Lasha Tskvitinidze in The Drummer (dir. Kote Kalandadze, 2022)
Organised by the Golden Apricot International Film Festival and run by critic and mentor Leonardo Goi, the GAIFF Critics Campus is an extensive workshop that provides emerging film writers a vital entry point into the festival circuit. Each year, a select cohort of young critics travel to Yerevan to hone their craft, discussing and reviewing the most exciting titles from the Caucasus and beyond.
As part of Klassiki’s partnership with the 2023 edition of the festival, we are publishing exclusive reviews of the highlights of the Golden Apricot programme from this year’s Campus participants. Today’s dispatch features three Georgian critics writing on the a mix of old masters and rising talents. Nini Shvelidze leads us through Fallen Leaves, the latest minor-key gem from Finnish deadpan master Aki Kaurismäki; Ani Kiladze delves into the dark side of contemporary Tbilisi in her review of musician-turned-filmmaker Kote Kalandadze’s The Drummer; and Levan Tskhovrebadze writes on the mystical realism of Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka.
New Narratives in Georgian Cinema: Kote Kalandadze’s The Drummer
Over the last decade, Georgian cinema has been searching for new forms and narratives beyond the more outdated tropes of its post-Soviet era, in which films have tended to focus on dark imagery, extreme poverty, and grim locales. The Drummer, by filmmaker-cum-musician Kote Kalandadze, is a promising attempt to break free from tradition, and open up new paths for Georgian cinema.
The film centres on Niko (Lasha Tskvitinidze), a young drummer from Tbilisi who works in a factory and tends to his sick grandfather. From the film’s first shot, Kalandadze posits music as the shy and introverted lad’s greatest love and means of expression. But in a city where everything is chaos, love is no easy task. Tbilisi’s pandemonium is reflected in its architecture, and The Drummer sponges the city’s vitality through Vasili Dolidze’s cinematography, the ever-moving camera adjusting to the bustling streets and the young man roaming them. The locations chosen by the director are largely urban, with an emphasis on the capital’s suburbs and their textures. Indeed, Niko does not belong in the city’s artistic elite; his music isn’t mainstream so much as underground, and it speaks to the suburbs’ lifestyle and economic hardships.
Nata Sopromadze and Lasha Tskvitinidze in The Drummer (dir. Kote Kalandadze, 2022)
Kalandadze himself has been a key figure of Georgia’s underground rock scene since the 2000s, which gives The Drummer with a sense of lived-in authenticity. Together with co-scribe Ekaterine Chelidze, the director lingers on details and images from real, everyday life. Even so, the film struggles to avoid the occasional clichés. To boot, the first and second acts hardly fit together, which makes some scenes feel like incongruous leftovers. Music and images often exist in a state of precarious harmony, all the more so considering the English tracks we hear throughout make for a jarring contrast with Tbilisi’s indigenous soundscapes.
But The Drummer belongs to Niko. Tskvitinidze, a Georgian director himself, pours so much life into the role that he transforms every frame he’s in. A becalmed and lonely hero, his demeanor shapes the film’s rhythm, making The Drummer feel nimble on its feet. Danger, crime, and disorder are omnipresent in the city, yet the audience is invited to spend time with characters who daydream of playing at major venues, making movies, or enjoying a fulfilling love life.
When Niko meets and falls for Nata (Nata Sopromadze), their romance carves out a parallel world within the city’s chaos, an impenetrable shield to all outsiders. It’s a relationship fueled by tenderness and selfless love, which may be one of the film’s most refreshing departures. Even as he hails from a patriarchal and violent environment, Niko never forsakes his true nature. He shows extreme care, empathy, and sensitivity towards both his partner and her daughter, thus offering an alternative portrait of manhood in a country where cinema has often depicted men as violent tyrants.
Kalandadze’s fiction feature debut, The Drummer is not immune to rote images. The film has clear structural issues: the ending, for one, remains relatively vague, and fails to seamlessly unify the whole story, while some scenes and dialogues may feel repetitive. Even so, Kalandadze tries and largely succeeds in his efforts to pursue new narratives, and The Drummer, with its fresh elements, rich textures, and subversive characters, is a singular addition to recent Georgian cinema.
Ani Kiladze is an award-winning writer and the co-founder of Es Aris Kino, an acclaimed platform focusing on Georgian cinema. She has covered festivals around Europe and helps to run the Kutaisi International Short Film Festival.
Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves (dir. Aki Kaurismäki, 2023)
When the Night is Never Complete: Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves
The night is never complete
There is always, as I say
As I stated
After grief an open window
A lighted window.
— Paul Eluard
Deceptively simple, short exchanges; a penchant for empty shots (a nod to Ozu) and shades of poetic realism (à la Carné); characters who never look at the camera (like Bresson’s) but are marooned in a lonely place, Helsinki — all of it shot, as always, on 35mm. A Chaplinesque fairytale, Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves follows two lonely souls, supermarket cashier Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and alcoholic metalworker Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), as they drift in an out of each other’s’ lives in the latest instalment of the director’s proletariat saga.
Fallen Leaves borrows its title from Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prevert’s 1945 song Les Feuilles Mortes, and indeed, music features prominently throughout. Kaurismäki employs the international, cross-genre soundtrack (which cobbles together hard rock tracks, serenades by Schubert, Finnish tangos, and Italian mambos), into a device not unlike the benshi, the Japanese performers who would provide live narration for silent films. Music, in other words, doesn’t just score the film, but exists in conversation with its protagonists, articulating their fears and desires.
