The Years of Silent Film in Georgian Cinema

Text by Lasha Bakradze

Only five months after the first film was ever shown in St. Petersburg, the introduction to cinema in Tbilisi took place on November 16th, 1896, with a screening of films by the Lumière brothers. While French, Italian, and German filmmakers were already shooting productions in the country, Georgian filmmakes gradually emerged during this time as pioneers of cinema in their own right. Among the founders of Georgian cinema were Alexander Dighmelov and Vasil Amashukeli. In 1912, Amashukeli shot Akaki’s Journey to Racha-Lechkhumi, the first full-length documentary film in Georgia, about the travels of poet Akaki Tsereteli through the western alpine region of Racha-Lechkhumi. In 1916, stage director Alexander Tsutsunava began shooting the first Georgian feature film, Christine. At the same time, Germane Gogitidze emerged as the firstever Georgian film producer.

During the years of Georgian independence from 1917 to 1921, many cultural and literary figures escaping the political upheavals of the Russian Empire relocated to Tbilisi, forming a center for the Georgian- Russian avant-garde. Several international figures became integral to the development of local cinema, such as Ivane Perestiani, of Russian-Italian background, as well as the Armenian Amo Bek-Nazarov (Nazaryan), the Russian Vladimir Barsky, and many others. As such, the early days of Georgian Cinema are defined by the multi-ethnicity of its key filmmakers.

Throughout the years of 1918 to 1921, the Social Democratic Party of the Russian government closely monitored the deve- lopments of cinema. Burgeoning filmmakers produced what was known as Kinoqronika, or «Cinema Chronicles,» short films that documented important events in Georgia during the time. Because of the relatively low levels of income in the country, however, it was impossible for citizens to finance feature-length films without the support of the government. As the Soviets took power, the nationalization of the cinema soon followed, and a cinema section was created by the People’s Commissariat of Education. In 1923, this resulted in the creation of the Georgian State Film Studio, or Sakhkinmretsvi, which received the exclusive right to film in the country.

Georgian cinema of the first half of the 1920s was not distinguished by great experimentation nor avant-garde styles. Instead, it was a period when films such as the first Soviet box-office hit, Little Red Devils (1923), directed by Ivane Perestiani, flourished, and when the Georgian actress Nata Vachnadze became the first all-Soviet film star.

Beginning the late 1920s, a new generation of filmmakers came to the fore. Among them were Leo Esakia, Lev Push, David Rondeli, Nikoloz Shengelaia, Siko Do- lidze, Mikheil Chiaureli, Mikheil Kalatozishvili, Nutsa Ghoghoberidze, and Giorgi Makarov. Many of them came to cinema through literature and art. The government and the ruling party supported the new generation of filmmakers, but they still had to establish themselves in what was a very difficult period.

By 1927, the relatively liberal period of economics, art, and politics in Georgia came to an end. The Party had also finally determined to put art in its place. Through a decree in 1929, the Association of Russian Proletariat Writers, a favorite group of the Party, dismissed the Georgian Formalist School.

In 1929, Mikheil Kalatozishvili’s film The Blind, shot in Svaneti, was rejected for distribution. The director had to split the film into pieces, and clips were later reused in the 1930 film Salt for Svanetia. In 1932, Kalatozishvili’s film Nail in the Boot was also banned and was believed to be lost until its rediscovery in 2008. Early films that were also censored by the state include Kote Mikaberidze’s film My Grandmother (1929), which was not shown again until 1976 in a restored form, and Nutsa Ghoghoberidze’s Buba (1931), about the «culturizing» of the highlands of Georgia.

Notable films that went on to be released during this time include Mikheil Chiaureli’s Saba (1928) and Khabarda (1931). In 1928, Kalatozishvili and Ghoghoberidze released a historical documentary film titled Their Kingdom, which was greatly influenced by the Russian film director Esphir Shubb. Leo Esakia’s Holze was also released, along with Ephim Dzigan and Chiaureli’s The First Cornet Streshnev and Shengelaia’s Eliso.

Many leading representatives of the Russian avant-garde, such as Sergei Tretyakov and Victor Shklovsky, arrived in Tbilisi to work on their film scripts. Later in the 1930s, the great theorist of cinema, Hungarian Bela Balash, collaborated with a Tbilisi film studio; her only realized script in Georgia was In the Black Mountains (1941), directed by Nikoloz Shengelaia. Shengelaia’s own 26 Commissars from Baku, shot in 1930 in Azerbaijan, was based on an emotional script by Alexander Rzheshevski. Modernist visual artists such as Evgeni Lansere, Valerian Sidamon-Eristavi, David Kakabadze, Lado Gudiashvili, Irakli Gamrekeli, and Dimitri Shevardnade all made an impact on the Georgian cinema as well.

On April 23rd, 1932, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party created a resolution called the Reformation of Literary-Artistic Organizations, which led to the creation of regional unions throughout the country. In 1933, the Central Committee finally took over control of the cinema industry, resulting in a mandate issued on June 7th, which declared: «No theme should be put into production without the preliminary sanction of the Central Committee, nor are any pictures to be released without a commission created in accordance with this resolution.»

 

These films are part of the exhibition Georgian Modernism: The Fantastic Tavern (25.08.2018-04.11.2018):

My Grandmother (Chemi bebia), 1929 Konstantin (oder Kote) Mikaberidze
Buba, 1930, Nutsa Gogoberidze (1902–1966)
Salt for Svanetia (Jim Shvante), 1930, Michail Kalatosow (1903–1973)
Saba, 1931, Mikheil Chiraureli (1894–1974)
Nail in the Boot (Lursmani cheqmashi Gvozd’v sapoge), 1930/32, Michail Kalatosow (1903–1973)


Installation view, Georgian Modernism: The Fantastic Tavern, Kunsthalle Zürich, 2018.
Photo: Lucas Ziegler