What We Shared: bringing the bitter history of Abkhazia to the screen with Kamila Kuc

What We Shared (dir. Kamila Kuc, 2021)

A de facto autonomous state on the Black Sea, Abkhazia is (depending on who you ask) a beleaguered independent nation or Russian-occupied Georgian territory. This largely coastal region was once a thriving resort area that hosted Russian imperial and Soviet officials and foreign dignitaries alike, as well as sanatoria catering to vacationing workers from across the Union. Following the withdrawal of Soviet power, a war broke out between separatist Abkhaz forces and the Georgian state that ravaged the region between 1992-93. The multiculturalism typical of Black Sea port cities was lost as the Georgian population was displaced, and today Russian forces maintain Abkhazia’s largely unrecognised “statehood” to the affront of almost all of Georgian society.

Polish-born and London-based artist Kamila Kuc travelled to the Abkhaz capital of Sukhum (Sukhumi in Georgian) in 2019 with a fictional script based on material she had gathered from locals during an artists’ residency in the previous year. However, she quickly realised that she needed to adopt a more collaborative approach. What resulted is What We Shared, an evocative and radically empathetic treatment of memory and intergenerational trauma that finds innovative formal methods with which to address the particular problems posed to visual storytellers by the Abkhaz case. In Kuc’s reimagination of the past and present, seven non-professional locals, some of whom are professional performers, re-enact stories from their own lives, which Kuc interweaves with auto-fictional narration, archival materials processed with AI technology, and an ethereal soundscape designed by Timothy Nelson. The result reveals the Abkhaz War to be not history, but an elusive mix of reality and dream that continues to disturb the post-Soviet zone today. In her hands, as she herself puts it, the war “is not a history but a contemporary reality”.

To mark the film’s entry into the Klassiki Library, we wanted to delve into the ideas behind Kuc’s radical reimagining of Abkhaz history. To that end, we selected six stills from What We Shared as prompts and asked the artist to respond to them in kind. Here is what she had to say.

This is how you introduce the figure of the Narrator. There are a couple of allusions that come to mind – Venus emerging from the waves, or even a James Bond film – but it also ties in with the use of water imagery in the film and the notion of a “submerged” history. How did you understand the Narrator as a character in herself?

I like the James Bond reference! The sea stands for submerged history, and I have relied on a similar metaphor in my previous work, Batum (2016), which was filmed in Georgia. The narrator as a character came to me during the editing process, even though “she” was with me on both occasions when I was in Abkhazia, when I kept a journal. Much of what the Narrator says in the film originates in my journal entries. The identity of the Narrator, however unreliable, functions as an important glue to the whole film; she is a link between all the stories, between all the zones of memory, between all these different registers of reality that are present in the film. The Narrator became an on-screen embodiment of my own complex feelings about the liminality of Abkhazia. The place felt very familiar to me from the get-go because of certain post-Soviet tropes: food brands, architecture, music, and all of that was quite comforting. But this comfort also had a darker side, as Abkhazia’s war-torn architecture, and all the testimonies I collected about the war, began reminding me of my own family histories and unresolved traumas that I still try to make sense of. The Narrator brings all these feelings into the film, thus helping me to create a more authentic, guiding voice.

For me, this is an indicative and evocative image that captures the feel of the film: it has crumbling architecture, overgrowing nature, the overlap of the human and the natural. Did you seek out these spaces or were they readily to hand, as it were? 

This particular sequence was filmed in a former ballroom in the resort town of Pitsunda. Abkhazia is one of the most beautiful, enchanting places I’ve travelled to. And this struggling architecture is part of it. Naturally, though, many local people are sceptical of tourists taking pictures of yet another dilapidated building (i.e., this “ruin porn”). In the film this architecture functions more as a metaphor for one’s own internal landscape, but also as an imaginary form of reconciliation between the human-built urban world and nature which undermines state manifestations of power and calls for new ways of relating to the passing of time. The ghosts of these cultural palaces, homes, and buildings of political significance function as mnemonic devices that maintain memories of political violence.

Sukhum is a good example of how urbicide (buildings that show effects of acts of war) meets turbo-architecture (the villas of the nouveaux riches who took advantage of the turbulent changes and corruption that followed). Both types of architecture are a constant reminder of the painful transition from a Soviet republic to the post-war de facto state, with its lawless times and stable isolation, that Abkhazia became. There is a short yet crucial scene in the film in which the character of Alexander (played by Sergey) describes the City Council building falling down. This shell of a building in Sukhum for some people marks the Abkhaz victory over Georgia, whereas for others, it signifies Abkhazia’s dependency on Russia and functions as a reminder of the war trauma. In the film we are not sure whether the building really fell down or whether Alexander just dreamed it. Many people I spoke to expressed a desire for the building to be replaced by something that looks more towards the future, but as far as I know, there are no plans on the side of the Abkhaz government to do so and so the building continues to function as a depository that sustains nationalist narratives.

There is a lot of water imagery throughout the film, connecting different sections and interacting with characters and their stories. I like the vividness of this moment in particular. What is the symbolic significance of water for you, and of the Black Sea in particular?

