In order to understand what the collaborative filmmaking couple Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groβ, known simply as Nana & Simon, do so beautifully in their new feature, Chemi Bedinieri Ojakhi (My Happy Family), one must first be aware of what so many films do poorly. I call this aesthetic poverty the “paint-by-numbers” approach to visual storytelling – an attitude towards filmmaking that manages to squash all the subtleties native to cinematographic technology. By subtlety I mean cinema’s excess of uncertainty – its unclear or elusive images and transitions, those with multiple and maybe contradictory tensions, those that set traps for our sleuthing brains, those that create emotional or intellectual discomfort, those that disrupt and reroute our assumptions.
The purely economical attitude asserts instead a narrative logic that can be followed by all, one that conforms to genre expectations and forges a consensus of spectator experience. This cinema of well-lit, signposted pathways clarifies causality at all turns, like a bright flashbulb illuminating and thus eliminating all the chiaroscuro of a Rembrandt setting. In these films of high production value and global or transnational investment, it is too dangerous to leave anyone behind or cause viewers to stumble over a lingering question mark. Characters must be legible at all times, and their emotions are thus flattened, cheapened – instrumentalised in the service of a clever, if obvious, ending we’re always barreling towards. Such films fail to engage the intelligence of their spectators, who are, after all, humans, with a nuanced ability to comprehend the shades of grey – also interculturally – in their fellow humans onscreen. In some years films of this type abound in the Berlinale Competition and Special sections. Because they avoid aesthetic risks, distrust their characters, and pander to their audiences, these films are easily forgotten. They are the kind of films that “fall from the eyes,” as French critic Serge Daney once put it.1
Chemi Bedinieri Ojakhi, a German-Georgian-French coproduction, was tucked away in the more aesthetically rigorous and artist-friendly Forum section after a world premiere at Sundance. It is the kind of well-crafted film that the Competition could use, the kind of German-European Zusammenarbeit one might think the programmers would foreground after Toni Erdmann rejuvenated the international reception of German cinema at A-list rival Cannes in 2016. But more than that, it is a film that stays in the eyes and ears because it believes in its own method, because it trusts its characters and spectators.
What a pleasure, then, to open on a Tbilisi street that doesn’t immediately announce its location and purpose. To see a middle-aged woman (played by Ia Shugliashvili) emerge in the frame without knowing for certain that she is the film’s protagonist. Or to explore the blue-walled interior of an apartment that this seemingly single woman is interested in renting. To have one’s hypothesis overturned in the next scene, when the same quiet, autonomous woman is engulfed in the cacophonous and claustrophobic chaos of cramped, multi-generational family life. Her name – Manana – is first spoken by her elderly mother, who is chiding her, like a child, for eating cake before dinner.
Nana, the film’s Georgian screenwriter, co-director and co-producer, does not rush to establish Manana’s personal and cultural predicament as a married woman who dares to strike out on her own in a Georgian society circumscribed by patriarchal structures of family loyalty. Rather, this context slowly forms the contours of Manana’s personal, family, and professional spheres, and the spectator is privy to both versions of her home life – her duality as a daughter/wife/mother and a self-determining, single school teacher. Moments of audiovisual respite for Nana are also moments of calm for the spectator. Here, Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s handheld camera follows only one character, rather than a multitude. Birds chirp. Wind blows through the trees outside Manana’s apartment. When alone, her actions, devoid of dialogue, attest to a woman at peace, comfortable in her solitude. Inner life, that quality of the new independence that her family cannot fathom, becomes visceral through contrast; Nana and her German co-director and co-producer Simon must never stoop to more overt proclamation.
By aligning the spectator’s story information with Manana’s experiences and motivations, they show, rather than tell, the differing lifestyles that the two apartments enable. And they manage this without belittling any of the ensemble characters – Manana’s husband Soso (Merab Ninidze), her parents, her daughter, son, son-in-law, and brother – all forces that would prefer to keep Manana in her place. Extending this respect for their characters even to smaller roles such as the raucous assortment of former classmates at Manana’s school reunion, the filmmakers create a rich, naturalistic story world reminiscent of the 1990s’ films of Mike Leigh. And the depth of Ia Shugliashvili’s work on the character of Manana is stunning. Every gesture, every loose strand of hair, every interaction with another character releases some finer aspect of Manana’s personality.
