Georgia On My Mind: A Look Back at the 2023 Mestia International Film Festival

Last August I was given the opportunity to travel to a place just about as far away as any that I’ve been. The Nation of Georgia has always fascinated me, nestled in an area of the world between neighbouring regional powers that have attempted for generations to overwhelm in ways both subtle and overt. With its location at the crossroads of many countries and peoples, some with civilizations dating back millennia, it’s a place that has managed to maintain a unique culture thanks to the strength of its people and culture, along with the vagaries of its topography. With an open sea to its West that connects to the world, buttressed by a formidable mountain range to its North, the land itself provided unique opportunities for openness and safety, the Caucuses creating space in the valleys for myriad communities to flourish free from being overwhelmed by other states.

Thanks to a mechanical delay from Canada’s National airline and subsequent rerouting through Qatar’s luxurious airport (an unexpected third trip to that facility that I’ve spent hours upon hours in over the last several years), I arrived some twenty-seven hours after departure into the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Landing, exhausted, I was soon warmed by a wonderful reception I had to this most storied of locales.

The hotel accommodation was surreal in its luxuriousness after being crammed into a coach, the venue catering primarily to the wealthy Russian and Ukrainian tourists that have been flooding into this city recently as this city forms a neutral ground for all, the steam rooms and infinity pools that belies conflicts between their peoples just a few hundred kilometres away. There were also streams of Israeli tourists throughout the city, evidence of this being one of the few regions where the Nazis were unable to eradicate despite their best efforts, with many departing the region in the 1980s when Glasnost finally opened options for these “Refusniks” to depart, returning back decades later as tourists to a land that for generations they called home.

I soon met our guide Davit, and it was through his eyes and ever patient nature that I saw much of this beautiful country. Truly this was the most extraordinary aspect of the trip, for despite having to navigated the vagaries of shepherding his small group of international journalists, Davit (along with our affable driver of the same name) literally spent days with us in the most hospitable way possible.

To begin with, we walked the capital city, exploring the ancient sections and the Soviet-style sculptures, discovering how fundamental the history of this place has been shaped by the various peoples that have helped shaped the modern metropolis. We saw the religious school where a young man with the name Jughashvili from nearby Gori attended, years before he changed his name to Stalin and inflicted untold suffering on many from that institution. There was a beautiful, tiny shrine near the Kura river, with larger edifices like the Metekhi church looming high up on the cliffs above.

This is a city shaped by churches, synagogues and mosques alike, a polyglot, polytheistic amalgam the result of its locale. I was guided to spot traces of many peoples in this beautiful country, a place where Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Russians, Jews, Turks, Persians, Iraqis and more all either settled in the area or merely transited through on a regular basis. Despite this blend of external influences, a robust local community developed and sustained a unique language, writing system, and fierce determination to maintain a culture of openness while developing from their own ancient origins. This was an area that thrived many millennia ago, yet somehow survived with many of its traditions intact the collapse of neighbouring empires, Mongol incursions, attempts by the Nazis to obliterate, and decades of Soviet dominance intended to wipe out any vestiges of the uniqueness of their culture. And if certain archaeological evidence is to be believed, they may well have given the world the process of making wine some 7000 years ago, truly a world-shaping invention like few others.

As a sign I was “meant” to be in this far flung place, a brief sojurn to a bridge where a series of antique dealers were gathered resulted in a find that in any other circumstance would have been almost staged. As an avid music collector, I have over the decades picked up dozens upon dozens of recordings of Jesus Christ Superstar. Having just about every release available it of course becomes more and more challenging to secure new versions, but there on that bridge, sitting in the front of a giant pile of records baking in the sun, there was a 1991 bootleg version of the original recording. Its cover in dull gold with Cyrillic writing, this release is a surreal souvenir to a particular time, evoking the months between the opening up during Glasnost of Soviet culture to such decadent Western music, and just prior to the full collapse where black markets would reign and legalities were secondary to the massive shift in political culture.

Heading north from the city, we set out on a nearly ten hour drive, first up to the Black Sea coast, and then through the winding paths that carried us deep into the high Caucus mountains. The drive was revelatory, providing a way to experience this land in all its myriad forms, as the flat plains gave way to beautiful foothills and then to the looming peaks that define the mountain regions. As someone who’s not a terrific passenger, particularly on such a twisting journey, any trepidation or ill effect was trumped by the sheer majesty of the journey, evidence of just why these hardy peoples were able in these nestled valleys to escape the ravages of invasion and to maintain hold of their own practices despite all who attempted to wrestle control over the centuries.

