The Abkhaz side does not exist independently," Chergoleishvili argued. "There are ethnic Abkhaz collaborationists, who fought on the side of Russia and participated in the breaking-up of Georgia and ethnic cleansing of Georgians."
If there is one thing that Jandelidze's movie and the ensuing debate displayed is that the Abkhazia war meant different things to different people, even if all these views are parts of the same puzzle. And just when the Georgian society was agreeing to disagree about the film's message, another filmmaker offered a very different take.
In Between the Worlds
Old, black-and-white reels show tourists flocking to Abkhazia, 3,300 square miles of heaven with scalloping sea waves and lush mountains. It's a Soviet Côte D'Azur, where visitors take motorboat rides, crowds fill promenades and waitresses with white lace headbands ply drinks at seafront restaurants.
In this autonomous province of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia, "Abkhaz, Georgians, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Greeks and Estonians live as one happy family," goes the gushing voice of a Soviet presenter.
This is a scene from Self-Portrait along the Borderline, a new autobiographical documentary by filmmaker Anna Dziapshipa. Daughter of an Abkhaz father and a Georgian mother, Dziapshipa speaks in her documentary about the uncomfortable place she found herself as a schoolgirl in Georgia during the rise of nation-state rhetoric in Georgia and the outbreak of war in Abkhazia.
From the almost creepily idyllic archival footage of Abkhazia, the film fast-forwards to the early, topsy-turvy days of Georgia's independence from the Soviet Union. "Georgia is a country of Georgians and must express the interests of the Georgian people," says Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president of Georgia. "Our goal is to gradually expel from Georgia all these illegally settled non-Georgian populations. This is our paramount goal."
Those words were said just as Georgia was bursting with ethnic tensions and hardly offered reassurance to the already separatism-prone minorities. To the north, the tiny region of South Ossetia was splitting away. In the northwest, Abkhazia was about to go up in flames. Tbilisi itself would plunge into civil war and a deposed Gamsakhurdia would commit suicide.
"I sometimes listen to the voice of the first president of independent Georgia, who is stubbornly telling me that I don't exist," says Dziapshipa, who narrates her film. Here Gamsakhurdia's voice is cued in again: "Historically, the Abkhaz nation has never existed. Abkhazia was the name of the Western part of Georgia."
As Georgian-Abkhaz tensions snowballed into a war, Dziapshipa's "strange" last name drew unwanted attention to her in a school in Tbilisi. "It was in school that I first realized that I was different," says Dziapshipa over a montage of her participating in a class concert. "My classmates' fathers and brothers were fighting in Abkhazia. I was terribly ashamed and always felt like apologizing, but there was nothing I could say."
A granddaughter of a renowned Abkhaz soccer player, Dziapshipa uses sports references, both visually and semantically, to tell her story: "In an oft-repeated phrase, people used to say that 97,000 Abkhaz lived in the pre-war Abkhazia and – they would add with an emphasis – that crowd can fit in one stadium."
The ex-Defense Minister Giorgi Karkarashvili, the one whose fictionalized representation argues with Liza in Janelidze's movie, also makes an audio cameo in Dziapshipa's documentary. "I want to put it bluntly to these separatists: if on our side 100,000 Georgians die, on your side all 97,000 Abkhaz are going to die," goes his quote.
Still, the overall tone of the
is not accusatory, and its reproaches are delivered in sotto voce. Unlike Liza, Go On, Dziapshipa's film does not seek big solutions and does not offer a message of peace through the cathartic experience of reliving the brutality of war.
The film offers a unique, personal perspective of being caught between the rivaling sides and identities. Through an atmospheric, impressionist brushwork, the film dabs together personal flashbacks, priceless archival footage and sneak peeks into modern-day Abkhazia. While Liza's journey ends at the bank of the Enguri River, Dziapshipa goes across to search for her grandfather's home.
After watching Liza, Go On, my friend and I felt we needed a drink. We popped into a nearby bar. In an odd continuation of the running away from home theme, the bar turned out to be run by young Russians, who came to Georgia to escape being drafted into the war in Ukraine.
We had to laugh when Russian barmen tried to sport their newly acquired Georgian Language skills and ended up confusing the word for a cocktail with an anatomic term. "I hope you don't have that on tap," my friend said under her breath, as she climbed on a bar stool.
From the day she made it to Tbilisi 30 years ago, my friend has been reluctant to speak about her experience of losing her home and going through the horrors of war, and always cut short any expressions of sympathy for her. Now, too, she focused on the acting, the camera work and storyline as we discussed the film.
But she could not help going down memory lane a little bit and telling me what life was like in her hometown of Sokhumi. She pulled out her phone to show me a video of her childhood home. Her classmate recently filmed it and sent the video to her. It was a two-storey, red-brick house now inhabited by other people.
"They cut down the big palm tree, the one that my dad planted right here," she said, sounding more perplexed than annoyed. "Why would they do that? It was a very nice tree."