It's not just Abkhazia and South Ossetia that divide Tbilisi and Moscow. The issue of who holds the rights to Soviet-era Georgian films is also a touchstone of contention.
Known for producing tragic-comedic films illuminated by a deep knowledge of human nature, unforgettable actors, and a strain of absurdist, non-conformist humor, Tbilisi was a filmmaking center of the Soviet world, the most prolific one outside of Moscow itself.
But aside from about a handful of titles on DVD, the vast majority of classic Georgian films is now virtually inaccessible to contemporary audiences, even in Georgia itself.
A great part of the Georgian cinematic past remains locked up, literally and figuratively, in the depths of Moscow's Gosfilm Fund -- the Russian state archive that serves as a museum, morgue and library for original film reels from all over the former Soviet Union. Prints of a number of classic Georgian films also exist in Paris and Berlin, a residue of a late-era Soviet retrospective. No one knows which films ended up where.
It's not just a question of royalties, but also a matter of national identity. With over 700 films produced by Georgian directors and cinematographers during the Soviet era, including Mikheil Kalatozov's 1957 landmark "The Cranes Are Flying," (the first Soviet film to take Cannes by storm), this body of work is both aesthetically and historically significant. Some of the records of this cinematic history disappeared in the Stalin era, erased along with the exile of experimental artists to the Gulag.
The range of extant work is broad, eccentric and intermittently brilliant: including silent-era oddities, Stalinist wartime propaganda films, magical realist allegories, lavishly costumed oriental fantasias, documentaries, biographies and early animation works.
With the centennial anniversary of the birth of Georgian filmmaking coming next year, many now want access to the original negatives of the cinema classics that remain locked in Russian vaults. It is a mission that the eminent Georgian cultural historian Lasha Bakradze believes should get equal ranking with discussions about economic blockades or conflict resolution. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "My idea -- and I'm talking this over with the Georgian authorities -- is that every time they discuss politics or economics with the Russians, they must talk also about this cultural heritage, because for Georgia this 100-year-old filmmaking tradition is very important," says Bakradze. "The Russians say, nominally, that these are our [Georgia's] films, but they will not give them to us."
That Georgian mission has become even more pressing in recent years. In 2005, a fire ravaged parts of Tbilisi's film storage facility, ruining many of Georgia's archived film copies. The Georgian soundtracks were especially damaged by the blaze (alternate soundtracks in Russian exist in Moscow).
Extensive financial resources are needed to refurbish the rest of the cinematic canon. No modern archival storage exists in Tbilisi. Building a new one would be an expensive venture. Yet the cultural cost of having no extant film archive and allowing Georgia's cinematic legacy to molder away seems higher still.
That puts the focus back on Moscow. "It's a big problem," says Konstantine Chlaidze, director of the Georgian National Film Center. "Because our relations with Russia are not good," access can be a thorny issue, requiring deep pockets, as well as patience to negotiate the visa issues, paperwork, and contracts needed to duplicate meters and meters of fragile negatives, he elaborates. In many respects, adds the Film Center's Anna Dziashipa, who runs the film export division, the bureaucracy remains Soviet in all but name. "Everything depends on personal contacts and money."
Even without those obstacles, intellectual property rights issues are complex. "Sometimes the Russians think they own the rights to these films," sniffs one film archivist. A recent example is the sale of rights to the 1929 Georgian silent-era classic by Kote Mikaberidze, "My Grandmother."
After two years of negotiations, Moscow's Gosfilm sold the rights to San Francisco composer Beth Custer, who created new music and made a splash at international film festivals. Now Custer's DVD of Mikaberidze's film is being sold in America, for $20 a pop. No royalties are returning to Georgia.
Officials from Georgia's Film Center say that Custer told them that she didn't intend to step on any toes. She claims that she carefully negotiated the rights with Moscow's state archive, unaware that she was buying something that might not be theirs in the first place, they say. Breaches in intellectual property rights are notoriously hard to enforce, especially across international lines.
It is a dilemma only too familiar for acclaimed Georgian film director Eldar Shengalaia, the current head of the Georgian Filmmakers' Union.
"There are treaties [in which] Russia declares those movies to be a part of Georgian heritage, and acknowledges that one will be able to exploit these movies without the consent of Georgia," Shengalaia told EurasiaNet. "There's no practice yet of filing a suit in court. It's not clear what we would win."
As head of the Georgian Filmmakers' Union, Shengalaia says that he prefers to negotiate for the rights to copy individual films, with the goal of gradually re-mastering the 400 Georgian feature films in high-quality digital versions.
A wealthy Georgian businessman who prefers to remain anonymous is backing the project, but more support will be needed to complete the task.
The challenge alone sparks recognition of cinema's role in Soviet days. Shengalaia remarks, "I cannot say what the goal of Georgian cinematography is now, but while the Soviet Union existed, we lived in a totalitarian anti-democratic country, where human rights were ignored daily, and Georgian movies we were trying, indirectly, allegorically, to fight that regime."
Georgian artistry once survived repression; but the question remains, can it survive the vagaries of the free market? To make its mark, Georgia must first fight to overcome its island mentality, contends writer Bakradze. "Outsiders think this country was born . . . at the end of the Soviet Union. We must do something for this. We are not doing enough," Bakradze said.
Bakradze and his colleagues at the Georgian Film Center have anticipated the centennial by rolling out a comprehensive electronic database, but the website is currently only available in Georgian.
Still, some hope endures for grabbing international attention. The Film Center is discussing an invitation from New York's Museum of Modern Art for a centennial retrospective of two leading Georgian directorial families, the Babluanis and the Shengalaias. Yet the technical obstacles are daunting. New positive copies must be printed, subtitles added. And then there is the delicate matter of politics. How do you explain to an international venue that many Georgian films are -- as yet -- unavailable in Georgia?
Film Center Director Chlaidze notes: "Once, there was censorship and lots of money. It was good for artistic growth. You wanted to say something, but you needed to think about how to say it." Now, he adds ruefully, "we have no money and no censorship."
Pamela Renner is a Fulbright Scholar in art journalism, living in Tbilisi.
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