The roads are made of poured concrete, and most are pitted due to the inevitable rock falls from the steep cliffs above. This is the only path in and out, and I was thinking of how every piece of material, from construction material to our food and even something banal like toilet paper, would have to be shipped on these narrow, treacherous roads. As we carefully navigated the trail, we’d often be mere feet away from thousand-foot drops off to the side, with nothing in the way of guardrails that no doubt would be mandated in my overly-regulated home country. Boulders the size of houses littered the sides of the roads, reminders of what can occur when the mountains choose to shed some of their material on those daring to traverse its valleys below.

Finally arriving in Mestia, the locale for the film festival that had drawn me to this faraway place, the view was as breathtaking as any. Ancient decrees for each family to have a tower both for defensive protection and as buttress against avalanche means the landscape is dotted with this tiny castles, each an echo of the past and a signpost to the various families that have populated this area from time immemorial. Modern hotels, some bars and restaurants, and a newly constructed ski resort further up the hill speak to the regions’ touristic ambitions, and hundreds of young people roamed the streets of the town at all hours.

This was perhaps less surreal than the livestock that also wandered the streets at all hours, the fences at the farms that line the steep peaks of the mountains that loomed above often keeping the cows out rather than in. As expensive 4×4’s dash about the pitted roads, bemused cattle simply provide a different road obstacle to navigate. With the sun shining off the grasslands in the distance, the rush of torrential water coming from peaks even higher in the distance, it was impossible not to feel the view itself was the most cinematically impactful of all, feeling just about every moment like something more out of imagination than of real life.

Over the days we were treated to a number of excursions and a countless number of meals, almost always consisting of the same Georgian dishes, but each providing their unique spin on the meat-heavy dishes, warm breads and the like. While one so-called colleague behaved in particularly egregious ways, fouling even the most bucolic of adventures thanks to their appalling selfishness that manifested as both narcissistic and embarrassingly rude to our hosts, we as a group still managed to find space to simply revel in the beauty of the surrounding and the deliciousness of the culinary adventures.

As such, while the Film Festival itself was supposedly the primary draw and reason for being there, for the most part our time was spent outside the cinema, exploring the region, meeting locals and international guests alike, and finding ways to as fitfully as possible take in the unique attributes of one of the most beautiful regions on the planet. Of course, this is the paradox of just about any travel locale for film festivals, where to be closed off in a screening room is to miss what’s taking place outdoors, but if the mere excuse of bravely holding such an event in such a distant locale helps bring people from around the world to this place, then it’s an adventure surely worth taking. Yet in this far-flung place, the divide between the draw of the middling movies versus the extraordinary landscape and excursions could not have been more stark.

The Mestia International Short and Mountain Film Festival is, as its name would suggest, a hybrid of international shorts and mountain-themed films. Run under the auspices of Khatuna Khundadze, along with deputy director Gegi Paliani, the festival provides locals with a unique opportunity to screen works in a shared community setting. An international jury is invited to choose between the various short films, and other features detail Mountain-themed tales in attempts to connect with similar stories experienced by the locals.

The event itself felt a celebration not only of cinema but of the rich local culture, with songs and speeches echoing the desire to be inclusive of those that have long called these hills home, while still making room from those from the capital or even around the world to leave their own aesthetic mark.

The history of Georgian cinema, like much from this country, is rich and varied, and continuing this tradition by screening at this distant yet inviting place provides one of the most unique and wonderous locales in the world to attend a festival. The issue, however, is that the films themselves were mostly dour affairs, primarily either broadly experimental with little in the way of narrative, of somber reflections on some tragedy or others. I saw little in the way of truly joyous works, nor anything approaching broadly entertaining.

This isn’t unique to the festival, of course, and many times the desire to screen titles of “importance” ignores other seemingly quotidian concerns such as whether the work is actually good or not. The calibre of films made the contrast between the joyous beauty of the outside that much more stark with the bleakness of what was often screened inside, making each short film feel more like a burden than a bold representation of how cinematic expression can truly shine.