As Manana begins to meet her family members individually, outside the central social structure of the family apartment, their relationships grow and change. Nana and Simon give their actors time to develop the characters’ emotions, and they take these emotions and the smallest of human contradictions seriously. When Soso visits Manana’s apartment at the end of the film, there is such tenderness, such love, such potential in that understated and unresolved event between married people, who might as well be meeting each other and really seeing each other for the first time. What a joy to see humanity portrayed so faithfully. And through such careful artistry.
We sat down for a conversation about the film on 13th February, 2017 at the 67th Berlinale.
Nana, you were studying screenwriting at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen (now Filmuniversität Babelsberg) while Simon was studying directing at the film academy in Munich. How did you start working together?
Simon: I had moved back to Berlin from Munich. At the time I was writing my debut feature Fata Morgana (2007). I met a friend who was German but also married to a Georgian. And he said, “Oh, I know a girl who’s studying writing and drama, and who might be interesting for you.”
Nana: In the beginning, we started talking about films, ourselves, our work. Simon was already writing Fata Morgana with Stefan Stabenow, now our editor, and I joined them. Simon directed the film by himself, while I was just a co-writer. We directed our second film, Grzeli nateli dgeebi (In Bloom, 2013) together. My Happy Family is our third film.
As a Georgian and German filmmaking pair based in Berlin back then, what made you decide to set your last two films in Georgia rather than Germany?
N: Once we won a green card in a lottery. We were traveling through the US and wondering where we could work and what kind of stories we could tell. It was natural for us to go to Georgia, which was very familiar to me and became familiar to Simon. For me it is very important to tell Georgian stories. We could also write . . .
S: . . . German stories, which maybe we will one day. When I first went to Georgia, the place was amazing. It’s a very interesting time for Georgia because so much is changing. There are so many stories that need to be told. And this is very energising for an artist. This is what we feel right now in Tbilisi. It’s just the right time.
How did your collaborative process evolve?
N: Working together as directors requires us to trust each other. Film directing is a really egocentric profession. Mostly it’s about what you want. But when you’re two people making films together, you have to concentrate more on the subject and on cinema itself. You need to be in good dialogue with each other, put aside your ego, and pay attention to what the other person thinks. You have to prove yourself. Maybe you’re totally sure of your opinion. When you’re in dialogue with someone, it clarifies whether or not you’re right. You have to be open.
S: Sometimes you fight, but you also fight if you direct alone. You just fight with yourself. The difference is that we talk to each other. And while this can be exhausting, you have a response right away. And the response is not only happening in your own head.
N: You also need time for this kind of dialogue. We’re a couple. We live together, so we have time in pre-production. And in the production itself, we have our working method.
Is there a specific division of labor in the way you direct together? Especially in a film with so many bodies, so much commotion on set?
S: We don’t have any strict rules. The most important thing is that we have the same vision. In My Happy Family and In Bloom most of the scenes were shot in very long takes. Almost one long take per scene. That means that a take is sometimes 3-4 minutes, and afterwards Nana and I have a lot to discuss. Because of the way we shoot, we have the time to do that. We talk about the scene and what we want to change. We watch the take together in front of the monitor. But the goal we’re trying to reach is already very clear.
How did you arrive at this goal in My Happy Family?
S: We spent one year casting for this film. We traveled to all the theatres throughout Georgia. In each city we did the casting together. And we used these casting sessions as a way to try out the scenes. Then we’d discuss them, and Nana might rewrite a scene. So it’s a long initial process. Then we have a rehearsal period before we get to set, but in this case, we also had three weeks just in the family’s apartment, which was ready with all the furniture and props. And that was a time when we could really figure out what we wanted. Because of all that preparation we could almost act like one person once it was time to shoot.
Nana, as the screenwriter, you chose a woman protagonist, which seems like a very fraught proposition in such a male-dominated society. What motivated you to focus specifically on a middle-aged woman grappling with her independence?
N: Maybe it has something to do with my family. During my childhood I saw how women in my family spent their lives giving to others. They did what society dictated. The most important thing for my mother was her family, her children, her husband – no matter what. As we got older, my sister and I asked her, “Why are you doing this? Now it’s time for you to do something for yourself.” And then she started doing her own thing, taking piano lessons and some other banal things. It’s not just my mother who was like that, but a lot of women. They have many abilities and a lot of talent, but aren’t able to realise them. This also affects young women in my generation. All this inspired me to tell a story about an ordinary woman who spends her life serving others while remaining free and independent inside. Nothing in her has died. It’s all still alive – this small light shining from within.
