The title of “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear”, a documentary that opened yesterday at Cinema Village in NYC (see http://icarusfilms.com/playdates.html#disa for dates in other cities), refers to a young and attractive Georgian woman’s longing for an end to her misery. She would like to see a machine that could make unhappiness disappear forever. Or as Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it:
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
Although our Georgia of peach tree fame and nativist infamy is also a place that would drive one to self-annihilation, first-time director Tinatin Gurchiani’s film is set in her native former Soviet republic. The premise of the film is supremely simple. It is structured as an audition where Georgians of all ages, but mostly drawn from the youth, tell the director why they should be in her film. Those that are selected are followed back to their native towns or hamlets to flesh out their stories, mostly of dashed hopes and personal tragedy.
While every tale is deeply poignant, I found a young man’s representative of what the Georgian nation must be suffering as a whole. His name is Gocha but his friends call him Moqmeda, the Georgian word for “Action”. He is not exactly sure why they call him that but one gathers that it has something to do with his military training and scrapes with the law that have left him on probation and a military career in doubt.
Gocha’s father was killed in “the war”, a reference to an event certainly obscure to most Americans, even after he adds that it was the Abkhazian War. Generally Americans only care about wars when their own children or tax money is involved. The war in question occurred in 2008 when Russia and Georgia fought for control of the contested territories. It took only five days for the Russian military to steamroll over the vastly outnumbered Georgian forces that included Gocha’s father. His father never came home, as he explained to the director; he does not know where his grave is or whether he is dead or alive. This does not prevent him from following in his father’s footsteps, taking “arms against a sea of troubles” in Hamlet’s words.
Other than trying vainly to find work, Gocha’s energies are devoted to keeping up the spirits of his brother who is serving 25 years for robbery. He visits their mother and father, who are separated, to prevail upon them to write him letters in prison. They appear skeptical over whether this is worth their time. He then visits a young woman who his brother only met once when she was 13 and for whom he carries a torch. Now 18, she is even more skeptical than the parents over whether writing a letter will matter very much. A sense of futility pervades the entire film. This segment of the film ends with an exterior shot of the prison, with a plaintive Georgian ballad playing in the background.
Despite the relentlessly downbeat character of the film, there are many passages that are exultant, including scenes of people tilling crops or celebrating a marriage. Key to the film’s ability to engage the audience is director Tinatin Gurchiani’s keen sense of character. Despite the fact that her subjects are most ordinary, she takes those aspects of their lives that are extraordinary and weaves magic from them.
In an interview with blogger Ralph Hälbig at Georgia & South Caucasus, Gurchiani spoke about her interviewees:
How ready they are to expose their basic core – their desire, despair and dreams. They act in front of the camera as in front of the court of God – just really, honest, naked, helpless and intense. It was their one chance and they could say only the most important truths in their heart, the most essential pieces of their soul. And they try – with the help of the magic of cinema and the camera they are standing in front of – to create moments of eternity for themselves, out of their ordinary human lives.
Georgia had the misfortune of embarking on a “Rose Revolution” that entailed a war over repossession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A “reformist” president made a foolish decision to launch a small-scale invasion in the hopes that the West would come to his assistance. If there’s anything that should be obvious about recent American-Russian relations, it is that realpolitik is the guiding principle rather than “humanitarian” principles.
One can understand why a young Georgian might long for a machine that can make everything disappear since the tiny republic has neither the economic clout nor the geopolitical importance to make it a worthwhile client state.
Its misfortune was to be distinct religiously, culturally, and ethnically from both the Great Russian power to the North and to the Islamic networks to the South. In the infancy of the Soviet republic, there was a deep commitment to the economic and national rights of a “lesser” people. Ironically, it was the erosion of this commitment that led Lenin to organize opposition to Stalin from his sick bed.
In the early 1920s some Soviet leaders only saw the “chauvinist” side of the Georgian republic that manifested itself during the 2008 war but Lenin warned about going too far and exercising Great Russian domination of the sort that prevailed under the Czar. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had been cobbled together into a Transcaucasian Soviet Republic, even though the Georgian leaders sought full-member status within the Soviet Union. In July of 1921 Stalin, a Georgian by birth, arrived in Tbilisi to read them the riot act. Sergo Ordzhonikidze, a close ally of Stalin, used his fists on a Georgian leader during a heated argument, something that set off an alarm bell for Lenin.
Shortly before his death, Lenin wrote an article in December 1922 on the Georgian problems that sums up not only the small republic’s bleak future but that of the Soviet experiment as well:
It is said that a united apparatus [a reference to the Transcaucasian entity] was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?
There is no doubt that that measure should have been delayed somewhat until we could say that we vouched for our apparatus as our own. But now, we must, in all conscience, admit the contrary; the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hodge-podge and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been “busy” most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.
Took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil? Truer words were never spoken.