March 2012, arsenal cinema

Otar Iosseliani Retrospective


"What you give is yours, what you keep is lost," goes one Georgian proverb. "Everything that happens in my films has to do with people's weakness for possession," says Otar Iosseliani. "And this leads to real values such as feelings disappearing." One could add that all of the director's films are about the disappearance of culture, sensuality, altruism and solidarity. They are poetic tragicomedies which feature a keen sense of humor, a slight wistfulness, reduced dialogue and flowing imagery. Born in 1934 in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Otar Iosseliani studied music and math before taking a directing course in 1955 with Alexander Dovzhenko at the VGIK Film School in Moscow. His graduation film APRILI (1962), a critical examination of the petty bourgeois aspirations to possess, was banned in the Soviet Union. The film shows a strong affiliation for the films of Jacques Tati and already displays the distinctive features that would become so characteristic of his work. Like many of his later films, APRILI does not have extensive dialogue or commentary. Iosseliani is of the opinion that words should not be determining factors and should not hold any important information. In his works, the essential is revealed by facial expressions, gestures and the way the protagonists hold themselves. Words are equal to music and other noises on the soundtrack. After APRILI was banned, Ioselliani worked for two years as a fisherman, sailor and metal founder and these experiences are reflected in his short film TUDZHI (Cast Iron). In his first feature-length film, GIORGOBISTVE / LISTOPAD (Falling Leaves, 1966), he turns his attention to one of his most important leitmotifs. It is about a young idealist who tries to prevent the bottling of bad wine. For Otar Iosseliani, wine is not about gastronomy but about spirituality. "That's why drinking wine is so important in my films. It brings people together, helps them to discover something new – maybe even happiness." In his next two features, his film language reached new heights. Iko shashvi mgalobeli (Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird, 1970) and PASTORALI (1975) adhere even less than his previous works to conventional dramatic form. "So as to correspond more to the free course of the flow of life" (O.I.) the form seems more like a musical composition. Subjects overlap, vary and are organized according to the rules of counterpoint. Intensified by the use of long shots that the director liked so much and a minimum amount of cuts, there is the impression of permanent circulation – everything flows. In 1982, Iosseliani emigrated to France after years of not being allowed to work by the Soviet authorities and the proscription of his film PASTORALI. However, he found himself confronting other problems: "In the West, one has to familiarize oneself with another type of censorship, which is particularly bad: the censorship of the audience which for generations has grown up with a particular taste." Iosseliani has since made a dozen films, in Senegal, Italy, France and Georgia, which he all considers Georgian films. They talk about the poor and the rich, urban life and the country, traditions, the loss of values and the passing of time. They are at once melancholy and cheerful because "when things are taken very seriously it is hard to talk about them seriously (O.I.). They are fables in which there is singing, wine and cigarettes. Like a Georgian proverb goes, "he who neither smokes nor drinks will die very healthy." In its complete retrospective, Arsenal is showing lesser-known documentaries and short works by Iosseliani that are rarely screened, as well as his features. We are very glad that he will be in Berlin for the opening.

CHANTRAPAS(F/Georgia 2010, 1.3., afterwards Otar Iosseliani will talk with Ulrich Gregor & 30.3.) Nicolas is a headstrong Georgian filmmaker who is a thorn in the side of the Soviet authorities. He only wants to have the freedom to express himself but the party bureaucrats refuse to approve his films because they do not follow the rules. Nicolas immigrates to France – where he soon confronts other difficulties. Otar Iosseliani's most recent and most autobiographical work is a fictional story about a Georgian director which treats the subjects of exile and artistic freedom as well as the conflict of interests between the author and the film industry.

GIORGOBISTVE/LISTOPAD(Falling Leaves, USSR 1966, 2.3., afterwards Otar Iosseliani will talk with Ulrich Gregor & 31.3.) Niko has just finished school and lives with his two younger sisters, their mother and grandmother in Tbilisi. When he starts working in a wine cooperative he is confronted in an unpleasant manner with the world of adults: To fulfill the plan, wine of poor quality is bottled but Niko soon realizes he is the only one against this practice. He is also disillusioned by his first love – his colleague Marina is amused by his "naivety". Iosseliani's feature debut is not only a film about becoming an adult but a hymn to those who affirm themselves in a world of adaptation and pragmatism and do not allow themselves to be corrupted.