One of the film’s most striking qualities is the dichotomy you create between Manana’s two domestic options – her family life and a life on her own. This is something you extend to the spectator’s audiovisual experience of the two locations as well.
N: When Manana’s alone, it’s not that she starts a completely new life. Rather, what’s new for her is opening the window and sitting, listening to music and just being herself. This isn’t just about Georgian families. Simon’s mother got divorced when he was a small child and never remarried. She raised two children. It’s about women all over the world and the burden they carry on their shoulders. For us, women seem to carry the greater burden in the family. And it’s interesting to show onscreen how that feels. It may be banal, but we’re interested in showing those everyday things – how it feels for our protagonist. When we talk about women’s lives, it’s just talk. But if we see how it feels, it becomes more obvious.
S: In a Georgian family, your feeling as a person is totally different. Because you don’t ask your own questions. If a question is raised about politics or some family member, everybody says their opinion right away. If you’re alone and a question comes up, you think. You go inside yourself and come to an answer in a more mature way because the answer doesn’t immediately come from someone else. It has to grow and take root within you. If you have a room of your own, you have sounds around you and a different perception of the world. And this is something we tried to make clear to the audience: this feeling that Manana has when she’s alone for the first time. Nobody’s answering her questions. She just listens to the sounds outside her apartment. Or she just thinks or cooks for herself. Or she starts to play music again. And this process leads her to take action in her life.
The mise-en-scène, along with Tudor Panduru’s mobile cinematography, emphasises all the narrative action converging in the family’s crowded apartment. How did you work with him and the actors in such a tight space?
S: When we were looking for the family apartment, we tried to find places that had a life of their own. The apartment we chose was occupied by three generations of one family. You could feel this in the atmosphere. The apartment also became a character.
Maybe an art director could recreate this in a studio, but it wouldn’t create the same feeling in the actors. All the things in the apartment come from the past 20 years of real life. This was important for the actors.
N: The first time we entered the apartment, we showed our actors where they slept. And they started to believe that this apartment was their home. We chose to use long takes not because we wanted to show off what the camera could do, but because of the actors and the choreography. We didn’t want to break the action.
S: It’s very important for it to feel organic. It’s important for the camera not to come first. In a classical film shoot, you have a scene breakdown with 20 or 25 shots and a daily plan. We don’t work like that. We come to the set in the morning and start rehearsing the scene. And maybe we don’t even shoot the first take until we’re halfway through the day. It’s all about the actors moving in the space. Of course we have the script, which is detailed and rich, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make changes. We’re open to what happens in the process of building up the mise-en-scène. We might change things once the camera is there.
Your method foregrounds the contributions of actors to the film’s greater sense of realism. Ia Shugliashvili brings so many layers to the figure of Manana. What was your process of working with her to build the central character?
N: Ia Shugliashvili is a theatre actress, and this was her first film role. Her mother was a famous singer, and Ia also sings. We met her at the beginning of our casting process and again and again throughout an entire year. We didn’t give her a script in the beginning, maybe only a few weeks before shooting. But through the casting process she somehow understood what kind of person Manana was. It was intuition, not so much an intellectual awareness. She’d come to casting sessions dressed like a teacher. It helped to see her dressed as Manana. You almost never see someone and know right away that you want this person in your film. It’s always a process to connect the character in the script to a real person. It’s amazing because Ia has her own life, her own very different character. This process of getting the actor closer and closer to the character is important to us.
S: We had Ia as Manana playing and improvising with different Sosos. This process also enriched the characters. Even if one Soso wasn’t right, he might say something interesting, which somehow drew out a reaction from Manana and opened up a new world. This process also helped to differentiate between moments when the character was Manana and moments when she wasn’t. When we started shooting, Ia told us that her husband had said, “Now you’re like Manana at home.”
N: She wanted to wear casual clothes like jeans and a T-shirt to rehearsal, but her husband said, “No, no, that’s not Manana.”
Did you find yourself, Nana, adjusting the screenplay to accommodate these discoveries of character?
N: Small details. In a screenplay maybe you think you have a perfect character, but this perfect character doesn’t really exist. When you find the right actor, that person brings so many new ideas, so much new energy that may be impossible to write. You have to see what kind of real person you have in front of you. What is her experience and background? How does she feel, how does she laugh, how does she sing? What’s her body language? This is what you have to use. You can’t be fixated on the sentences you’ve written. It’s important to give actors this freedom because they give a lot if you do.
