Brief encounters: Otar Iosseliani and the subversive art of the short film

Sapovnela (dir. Otar Iosseliani, 1959)

This week sees the launch of Klassiki’s short film collection: 12 titles from eight nations, with the longest clocking in at just 22 minutes. Festival favourites from recent years are mixed in with classic animations and a miniature masterpiece from the great Sergei Parajanov. That chronological spread is an important curatorial corrective: after all, shorts represent an underestimated field of film history. They offer insight into the creative evolution of canonical auteurs – often produced at the start of as-yet unmapped careers, when limited resources and experience force the directorial hand in thrilling ways. But they also reveal more of the filmmaking landscape than a narrow focus on “big names” permits. Many artists who have struggled to finance and distribute features have nonetheless made wonderful shorts, which the non-festival attending film fan may never get the chance to see.

This rings even truer when one considers the historiography of Eastern European film. In the communist era – in which creative careers were foreshortened by censorship and emigration – the humble short takes on an extra degree of importance. In many cases, they could be made without the same level of oversight that a feature would attract, and without needing to request resources from studio bureaucracies. Parajanov’s own Hakob Hovnatanyan is a case in point: produced after he had been recalled to Georgia from his adopted Ukraine, it was made at a point of political peril for the director but points the way towards the trans-Caucasian stylings of his mature masterpieces.

In 17 years, Iosseliani completed only three features before emigrating from Georgia. The four shorts that he completed in that period thus take on a significance for Georgian film history that belies their trim running times

Georgia was also the homeland of Otar Iosseliani, who died last December at the age of 89, and who is perhaps the finest example of the importance of the short to the Soviet auteur. Alongside the likes of Eldar Shengelaia and Tengiz Abuladze, Iosseliani was one of a handful of auteurs who helped to define the national character of Georgian film in the post-war decades: a cinema noted for its lyricism, absurdism, and attachment to folk cultures. Iosseliani and co remain towering figures for many Georgian filmmakers even several decades into post-Soviet independence: see Alexandre Koberidze’s recent interview with Klassiki, in which he describes Iosseliani as “like mythology for us.” This historical importance was not matched, however, by a prodigious output. Despite working as a director in Georgia for 17 years, Iosseliani completed only three features before emigrating to the relative creative freedom of France in 1982. The four shorts that he completed in that period – Aquarelle (1958), Sapovnela (1959), Cast Iron (1964), and Georgian Ancient Songs (1969), alongside the mid-length April (1961) – thus take on a significance for Georgian film history that belies their trim running times.

These shorts underscore and expand upon the portrait of Iosseliani that emerges from his Georgian features: a director with a subversive sense of indolent humour and a deep affection for the creativity of ordinary people. They also get to the heart of Iosseliani’s very particular, poetic relationship to sound and image as the building blocks of cinematic expression. These characteristics were in part the result of his education, which included composition courses at the Tbilisi State Conservatoire as well as the prestigious VGIK film school in Moscow, where Iosseliani benefitted from the Thaw-era practice of having classes delivered by revered elder statesmen of the industry (even if, by all accounts, Iosseliani’s was largely discontented as a student). The lyricism and love of nature of Oleksandr Dovzhenko, the radical editing techniques of Lev Kuleshov, and the expressionistic flair of Grigorii Kozintsev – all of whom taught Iosseliani at points during his time at VGIK – come through in even his earliest work; his graduation film, Aquarelle, being a case in point.

Aquarelle (dir. Otar Iosseliani, 1958)

Produced for Georgian television, Aquarelle is a comic vignette that charmingly undercuts the pretensions of the Soviet culture industry. An alcoholic husband is pursued by his irate wife into an art gallery, where they are first bemused by the modernist creations they encounter, and then bored by the pre-prepared, rote monologues of the official tour guides. But a simple watercolour of a humble wooden house reminds them of their own home, rekindling their mutual affection. The film looks ahead to April in its depiction of a world defined by prosaic material attachments. Certainly, Aquarelle is the first of Iosseliani’s self-defined “abstract comedies”, which would later see him compared to Renoir, Tati, and Buñuel. It captures his belief in the power of the unremarkable individual to see through to the essential truth of any matter – here, the meaning of an apparently inconsequential painting – while the title recalls Raphaël Bassan’s remark that “Iosseliani is a watercolourist of everyday life, casting an ethnologist’s gaze on his contemporaries without defending any clearly identifiable ideological thesis.”

