What Do We See: inside Alexandre Koberidze’s modern-day Georgian fairy tale

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (dir. Alexandre Koberidze, 2021)

When Alexandre Koberidze’s sophomore feature What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? Took home the FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin, it confirmed the director as the next major talent to emerge from Georgia. This existential fairy tale unfolds like a dream over a long, hot summer of thwarted romance and World Cup fever. In Georgia’s ancient capital Kutaisi, pharmacist Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and footballer Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) find their budding love affair cut short by a curse that transforms their appearances the day before a fateful date. As the star-crossed lovers slowly make their way back together, Koberidze delves into the magical mundanity of everyday life, from stray dogs to kids at play. Shot in luminous 16mm, this warm and whimsical film finds time to comment on everything from climate crisis to birthday cakes.

To mark our screening of the film from 13 June – 4 July, we sat down with Koberidze to look back on the inspirations behind the film. Koberidze selected a handful of Georgian auteurs for discussion, whose work has influenced both his filmmaking and his personal philosophy – as well as finding time to wax lyrical about Argentinian footballing hero Lionel Messi and the life-affirming passion that fuels both film and football alike. What follows is an abridged version of that conversation; Klassiki subscribers can view the full interview here.

Eldar Shengelaia

Eldar Shengelaia’s filmography is something you grow up with in Georgia, whether you are a film lover or not. Especially An Unusual Exhibition – you see it on TV very often. As a kid, it’s something you know by heart. You expect that when you grow up, you won’t like the same things you liked as a kid. But with this film, the amount I loved it grew as I did. When I started to think about how films are made, I started to appreciate it even more. Even if I try to avoid this film, it will always be there [in my work]. It’s just part of me.

Before I started work on the film, I thought it might be intimidating [to work in the same locations as Shengelaia; An Unusual Exhibition is also set in Kutaisi]. But it wasn’t really. An Unusual Exhibition doesn’t give you any signs. One of the things I like about it is that you watch it and it’s a complete work. I think because I started to see it from an early age, when I had no idea how films are made, for me it’s still solid, like a piece of rock. Even now, I see it like this. I don’t try to deconstruct it, to say, “OK, now the camera is moving like this, that’s how the storyboard was made.” The film has a very unique, very functional way of showing things. It’s not something you could copy in terms of style, as a filmmaker. So, I didn’t have the fear that my film would look like Shengelaia. I think I’m yet to achieve what he does as a filmmaker, so I didn’t have any fear of copying it.

The White Bridge in Kutaisi, seen in An Unusual Exhibition (dir. Eldar Shengelaia, 1968)

Otar Iosseliani

With Iosseliani, for me, it’s a little different. He’s not someone you see on TV; maybe now, but when I was a kid, almost never. So, I saw it quite late. I was maybe 18. Generally, I think these filmmakers, who were trying to make films in the sixties, seventies, eighties, they are like mythology for us. They tell us very important things about life – not just about cinema – giving small signs, like in myths, as to how to see things and how to react to them. I started to watch Iosseliani’s films a lot when I got interested in cinema. He was much more a part of my film education [compared to Shengelaia]. Although I only met him a few times and never talked to him about cinema, I can say that I see him as a teacher. Through his films, I and [people like me] were able to think about life, and about cinema.

His films always speak about filmmaking: how to film, how to hear, what to see and what not to see. Last year, I did a seminar here at the university with film students, and for almost six months we discussed just one Iosseliani film: Falling Leaves (1966). One day we would talk about the music, the next we would talk about the camera movements, then we would turn off the visuals and just listen to the film. Unlike Shengelaia, Iosseliani is someone who I work around. Maybe that’s because he was also more open in terms of talking about filmmaking, what makes films unique.

