TIFF 2014: Letters to Max Review

Letters to Max

Wavelengths

“What does the diplomat for a country that isn’t recognized do when he comes to the office in the morning?” This question is one of many posed by French filmmaker Eric Baudelaire in his latest essay film, Letters to Max, and sets the theme and tone for the film.

This story is told through Maxim Gvinjia, a diplomat for the government of Abkhazia, formerly a part of Georgia that broke away after its victory in a 1993 civil war. Emerging as the film progresses is Abkhazia’s strange status as a nation unrecognized by the United Nations and the vast majority of the world. Beyond Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and a cluster of Pacific islands, no other nations recognize Abkhazia’s status and few people can claim to have ever heard of it.

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Letters to Max

What sets this apart from traditional documentaries is that Baudelaire uses his epistolary correspondence with Gvinjia to frame the film. Baudelaire is unseen, but excerpts of his letters to Gvinjia appear on screen, and in turn, Gvinjia responds to the questions Baudelaire poses through narration. The traditional documentarian methods are done away with; there are no interviews and little archival footage, and instead Gvinjia narrates the film as we see scenes of Abkhazian daily life, as well as shots of his family, the beach, and the often haunting, ruined buildings of the capital city, Sukhum.

The film’s success, and my criticism, emerges from this trope. I was left wanting more, and demanding more of Baudelaire in his questioning. He seemed almost hesitant at times to ask Gvinjia provocative questions. But beyond this, the correspondence between the two documents an interesting and unlikely friendship, and the film is a thought-provoking look at what constitutes a nation, shot within the fascinating and occasionally absurd vacuum of this tiny republic. (Cameron Bryant)

Screens

Friday, September 12th, 9:00pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

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Saturday, September 13th, 9:00am, AGO Jackman Hall


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Thanks to SPiN TORONTO for sponsoring our TIFF 2014 coverage.

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