JARDINS EN AUTOMNE (Gardens in Autumn, I/F/Russia 2006, 3.3., afterwards Otar Iosseliani will talk with Ulrich Gregor & 29.3.) is about the social rise of the politician Vincent, but it is not a case study of precarity but an ode to life. Forced to give up a ministerial post and the associated perks, Vincent finds himself once again in the small flat in which he grew up as a child. He discovers the pleasure of drinking, of music, of the beauty of public parks where time can easily be whiled away. He thus discovers the joys of life - late, but not too late.

PASTORALI (The Summer in the Country, USSR 1975, 4. & 16.3.) A quartet from the city spends a summer in a village. A family rents out an attic room to them and the children are drawn to the musicians. Iosseliani tells this story without lifting the pretense of the narration, multiplies it and brings in all kinds of new beginnings of other stories. "A film of dreamily beautiful black & white faces and the sounds of folk instruments, with animal sounds instead of dialogue, and patient, almost silent sequences of characters going after their daily chores rather than any driving plot-line." (Ilya Grigorev)

LUNDI MATIN (Monday Morning, F/I 2002, 6. & 28.3.) The 40-something Vincent is a welder who lives with his mother, wife and their two sons in a French village. There is very little communication between him and the other family members. One day, sick of the joyless monotony of his life he does an about-turn on arrival at the chemicals plant where he works, borrows some money and gets on a train to Venice. It's Sunday when he arrives and the people are smiling. He climbs onto a roof, meets Carlo, a local, and takes a boat trip with him. They smoke, laugh, drink and sing together – until Monday morning when the alarm clock rings at 5 a.m. Carlo also has a putrid factory to go to…

ET LA LUMIÈRE FUT (And Then There Was Light, F/I/FRG 1989, 7. & 24.3.) Otar Iosseliani stages his ideal pre-civilization community In a village in southern Senegal: People are not alienated from themselves and others, there is real equality between the sexes, traditions are fostered and polyphonic song is mastered by everyone. But when woodcutters arrive from Europe it is the beginning of the end of this paradise. Villagers start arguing over car tires and mail-order catalogues appear. A new era dawns. Even more than in his other films, Iosseliani tells his fictional story almost entirely with images. The dialogues (in Diola) are left largely untranslated. Some textboxes are used to explain the plot as if it were a silent movie.

BRIGANDS, CHAPITRE VII(Brigands, Chapter VII, F/RUS/I/CH 1996, 8. & 26.3.) Iosseliani's dark comedy about the history of Georgia is a parable that shows how the power structures have only changed marginally over the past centuries. The main protagonist Vano just changes his costume. As the country's king in the 15th century, he is constantly at war with his neighbors and his underlings. He pursues a career as a people's commissar in the Stalinist era and 60 years later he is an arms dealer in the mafia, profiting from the civil war and living a life of luxury in Paris.

IKO SHASHVI MGALOBELI(Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird, USSR 1970, 9. & 17.3.) depicts 36 hours in the life of the young musician Gia, who plays the drums in the Tbilisi orchestra, and is defined as much by his friendliness as his frequent lateness. He seems to be more interested in spontaneous human contact than work. He is a dreamer who refuses to adapt and seems incapable of finding a relation to time that tallies with his environment. The film, which was shot entirely in real locations and features mostly amateurs from Iosseliani's circle of friends, recalls the French Nouvelle Vague as well as the Czech New Wave.

LA CHASSE AUX PAPILLONS (Chasing Butterflies, F/D/I 1992, 9. & 22.3.) Two old ladies live in a French chateau. When one of them dies, her sister, who lives in Moscow, inherits the property, which soon ends up in the hands of Japanese businessmen. The last shot shows the chateau with new windows – in the foreground is a modern, remote-controlled gate with big Japanese characters. The film depicts the demise of a world of beautiful objects and savoir vivre, replaced by pragmatism, the loss of traditions and identities, and the selling off of cultural heritage.