In speaking with Khundadze during the fest, she admitted the challenge of bringing in certain international titles, with rights issues and the like hampered by the financial strains of pulling off such an event in the first place. I asked what her own favourite films were, and she mentioned the work of Chaplin. I suggested that every year they should showcase a favourite of hers from his filmography, a sidebar to allow audiences both young and old to experience masterpieces such as City Lights, or even The Great Dictator, projected perhaps for the first time on the big screen in this region, and illustrating overtly how nearly a century on these silent films continue to speak so eloquently.

In fact, it’s in a kind of “classics” section that I think the festival more could fully flourish. It was a missed opportunity with international critics and journalists there to not have us interact more directly with young film fans or filmmakers form the area, and perhaps in future those that have made the long journey would be tasked with showcasing a given favourite title (short or feature), or to speak to how our own experiences from afar either echo with local experiences or prove to be quite different.

The most interesting film of all was the closing a silent film from the region that was mostly documentary in composition, detailing a natural disaster in a valley not far from where we stood. Nutsa Gogoberidze’s Buba, or, “A Story of Mountainous Racha)”, is a propagandistic film from 1930 shot in the region and shelved for many decades. Gogoberidze, a colleague of such immortal cinematic luminaries as Eisenstein, was the first Georgian female director, and Mestia was a perfect place to help bring international attention to her legacy.

The reaction of the locals was fascinating. First, there’s little in the way of propriety, with constant chatter and checking of phones throughout. Still, when the faces of these individuals form a century ago appeared on screened, there were shouts of recognition, where they could see in what appeared to be archaic behaviours connections to their own recent past. The film provided a mirror of sorts for the community, and while I would have preferred the most conventionally, almost austere behaviour of audiences in the sanctum of the cinema, I get that this was an event to not sit still but to welcome the imagery some some long-lost family home movie.

Other than that, the other films were often feeling either amateur or downright mediocre. Many of them had some sort of “nature” theme, but in large part they leaned towards the “experimental”, a series of esoteric, meandering works that eschewed all forms of narrative in favour of a smattering of disparate images coalesced often by droning narration. It was bleak stuff either dour or miserable, with nothing even attempting towards being “entertaining”. Similarly, any of the mountain-themed films felt either like commercials for a given region, or were simply showcases that did little to bring anything original to a viewer.

In contrast, days spent in the further up in the Svaneti region was revelatory, pushing even further up the mountain (this time thanks to 4×4 transportation) into village mere kilometres away from their Russian neighbours. In Chazhashi Chvibiani we got to enter the ancient monasteries, to bask in the mountain air and be treated to local food. A small child riding a horse nearly killed me as he raced up the hill, the warm breath of his steed close enough to fill my lungs after this starting encounter. We quickly became accustomed to the fortress towers, themselves becoming familiar talismans during our stay in the region, each with a familiar shape but a slightly different construction one more charming than the last.

We visited ski resorts and local chefs that prepared meals with our (very unneeded) assistance. We walked to natural springs and enjoyed the flowing river cascading through the city. And above all, we got to interact with both locals and international guests alike, a warm and welcome community gathered for this event.

In the end, this was a truly memorable trip to a land that I otherwise would likely never had been able to visit, a once-in-a-lifetime journey that I will forever cherish. And while on the film front it was a near total bust, save for a century-old work whose richness I could only fully appreciate after having been immersed for these many days in the region, it was still an absolutely amazing opportunity to attend.

I believe that with very small changes the film programming could be shifted to make it at least somewhat competitive with the draw of the outside attractions. Focusing on less dour, more accessible films would be a good start. While I recognize there are many restrictions both financial and logistical when playing festival favourites from around the world, there are nonetheless easily accessible titles that would speak not only to the imported jury members but the locals alike.

Taking time to highlight classics would be another very easy step, particularly the many films that never would have screened in the region. Finally, by bringing in international journalists and critics there was little in the way with interaction with local filmmakers and patrons, and it would have been extremely beneficial to, say, have us work with some local students to encourage their love of film, or even for some of us to present a given title and may engage in a Q&A. This festival is begging to be a source of cross cultural pollination, echoing the same sense of both welcomeness and strong local cultural impact that defines the nation as a whole.

My visit to Mestia for a film festival may not have ended up being movie-centric, but thanks to its sweeping vistas, the exceptional guidance of our two Davits, and gorging on local food and culture, it’s a journey even more cinematic in scope and richness than the films that played on the local screen.