Shengelaia at 90: personal reflections on a Georgian film icon

Shengelaia at 90 is our retrospective season celebrating Eldar Shengelaia, organised in collaboration with the Georgian National Film Center. As part of the season, Klassiki brought together a panel of experts and industry representatives to explore the director’s life and works. The full discussion can be viewed here and as a bonus feature on all of the Shengelaia films in our library. Below is an edited and abridged transcript, highlighting some of the panel’s personal reflections on Shengelaia and his place in Georgian film history.

Eldar Shengelaia on set. Image: Georgian National Film Center

Dito Tsintsadze

Director and screenwriter, Lost Killers (2000) and The Man from the Embassy (2006)

I can talk about Eldar for hours. He was my teacher, and then I was his assistant. For me, there are two or three icons in Georgian cinema, and one of them is Eldar, without any doubt. His generation, they established Georgian cinema. I’m critical of the word, but Eldar is a phenomenon. His sense of humour, the style of his characters, the lightness and also deepness of his movies, which is very rare in combination. He’s able to do that in a very specific, Georgian way.

It was a great experience [studying under Shengelaia]. His focus was on our individualities: he was able to talk with each person in a language that made sense, to develop the strongest parts of each student. It was a very interesting five years with him. Each of us made three movies and Eldar was very actively involved in the procedure, from the script until the edit.

For Blue Mountains, he decided to employ four of his eleven students. We got lucky and joined the team and also played small parts in the movie. To be an assistant and an actor in his movies were different things. He liked to improvise with actors, which I also like, because it always produces something when you give that freedom to the actors. He managed to make this very organic, very real world, a microcosm.

I was lucky enough to attend Rotterdam Film Festival a long time ago, when I was very young, and they were screening his movie An Unusual Exhibition. It was the first time [it had been screened] since it was made, 20 years before. Never in my life have I seen such a screening: several times the audience applauded, they were screaming, it was an absolute success. I would wish every filmmaker to have such a screening at least once in their life.

The films are extraordinarily multi-layered in all sorts of ways: the acting, the screenplay, but also the soundtrack. They’re among the most interesting films produced during that period in the Soviet Union

James Steffen

Film and Media Studies Librarian at Emory University, and author of The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov (2013)

The films are very witty and observant, but they also have a lot to say about Georgian experience and the human condition in general. They’re extraordinarily multi-layered in all sorts of ways: the acting, the screenplay, but also the soundtrack. He does really interesting things with language in his films. For me, they’re among the most interesting films produced during that period in the Soviet Union, because he places a great deal of investment in personal expression, and at the same time there’s commentary on Georgian identity, oftentimes with a critical dimension as well.

As for his place in Georgian film history: there was a group of filmmakers who were educated at VGIK [the state film school in Moscow] who were several years older than him – Tengiz Abuladze, Rezo Chkheidze. Then there were filmmakers like Marlen Khutsiev and Sergei Parajanov, who were also from Tbilisi but who started working in other film studios. They were part of the Thaw generation that came immediately after the Stalin era. [Despite being younger] Eldar Shengelaia actually started making films only a year or so after these older directors, whose entry into film was delayed due to the mechanisms of the industry during the Stalin period. All these filmmakers made films that you could say fell under the Thaw: more open commentary about society, more of an unvarnished depiction of everyday reality, and so on. They also started exploring new stylistic avenues as well, drawing on what they learned in VGIK but also absorbing what was going on internationally – the French New Wave, Fellini – and amalgamating that into a unique language in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The other way I would situate Shengelaia is as an important teacher. When they established the Tbilisi film school in the early 1970s, it was the one in the Soviet Union outside of Russia, which was really important for developing a unique Georgian identity in film. Shengelaia educated a whole cohort of younger film directors.

To me, Eccentrics is one of the most daring pieces of satire to come out during that period. The whole film is an allegory about imprisonment and freedom. You have a psychiatric doctor, which cuts close to the bone because a lot of dissidents were imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals in that period. As the film progresses, you see that everyone is imprisoned in different ways. I think that generosity of spirit towards all his characters is one thing that makes Shengelaia such a wonderful filmmaker.

Eccentrics (dir. Eldar Shengelaia, 1973)

Giorgi Kakabadze

Director of the Audio-Visual Department at the Georgian national film archive

I met Eldar about 15 years ago, [when] he gave us all his movies, his film prints, about 1000 reels. Since then, we’ve been working together on his films. When I was a little boy, I was watched these films, and I never thought that I would be restoring them 20, 25 years later. To work on such famous movies was the very highest opportunity. I can say that Eldar is a great friend of mine. He’s 90, but he’s still going strong. During the retrospective here a lot of people came to see the old movies: everybody knows these films, but still they come to see the new versions on the big screen.