LES FAVORIS DE LA LUNE(Favorites of the Moon, F/I/USSR 1984, 10. & 14.3.), "It is impossible to recount this film because of all the parallel stories that get out of hand, but it is about bartering things, the carousel of love affairs, the exchange of feelings. In Paris's 13th arrondisement, which on the surface appears so straightforward, Iosseliani depicts the hectic activity of those subjected to the laws of exchange and delivers a hilarious comedy. His 40 odd protagonists do not have names but they are clearly characterized in their behavior, forming a microcosm of society. The fact that the thieves survive is not surprising in a world that lives from theft without wanting to acknowledge it. Whereas the citizens are driven out and their being together is shown in fast motion only as a seemingly nonsensical abstract movement, the thieves are hedonists having the time of their life." (Eva Hohenberger)

Otar Iosseliani's first four films are summarized in a short program (10.3.):
(USSR 1958, 10.3.) is about a poor family whose wearisome everyday existence is unexpectedly changed by art. SAPOVNELA(USSR 1959, 10.3.) is about an older man who has to make way for a road through the blossoming garden that he loves. This was Iosseliani's first and only color film until 1983. APRILI(April, USSR 1962, 10.3.) A young happy couple moves from a poor district to a new housing estate. Their relationship gets progressively worse as their comfort and possessions increase. This is the film closest to the work of Jacques Tati thanks to the comic effect of the modified sounds, the reduced dialogue and the skepticism regarding progress achieved through modernization. TUDZHI(Cast Iron, USSR 1964, 10.3.) is about the daily routine at an ironworks. But the central subject of this uncommented documentary is not fascination for the machines or the achievements of the Soviet steel industry but the people who work at the plant.

UN PETIT MONASTÈRE EN TOSCANE (A Little Monastery in Tuscany, F 1988, 11. & 18.3.) records without comment the daily lives of five French Augustinian monks at the monastery Castelnuovo dell'Abate, as well as life in the next village Montalcino. There are prayers, walks and meals, the olive harvest, the bottling of wine, hunting, the slaughtering of a pig, a traditional feast. What unites the spiritual and the earth is song, one of the film's leitmotifs and an important component of all of Iosseliani's films.

SEPT PIÈCES POUR CINÉMA NOIR ET BLANC(F 1982) will be screened as a preview on 18.3. The first film Iosseliani made in France combines documentary footage that demonstrates his ethnological gaze on his new environment in Paris (bistros, dogs, women in fur coats) with elements of fiction and an experimental sound collage.

EUSKADI(F 1983, 11. & 20.3.) is about the Basque country, the French region that comes closest to Georgia, Ioselliani's homeland. It is a personal homage to the tradition and culture of region, as well as an affectionate portrait of Pagolle and its inhabitants.

We are showing DZVELI QARTULI SIMGERA (Georgian Ancient Songs, USSR 1968) as a preview on 20.3. This is a filmic poem that celebrates the different artisan and cultural traditions of Georgia - graphic arts, wall painting, wine, ceramics and carpentry and song.

SEULE, GÉORGIE(F 1994, 25.3.) is Iosseliani's only film to be dominated by words. The director's commentary accompanies the images, which are in large part archive footage, and thus creates a personal panorama of Georgian history and culture, in three parts. "Prelude" gives an overview of the country's almost 3000-year-long history and depicts an ancient, highly developed culture with its own alphabet and language. "Temptation" is about Russian rule. Annexed by Russia in 1801, Georgia had three years of independence after the October Revolution, but the Bolsheviks put an end to this by marching into the republic led by the Social Democratic Menshevik party in 1921. The last part - "Test"- is about becoming detached from the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet era, from the first demonstrations in 1988 to the declaration of independence in 1991 to civil war.

ADIEU, PLANCHER DES VACHES! (Farewell, Home Sweet Home, F/I/CH 1999, 27. & 31.3.) Nicolas is 19 and trying to escape the golden cage of his rich family. He sneaks away from his glamorous country home to meet tramps and young petty criminals in Paris. He falls in love with Paulette, the daughter of a bistro owner, but she is more interested in Gaston who seems more promising from a social point of view… "The film announces itself as a parable of the feeling of dissatisfaction that inhabits us. Practically as soon as we are born we are forced to live in a shell and to find another space, another dimension of life which surely exists somewhere. If one is rich, one thinks the poor are happy, without a care and surrounded by real friends. If one is poor, one imagines the life of the rich as wonderful." (Otar Iosseliani)

With the kind support of the Embassy of Georgia.

We would also like to thank the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna for lending us a print of ET LA LUMIÈRE FUT and the Cinémathèque française for making available restored prints of GIORGOBISTVE, AKVARELI, SAPOVNELA, APRILI and TUDZHI.