This particular scene comes after the re-enactment on a beach, which was based on many different people’s testimonies about the start of the conflict. I think of this image in relation to the ethnic cleansing of 5,000 Georgians during the war. Water holds a double significance in What We Shared because on the one hand, it is a place people visit to feel at ease, to contemplate and commune with nature – as we did after long days of filming. But it’s also a place that features heavily in many people’s memories of the war – as portrayed in Manana and Oleg’s stories in particular – as something quite sinister. I was also very much thinking of all the lost lives of those trying to cross water in flight from their war-torn lands, from poverty and oppression. The sense of being submerged underwater is, as you already remarked, quite present in the film. While in Abkhazia I had this feeling that every time I came close to understanding something about this place, the meaning very quickly slipped away. To me this is comparable with being underwater, coming up for air, but feeling that right behind you there is another wave, so you are constantly gasping for air. That’s the feeling I was after with many of the scenes that involve the Black Sea.

I’m struck by the way the film draws out the intersections of personal archives and histories with famous, “consequential” people and moments – for instance in this sequence in which notorious KGB chief Lavrenty Beria turns up in a family recollection. Does Abkhazia lend itself to these kinds of encounters? Why are personal archives so vital for the region and the film?

Manana’s family story could be a history book in its own right, and personal stories such as this one are often missing from institutional archives, which tend to side with particular versions of history. This is especially the case with the former Soviet bloc countries, because as political alliances morph so do versions of history. We have this happening in Poland right now, where the right-wing government is literally rewriting history. It is in places like this that personal and collective histories co-exist and are often in conflict with one another, so people have to decide on a daily basis how to navigate any tensions that arise from such complex reality. This takes its toll on people’s emotional well-being: see for example, Svetlana Alexievich’s brilliant book Second Hand Time, a collection of stories from people as their country transitions to capitalism. Bringing such personal stories and archives into the film functioned as a vehicle for people to narrate their own experiences in their own words.

In the case of What We Shared, Manana was very involved in designing the set, deciding on the way she wanted to be filmed, and what she wanted to wear when recalling her story. I called this way of working “performative and experiential archiving”, and I was influenced here by various methods of narrative psychology, group dynamics, family constellations, as well as speculative histories and writers such as Saidiya Hartman in particular. Working with dreams also helped tease out these recollections because dreams are not about factual accuracy, but about feelings and emotions that don’t always come up for air in our conscious existence. So, to summarise, bringing people’s personal histories into the film and collectively creating these imaginative scenarios allowed for a release of trapped emotions; it also created a space in which the participants were able to gain control over challenging facts about their familial histories, the conflict, and Abkhazia more generally.

This might be a bit flippant, but I just love the story of the Monkey Academy. And this moment made me laugh out loud. What did you make of that whole story? It plays a pretty big role throughout the film.

I have to admit that these are some of my favourite parts of the film, too. A funny anecdote about the film in general is that when I finished writing my script and shared it for feedback with the Abkhaz cast and a few other people, it was a common reaction that stories that were real were thought of as being made up, and the stories that were pure fiction, were perceived as facts. This to me was a testimony about the enigmatic nature of Abkhazia itself. The Monkey Academy looms over Sukhum even now, you can see it in Alecu Solomon’s Tarzan’s Testicles. In fact, a few weeks after we made the final script corrections, Manana called me and said: “For all this time I thought you were wrong to make this whole story up about the Monkey Academy. But I just realised that you didn’t make it up!” Apparently, she saw an interview on an Abkhaz TV with an incarcerated woman who expressed her disappointment at not having been admitted to Ivanovich’s programme. Make of it what you will! I think the story of the Monkey Academy is in many ways connected to the story of the underwater expedition and to Wolf Messing. The story of the underwater expedition is fictional but Messing and the Monkey Academy are not, yet all of these narratives are equally mad! It tells you something about the place and particular time in history.

This is the penultimate image from the film, which feels particularly symbolic: it’s of a ruined family home. Why was this the final note that you wanted to land on? 

I wanted to land on this image because it is of Tamar Ioseliani’s (played by Tamriko Basaria) lost home. Tamar is Georgian and had to flee Abkhazia at the start of the conflict. This brings up the issue of the 250,000 Georgian refugees who can’t return to Abkhazia. Hotel Metalurg, directed by Jeanne Nouchi and George Varsmashvili, which I saw at this year’s Sheffield DocFest, is a very telling portrayal of the lives of those refugees, who are still living in a dilapidated hotel 30 years after the war in Tskaltubo, an abandoned resort filled with crumbling Soviet-era sanatoriums. This issue of refugees continues to be a point of contestation between the two governments. So, this image of a decaying house is also an image that in some ways is timeless and quite universal. I remember the first time I saw this house; it immediately made me think about my paternal grandparent’s house, then about their lives full of hardship and the fact that they never really recovered from the impact of World War II. Here we are back to this idea of psychogeography and the impact of architecture on one’s own psyche and how architecture in many ways becomes a reflection of one’s own state of mind, of one’s own emotional landscape and unresolved (intergenerational) traumas.

Watch What We Shared on Klassiki from 5 October.