Kaurismäki, who’s worked with the same tight-knit group of collaborators ever since the early 1980s, returns to some of his key leitmotifs. Thematically and stylistically, Fallen Leaves is like a jigsaw puzzle uniting all the features that make the director’s films instantly recognisable: his concern for lower-income and laconic drifters, a soundtrack drawing from different countries and genres, his trademarked deadpan humor. Kaurismäki conjures a world that matches utter hopelessness with black comedy and a contagious cinephilia (references to the world of movies loom large: there’s a dog named Chaplin, countless movie posters, and a few dates at the local cinema). Once again, karaoke bars prove one of the director’s irreplaceable settings. Sad Finnish ballads and rock songs echo Ansa and Holappa’s own loneliness, their faces always unsmiling, like Buster Keaton’s. But their unexpected encounter is like a glimmer of hope amid all the darkness.
As in Aleksandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky (2021), Kaurismäki here employs a chain of serendipitous coincidences that lend the narrative a sense of ethereality, as if the whole film was unmoored in time. Like Koberidze’s, Kaurismäki’s characters are haunted by the spectres of unemployment, addiction, and all kinds of accidents, which here contribute to pull Ansa and Holappa apart. A gust of wind “stealing” Ansa’s mobile number from Holappa triggers an odyssey of missed dates and chance encounters.
As with so many of its predecessors, Fallen Leaves is perched somewhere between tragedy and comedy, and seems to exist in a world where time has lost its sway. Many items in Ansa’s flat —her radio, lamp, furniture — look like relics from the 1960s, but the film blends them into its ostensibly present-day timeline, an amalgam that amplifies the overall fairytale aura.
Time and again, Ansa’s vintage radio croaks news of the war on Ukraine. But the heartwarming finale makes for a hopeful contrast with those bleak reminders. It’s as if Fallen Leaves were a cinematic translation of Paul Eluard’s poem “The Night Is Never Complete” and its life-affirming final verses: “After grief an open window / A lighted window.”
Nini Shvelidze is a Georgian film researcher and PhD student in Film Studies at Ilia State University. A co-editor and author at Cinexpress.ge, she also serves as film programmer at the Kutaisi International Film Festival and as co-curator of Georgia’s “Jonas Mekas 100” project. In 2022, she attended the Warsaw Film Festival as a Young FIPRESCI jury member and took part in the Warsaw Critics Project.
Eureka (dir. Lisandro Alonso, 2023)
Looking Back is Yet to Come: Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka
Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso’s most eclectic and ambitious picture to date, Eureka, screening in the “Twisted Apricot” sidebar at the Golden Apricot International Film Festival, speaks to the motto of this year’s edition: “Looking Back is Yet to Come”. The film embraces an anthropomorphic approach and a keen grasp of history in its a multilayered narrative, hopscotching across space and time. Like Alonso’s previous works, Eureka follows an unconventional structure and unspools at a meditative pace. The film’s longest section — though not its only one — chronicles a night in the life of policewoman Alaina (Alaina Clifford) and her young niece Sadie (Sadie Lapointe), members of the Oglala Sioux people living in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.
A three-part film, Eureka kicks off as a black and white acid Western starring Viggo Mortensen opposite Chiara Mastroianni, a preamble that feels like an homage to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), peppered with dark humour and awkward violence. Twenty minutes in and Alonso pulls the curtain, revealing this first segment as a film within the film beaming into Alaina’s living room in present-day South Dakota. The second part embraces a more neo-noir aesthetic, following both the policewoman as she roams the snowy, godforsaken reservation, and Sadie as she ponders whether and how to flee it. Finally, the third section invites us to travel with a mysterious bird — Sadie’s reincarnation? — to the jungles of Brazil in the early 1970s, whereupon the film tracks a local tribesman as he succumbs to gold fever.
The bird’s voyage through the verdant forests of Latin America is sheer cinematic joy, and the film captures the flight with drone shots that turn the experience into a vertiginous journey. While the film’s first chapter moves at its Jarmuschian velocity, the later segments are closer to the rhythms of what Paul Schrader refers to as a hydra-headed creature: slow cinema. This style is broadly rooted in Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the time image, perhaps best explained by Henri Bergson as like waiting for sugar to melt into water rather than stirring it in — an experience that is actually lived through as opposed to just thought up. And that’s exactly how Alonso works in Eureka.
The director forsakes a linear plot in favour of a more free-floating and elliptical mix of sounds and images. For long chunks of the film, we watch Alaina on her patrol, which Alonso chronicles through long, uninterrupted shots of the woman driving or waiting for something to happen. Where time in more narratively conventional films would simply pass, in Eureka, time is experienced in its uninterrupted unfurling. In turn, the film’s temporal shift from 2020s South Dakota to the Brazilian rainforests in the 1970s pushes one to think about cultural colonisation, and the history of violence that’s marred the indigenous experience across the continent.
Speaking to an audience in Tbilisi, Armenian-Georgian director Sergei Parajanov once said that when he closed his eyes, he could not only dig up his earliest memories, but also those of his ancestors’, because those were woven into his DNA. His cinematic universe was indissolubly tied to the past, which is a good way of thinking about Eureka, in which every shot is connected to a layer of history buried just beneath the frame.
Levan Tskhovrebadze is a festival programmer, editor, film director, and critic from Georgia. His writings have appeared in Senses of Cinema, Cineuropa, Film International, and Eye for Film, among others. In 2019, he took part in the Warsaw Critics Project, and also served on the festival’s Young FIPRESCI jury.
Klassiki’s partnership with Golden Apricot International Film Festival runs until 30th July. Find out more here.