Another kind of everyday artistry was brought to the fore a year later in Sapovnela, to my mind perhaps the finest film Iosseliani ever made. This documentary short is a celebration of Mikheil Mamulashvili, an elderly florist who creates miniature dioramas from the flowers in his exquisitely tended gardens. It consists of gorgeous, vibrant close-up footage of flowers in bloom, cut to the director’s beloved Georgian polyphonic chorales, such that the plants seem to sing from the screen. Mamulashvili emerges as a decidedly Iosseliani-style artist, arranging the mundane into little masterpieces. More than any other, this is the film that recalls Carlo S. Hintermann’s description of the director as “a conspirator of pleasure… [whose] subversion of worlds was always an artistic gesture.” And subversion is the word: this was the first of his films to land Iosseliani in hot water. The Georgian-language voiceover was added by the censors, who then banned the film in any case due to the latent critique contained in the abrupt ending, in which steamrollers crush the singing flowers to make way for asphalt roads. When it is screened today, the Georgian voiceover is left untranslated in accordance with Iosseliani’s wishes.

these short films prefigure Iosseliani’s self-defined “abstract comedies”, which would later see him compared to Renoir, Tati, and Buñuel

Two years after the Sapovnela fiasco, April was denied theatrical distribution. Sensing the uphill struggle ahead, Iosseliani abandoned filmmaking for several years. Between 1963 and 1965, he worked on a fishing boat, and then at the Rustavi metallurgical factory. This artistic exile was definitively ended in 1966, when he directed his first feature, Falling Leaves; the film did him no favours with the authorities, though it was screened to acclaim and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes in 1968. Not many people are aware of Cast Iron, the short that Iosseliani made from within the frustration of his retreat. A documentary account of life at the Rustavi plant where he himself worked, the film is perhaps Iosseliani’s most condensed treatise on the nature of labour, one of his recurring concerns.

At first glance, the film seems to pick up where the great hymns to industrial modernity of the Soviet avant-garde left off; there is much of Dziga Vertov’s Donbas-set Enthusiasm in the thrumming power of Iosseliani’s footage of molten metal, vast machinery, and human ingenuity. This being Iosseliani, though, the subversion soon arrives. He is as enraptured by the faces of the workers as Vertov is by the marvels of engineering and makes a point of lingering on those brief moments when the metal workers are at rest: greedily gulping down bottles of water, drying their sweat-drenched shirts under an industrial fan, cooking kebabs on the glowing embers. In a piece published after Iosseliani’s death, the Celluloid Liberation Front describe Cast Iron as “a film that rebukes the liturgical glorification of the Soviet worker”, claiming that “such scenes of conviviality are central to Iosseliani’s poetic universe, and punctuate virtually all of his films. Rest in his cinema is not peripheral; on the contrary, it is the fulcrum of human possibility.” There is ingenuity in Iosseliani’s depiction of labour, but dignity derives from within the worker. Concealed within this portrait of Soviet industry is the kernel of a kind of film anarchism.

Georgian Ancient Songs (dir. Otar Iosseliani, 1969)

Anyone familiar with the director’s most celebrate features – Falling Leaves and There Once Was a Singing Blackbird – will recognise the above description. Cast Iron provides the mould (pun intended) for the more expansive films that were to come. Falling Leaves shows us an idealistic young hero laid low by the cynicism of Soviet bureaucracy at the wine factory where he works; Singing Blackbird follows a lackadaisical musician who floats through Tbilisi unable (or unwilling) to squeeze himself into the straightjackets of Soviet sociality. It is not for nothing that biographers of Iosseliani often cite L’Atalante (1934), the chef d’oeuvre of French cinema’s crown prince of anarchism, Jean Vigo, as the film that convinced him to become a filmmaker. Singing Blackbird is set in the world of classical music, a world that Iosseliani had also inhabited, and picks up the experimental juxtaposition of sound and image that the director had pioneered in Sapovnela. In the same vein, his final short before exile, Georgian Ancient Songs, a stirring tribute to the unique vocal traditions of his homeland, acts as a bridge between the sound world of that early documentary short and the fictional work of filmmaking maturity. With Iosseliani, as with so many others, it is the short films that tie the story of a lifetime together.

The Klassiki Shorts Showcase is available to subscribers now.

Watch Otar Iosseliani’s April and There Once Was a Singing Blackbird on Klassiki now and explore our full collection of classic and contemporary Georgian cinema here.