First published in 365

Tbilisi, Georgia

March 2021

Dancers on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue

Interior of jam jar

Snake Eaters 

I often find myself faltering when I’m asked to explain what my films are about. I find it much easier to explain how they came about — the consequences that shaped them, like the angles of geography that guide water to curve itself in a particular way.

My current film was germinated by the reminder of a childhood mythology. As a child, I always thought that the colorful mosaic that stood above the theatre on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue was the place that people visited when they fell asleep. Carried by the unvalidated conviction that tends to harbor in the minds of children, I thought the mosaic was called ‘Iavnana’, lullaby — the place of dreams. This perception was bolstered by the apparent inaccessibility of the structure in waking life. It had neither doors nor windows, only a hallucinatory, three-dimensional facade that was ornamented by pulsating forms.

As summer condensed into the sticky heat of August, I began to think about Georgia’s Soviet legacy in a localized sense. The theatre on Delisi was flanked by a long slab of temporary construction walling, a surface that was pasted reiteratively with posters of politician’s faces. Dig just a millimeter or two beneath, and you would uncover an archaeological site of expired political claims, battling with the other advertisements and expletives that tend to stack up in public space. I could never remember this wall not being there. Like much of the landscape of Tbilisi, the provisional had inadvertently become permanent.

Directly opposite the wall, a huge billboard was emblazoned with Bidzina Ivanishvili’s face, which was used to advertise the words ‘Georgian Dream’. But what had happened to our dreams, to our collective feeling for the horizon of possibility? Did these photographic renderings of middle-aged men’s faces, multiplied into oblivion, indicate the length and breadth of our ability to dream?

In late September, as the evenings dawned ever-earlier on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue, I began to notice the dancers that rehearsed on the floor of the theatre below the mosaic. The grace of their movements, elevated from the senseless ammunition of the traffic of the street in which I stood, moved me. Through focus, through artfulness and discipline, they seemed to negotiate a liminal space between the unwieldy utopia of the mosaic — the derivative of an empire that had fallen from grace — and the unhappy overload of impressions below.

I began reflecting on the naming of the street on which this building stood. Its namesake, Vazha-Pshavela, had written a poem called The Snake Eater that began to hold increasing relevance to me. The poem explores the revival of its protagonist Mindia’s consciousness of the many tongues by which the earth speaks, and the intense grief that is triggered by his insight into nature’s speech. If Vazha were to stand on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue, would he recognize the place that was named after him? Or would he share the alienation of Mindia, who was so defeated by his homesickness that he conspired to die by drinking his masters’ brew?

I too, carried a kernel of that grief. I had begun to feel climate change blowing into daily life more and more, like autumn leaves cascading beneath a gap in the door. Our fruit trees had a limited yield, and our nut tree had no harvest at all. There were two days until the parliamentary election, and public consensus suggested there would be another lockdown following the result. Planning a film felt like standing on a sheet of melting ice.

I cast my first ever electoral vote in Georgia on October 31st. The following morning, a morning when the election result changed depending on which television channel you listened to, I noticed my grandmother preparing muraba. She was carefully sorting through each piece of fruit, making sure none of the bad ones ended up in the chosen pile. Accompanied by the sonic vitriol that bled from our household TV, I was reminded of the political process of counting votes. I was also reminded of the process of infection — the infection of covid-19, the ‘infection’ of electoral fraud, the ‘infection’ of Russia’s imperialist influence on Georgia, the risk of infection that comes with improperly conserved food. Even Zurab Tsereteli’s mosaic, which I had once imagined as the face of an uninhibited utopia, turned out to have courted its own controversy; I learned that the sculptor has often been criticized for his affiliation with Putin’s regime.

The days were blinded by accusations of stolen voices.

As autumn took hold, it was marked by ongoing preparations for winter. Whilst my grandmother made her muraba, my uncle Mamuka began to prepare grapes for their hibernation in amphoras, which he kept above ground. He was, in a sense, lulling the grapes to sleep, but it was a sleep in which the fruit dreamt with all its senses open — every undulation of the climate, every visitation of snow and rain, would come to inflect their eventual taste. Wine thus becomes a parable of the year in which it was made.

Soon afterwards, chance drew me towards a Georgian folk music ensemble called Ialoni. Ialoni were busy preparing to record an album from the ancient and highly diverse genre of Iavnana songs. Iavnanas are lullabies, but they were initially sung in rituals that were intended to heal children who were sick; many of the lyrics refer to illness, and the batonebi songs refer to a pre-Christian spirit that visits the household when a child has taken ill. I began to think further about the therapeutic potential of art and the alternative, exploratory politics that it invites for our consideration.

During one rehearsal, the teacher Nino asked some of her students with stronger voices if they could hold back a little on the delivery of a song, in order to avoid provoking a harmonic misbalance in the group. I wondered what it would be like if these practices and values could be adapted or translated to other fields. In the field of architecture, for instance, there is very little regard for the balance of forms, or for any sense of cultural continuity; everywhere you look in Tbilisi, a building company is enthusiastically vying to erase the legacy of what was, and to dominate the field of vision of civilians. If only those politicians, those architects behind the structures that arrange our lived experience, could reflect these sensibilities. If only the cultural traditions, the songs, the grapes, were more than a refuge or a place of escape, but an integrated part of the societal landscape.

Until that time, I try to locate the pinpricks; the living traces of a summer dream that have continued, trembling, and against all reason, to persist.

They live as lessons, as asterisks, as glowing retaliations against a winter that insists it could exist no other way. They are the jars of fruit, the hand-me-downs of ancestry that sustain us in the hope that conditions will, one day, be ripe again for another becoming.