Falling Leaves (dir. Otar Iosseliani, 1966)

Alexandre Rekhviashvili

Alexandre Rekhviashvili is another director that I discovered very late. I discovered him on YouTube, in very poor quality. After that, I spent years trying to find his stuff, but it was really hard. But then slowly some of his films were restored, some of them became easier to find online, in torrents. People began to see his work. Now we know that he is as important for us as anybody else. He has become a filmmaker who I watch a lot – especially in moments when I don’t know what to do, not just as a filmmaker but as a person. His films are very sad, but they are always about human dignity.

Rekhviashvili’s film universe is impossible to copy. It’s important to understand early on, when you start watching his films, not to try to copy him. He has a very clear and particular style. I’ve never seen anyone try it, even. For me, his filmmaking and him as a person are more an inspiration in terms of knowing how to live and how to handle things. When I think about the circumstances he was working in and how radical he was, it’s really something difficult to achieve. His films and the way he lived are very close [to one another]. What you see and hear in his films, that’s what he represented in his everyday life. It’s the story of an artist who gets closer and closer to the things that he tries to communicate through his art. For me, that was always an interesting question: does there have to be a similarity between the art and the artist? Is that something that artists should have to think about? And I think that yes, as an artist you are responsible for what you say and the best version of yourself is the one that is closest to your art. It’s rare, but Rekhviashvili is an example.

Coming Closer (dir. Alexandre Rekhviashvili, 1989)

Soso Chkhaidze

Soso Chkhaidze is another director who is very important for me and the people around me. He made a film called Shepherds of Tusheti (1978) as well as a few documentaries. He passed away very early, as a young man. But he left these films behind for us, and they are a big part of our culture. It’s also really hard to see his films: I’ve only seen Shepherds of Tusheti on YouTube in very poor quality. I know that they have a copy of it in the Arsenal in Berlin. Even watching it on YouTube – it’s the worst quality you can imagine, and the film is three-and-a-half hours long – it’s something I can watch over and over. It’s hard to describe his style; his films look like documentaries even though they are pure fiction. In Shepherds of Tusheti, only the main character is an actor; all the others are from the region. He spent years making the film, five or six years, I think. The method behind it is really hard to understand. On one hand, it’s “big cinema”: he was using all the tools you can imagine. But what’s happening inside the picture is a mixture of pure reality and pure cinema. For me, this is the kind of filmmaking that is most precious. If there’s something I’m trying to move towards, that’s what it is.

His last film, which he filmed in the eighties [Shvidkatsa], was almost complete in the edit before he passed away. It’s almost done. When he passed away, his family tried to finish the film, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no time for stuff like that. Part of the material was lost. But at some point, his wife started to gather the material again to restore it. It’s a very slow process: the film was planned at seven hours. But soon, more or less, we’ll have this film. I know the material, I’ve seen the edit, and I think that the film will be an important thing in Georgian art, not just in cinema.

Soso Chkhaidze on the set of his unfinished film Shvidkatsa

Lionel Messi

For me, football is connected with passion. It’s very personal, but the things I admire the most are football, cinema, and maybe music. With these things, I can see the passion of the people who are doing them, but also the passion of the people who are watching them. On that level, there is a big connection [between film and football]. Passion is something very important to maintain in everyday life, it’s not just about sport and art. When I go to sleep, if I know that the next day I will be playing football, when I close my eyes, I have a smile on my face and I feel so good. That’s something I can’t explain. When I’m making a film, I don’t go to sleep with a smile on my face; it’s such a big part of my life that it makes me nervous.

Leo Messi is there, in my film – not as a character, but he’s there. I remember his first game at Barcelona, and since then I’ve followed his whole career. I realised that it’s one of the most interesting stories that I’ve ever seen, and the dramaturgy of this story is something that I know: it’s a classical story. To experience this kind of a classical story in the everyday, almost like a series or a drama, when you know it’s the real life of a guy from Rosario – that’s when you understand that the stories that we tell, the patterns in how we approach stories, are very much connected to life. It was very interesting to follow his steps, his ups and downs: to see how things are different for people who are destined to represent so much, who are given so much talent that they then have to deal with.

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is available to watch on Klassiki until 4 July.

Explore our full collection of Georgian films here.