Georgian Film: Still Waiting for a Comeback

Two years ago, hopes ran high that Georgia's once-celebrated film industry was finally on the cusp of a comeback. Now, with little sign of an economic upturn in sight, filmmakers tend to be pessimistic about the future. Many are hoping the beleaguered and distracted Georgian government will come to the rescue. A few, however, say hopes for a revival will depend on filmmakers' own ability to adapt to the times, paying attention not only to cinematic style, but also to managing costs and marketing.

"In 10 years, everything has been destroyed," filmmaker Nana Janelidze, a scriptwriter for the 1987 glasnost sensation "Repentance," said in a phone interview from Tbilisi. "To develop again, it will take years and years. We need money and the desire, and no one's interested in that."

Younger, more market-oriented directors blame that failure on an inability to realize that filmmaking depends as much on business savvy as artistic acumen. Other filmmakers, who gained acclaim during the Soviet era, still look to the government to pick up the slack, arguing that just like Georgian tourism or wine -- the state has a responsibility to promote a national industry.

"There's a Georgian saying: 'Show me a problem, and I'll show you how to run,'" said Giorgi Dolidze, dean of the Georgian State Institute of Theater and Film, about the ongoing debate.

In 2002, it was all supposed to turn out differently. Under a 2000 law, parliament allocated 500,000 lari (about $250,000) for creation of a National Film Center, associated with the Ministry of Culture, to fund promising film projects. An additional 80,000 lari, or $40,000, was set aside for a competition for young filmmakers.

At the time, the news was heralded as a sign that the stagnation which had handicapped Georgian filmmaking since the collapse of the Soviet Union was at an end. But, as corruption and tax arrears ate into the state budget, film financing slowed to a trickle. In an interview in April, National Film Center Director Zaza Urachavadze said that he was still waiting for the state to hand over funds for the previous year.

"[President Mikheil] Saakaskhvili said that he would increase the amount, but we haven¹t seen any of it," said Urachavadze.

The 2004 budget of $450,000 is meant to support five documentaries, five feature films and five shorts, but Urachavadze conceded that the funds will only allow the center to help low-budget films. The total allotted to each director is expected to defray less than 6 percent of their estimated costs. They will be on their own to come up with the remainder of financing for film projects.

To find the funds to keep their projects alive, directors rely on family and friends, contest award money, or, for better known Georgian filmmakers, co-production deals with foreign film companies. It is a hand-to-mouth existence that some film professionals blame on the past, when Georgia Film, a powerhouse for Soviet filmmaking, freely funded projects without considering costs or, sometimes, even reading a script. Exploring new forms of cinematic technique was the focus, not the mechanics of bringing a film to market.

"The problem is that filmmaking is not a pure art. It's an industry," noted Rusudan Pirveli, whose short film "Neighbors" won the 2001 Grand Prix at the Locarno Video Art Festival. "The film industry should be revived with the help of economists and lawyers, not just filmmakers."

Sitting in an editing suite darkened by one of Tbilisi¹s temporary blackouts, Irakli Metreveli, a partner in the privately run Griffon Film Studios, agreed. He cited the Czech Republic as the model for Georgia's film revival. In 2003, Prague's film studios earned an estimated $300 million from American and European companies, which were attracted to the country as a low-cost, market-friendly filming location, according to the entertainment industry journal Variety.

"We have a strong filmmaking tradition, beautiful locations and it's possible to make films all year long," Metreveli said. "The only problem is that Georgia is a small point on the big map of the world. Nobody knows that there exists such a country as Georgia."

To learn how to make that mark, filmmakers are focusing on a $1.2-million film training program for Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan sponsored by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). In a bid to encourage what SDC spokesperson Thomas Jenatsch terms "a culture of debate within the emerging civil society," the AVANTI program this spring allocated $420,000 in funding for six short films, three documentaries and six feature films proposed by Caucasian filmmakers. The agency also plans to set aside roughly $500,000 for a regional film center.

Meanwhile, as film contracts dry up, television has become the profession of choice. E-Media JSC, a holding company that owns Imedi TV, one of the country s largest private television channels, currently holds the lease to Georgia Film. But while television films and series may provide work opportunities, some filmmakers worry that the emphasis on "low quality" television undermines the tradition of Georgian cinematography.

"That quality that Georgian films had, that lightness, that humor, will be lost," said Janelidze, who saw work on a television film project she was overseeing grind to a halt when the sponsoring station shut down earlier this year. "There's a whole generation of people who do not know Georgian film. ... This is a matter for the state to resolve."

Looking to the government to take the initiative after the false starts of the past may seem an unlikely scenario, but filmmakers who rose to prominence in Georgian cinema's cash-rich Soviet days maintain that no other option exists.

"It's not like Hollywood, where if one studio closes no one notices," said Rezo Chkeidze, the longtime general manager of Georgia Film, and a veteran industry player whose own distribution of state funds for studio film projects has been the subject of some controversy. "We're a small country. The arts have always been at the center of our identity, and for us to survive they must continue."

Still, even in an industry that has seen many of its finest directors leave Georgia in search of work in France, Germany or Russia, optimism dies hard. With an enrollment "boom" underway at the country¹s film school -- 131 new students are expected for the 2004-2005 academic year -- a state-sponsored turnaround is just a matter of time, stressed Dolidze.

"Right now, the new government is very focused on restoring Georgia's territorial integrity. But once that integrity is restored, without a doubt, in the near future we expect big changes," Dolidze said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]

Others are not holding their breath.

"At a funeral not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I saw a well-known film director and asked him what he was working on. He just said 'I'm waiting,'"Chkeidze recalled. "More than a decade has gone by, and still, we're all waiting."

Elizabeth Owen is a freelance writer specializing in political issues in the Caucasus.

Georgian Film: Still Waiting for a Comeback

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