When Blue Mountains was shown at Cannes in the Classics section, Eldar told me this story. In the 1980s, Gorbachev and [Georgian Soviet leader Eduard] Shevardnadze had a screening of Blue Mountains. Gorbachev said: “if we cancel this film, people will think we did it because it’s about us. But this film isn’t about us.” So, they didn’t censor it. I’ve screened this film in several countries and everybody – in Austria, Germany, India – everybody says, “this film is about our government.” Everybody. Eldar said that he made this film about the situation at the Georgian film studio in that period. I love this film, but unfortunately I couldn’t restore it, because all the materials are in the vaults in Moscow. We only have digital copies and inter-negatives.

there is something extremely witty, informal, and uniting that comes out of him that puts people at ease. He’s one of those filmmakers who is easily demystified. I prefer when the great filmmakers are easily accessible

Tamara Tatishvili

Former director of the Georgian National Film Center (2010-2013)

For me, Eldar was the one who shaped, to some extent, the language of Georgian cinema. By the time of my late childhood and young adolescence, phrases from his films were identity markers for Georgian society. In many ways, his films had this additional value added – depicting reality but also predicting the future of the country somehow. All his films stand for something. Eldar is one of those directors who embeds some timeless value in all his films.

I’ve been very lucky to have worked with him as a collaborator. I have been part of the screenings of his restored classics – Blue Mountains, White Caravan – but I also had Eldar accompany me to screenings of other Georgian classics when I was head of the Georgian National Film Center. Having Eldar in a screening is itself a celebration. Even though he might not communicate to audiences in their own language, there is something extremely witty, informal, and uniting that comes out of him that puts people at ease. He’s one of those filmmakers who is easily demystified. I prefer when the great filmmakers are easily accessible. He has also this talent of making you feel particularly comfortable. In 2013, when I was leaving my post at the National Film Center, the industry organised a farewell. He was there, along with many other filmmakers. Suddenly, he stands up, one of those living legends, and says: “Tamara, it’s time to dance, we cannot just leave this without having a dance.” Suddenly, at this formal function, we had five minutes of waltzing. It will stay with me forever, but it also speaks to his character.

Georgian history doesn’t always allow us to see filmmakers as simply artists. But it’s the choice of the filmmaker whether they want to make a stand for something or not. The preservation of Georgian film, not only as heritage but as a live model of production, would never have been possible without creating a European model to promote national production. That’s how Europe preserves cultural diversity. That’s something that was of a crucial importance back in 2000, 2001, when Eldar and other filmmakers were instrumental in lobbying to create the Georgian National Film Center. [He has] that additional sense of responsibility. Eldar is someone who’s always been on the side of motion and progress. Being a direct and a hidden advocate for that speaks to his strategic character. He is humane and witty, but we are speaking of a very clever man with a political background, who’s manoeuvred through a number of political contexts in Georgia. He was at the forefront of protecting national cinematic identity by pushing for the establishment of the National Film Center, which is to this day the only agency that supports the production of Georgian films.

An Unusual Exhibition (dir. Eldar Shengelaia, 1968)

Sandro Koberidze

Director and screenwriter, Let the Summer Never Come Again (2017) and What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (2021)

When I was asked to participate in this talk about Eldar Shengelaia, I had doubts. For me, he’s a very distant kind of star, not something I can talk about publicly: he was always something like a myth – you can admire it, but you can’t discuss it.

I grew up with these films. They were on TV quite often. So as a kid, I thought they were normal, something everyday. When I was around six, my parents were talking and one of them said that An Unusual Exhibition was one of the best Georgian films ever. Somehow these words remained in my head, I thought it was strange – for me it was a film from the TV but nothing special. After that, I always looked at this film with curiosity. Since then, more than 30 years have passed. Every time I watch it, I understand that my parents were quite right. I think Unusual Exhibition, at least for me, is one of those very few films where I have the feeling of watching a piece of art which is perfect. It’s not a thing which I experience often, not just in films but in art generally. When you see [Eldar], he looks normal, he dresses normally, when he talks it’s very calm, but on the other hand, I know this man has made something extraordinary. When I make a film, I always think about Unusual Exhibition. Especially with the last film I made [What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?], because it was set in Kutaisi, which is where Unusual Exhibition is set. It was a huge thing to know that we’d been to the same locations. We shot a scene on the city’s White Bridge, where [Eldar] shot one of the most beautiful scenes in cinema. When I knew I was going to work at the same place, I was terrified, but also it was fun. I’ve never talked to Eldar in my life but somehow that’s how I communicated with his works.

Shengelaia at 90 runs on Klassiki from 9th February to 2nd March 2023. Explore our collection of classic and contemporary Georgian cinema here.