The pairing of Ia Shugliashvili and Merab Ninidze, who played Soso, was wonderful. In the story you have several characters who are learning how to deal with Manana’s choice to live alone – something that upsets the status quo in all of their lives. But the final scene between Manana and Soso illustrates your genuine tenderness and love for your characters – something that seems to be missing in so many contemporary films.
N: But also the characters love each other so much. It’s not so interesting to tell a story about how bad people are. This world, this life is not black and white. In Georgian families people argue with each other very passionately, but they also love each other. In our films we don’t have one good character and one bad character. It’s not about whether we have a solution or a happy end. We’re more interested in what happens when characters want to do something good for each other but fail. This is the most important thing: wanting to do something but not being able to. Because of the way you think. Because of your background. Because of your mother. Because of your daughter. Because of your husband. Because you live together.
S: In a lot of films, there are emotions, yes, but the question is how deep they go. Deep emotions in cinema can only come through characters. And action is secondary to this. It’s important as a writer and director that you really feel and understand the character. You can’t choose to like one more than the others. We love all the characters, whether they’re annoying or not. In real life you have friends and then other people who cause you problems. Most of the time, people don’t understand each other, and that’s why there are so many problems in the world. Communication fails. But actually enemies are capable of understanding each other. Because all actions of a human being are understandable even if these actions are cruel.
Manana and Soso have lived together for 30 years, and only after all this time do they finally experience a luxury of adulthood: independence from one’s mother and father. Talking to one’s wife or husband without being disturbed. They experience this very late in life. But at the end of the film it begins to bring a totally new quality to their relationship.
Despite all the challenging sides of Georgian patriarchy, which aspects of Georgian family life do you like?
S: When it really counts, you can rely on your family. And family is something you can’t replace and can’t buy. It’s something unique, a relationship that grows from birth until death. Family gives Georgian society such warmth. Capitalism is totally against this. I grew up in West Berlin, but friends from East Berlin had a stronger social network with their neighbours.
N: In Europe, people are more focused on individualism. When they’re 18, they move out. From a young age you can be independent and lead your own life. As a Georgian, I really enjoy being with my family. It’s never too much for me, and it also helps. This was the case in the 1990s, during very hard times. There was almost no electricity, no gas, not much food. If one person in a Georgian family had a job – and it’s the same today – other family members could get food or money for education. It’s also important for old people. In Georgia it’s impossible to put old people in nursing homes. It feels unnatural to me that old people should be alone when they can no longer live on their own or earn money. In Europe old people don’t want to live with their families because they don’t want to be a burden.
Positioned as you are between cultures but also making films between different funding systems and audiences, do you ever feel the pressure to explain cultural specificity within your films?
N: Georgia is a small country that’s not so known. But we didn’t try to explain things. Not even in the storytelling. Because if you start explaining things, people won’t understand anything. Explanation kills intuition and the natural flow of the characters. We consider film a piece of life. You frame a picture.
S: And you can’t squeeze everything into the frame.
N: It’s just a piece, just a view. You have to trust your story and your character and not explain whether it’s today or in the past, whether they’re Muslims or Christians, what their traditions are. These kinds of questions don’t matter. No! Just see how Manana buys herbs at the market. Or see how they sit and eat and talk. Everything is clear. You are able, as a person from another culture, to understand and feel everything. That’s our goal: not to explain, but just to show.
Yet this is exactly what so many films made in Germany in particular fail to do. So much is overly clarified. In the end there’s not a single, authentic emotional moment. Emotions are simulated almost to an economic end: to maintain the narrative progression. Was it difficult for you to carve out a space for your filmmaking within this more commercial context?
S: In my film school and also with my first film, I experienced how it feels to have too much pressure from the outside. Not so long ago there were great auteur films in Germany – in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with the generation of Fassbinder, Wenders, and Herzog. Why was it possible at that time, and why is it not today? Is it because there’s no talent? I don’t think so. There’s a problem here in the structure, and it’s not just in Germany, but also in the US. The structure has become too commercialised: what filmmaking is, how it’s learned, how it’s financed.
It’s about trust. If producers and television stations decide to finance a film, they should ask, “What kind of film is this? Who’s making it? Do we want this person to tell his or her story?” If yes, let them do it. Let them do it the way Fassbinder made his films. He could do what he wanted. Today the people who give the money also want to give their opinions, want to read the script, want to see the editing. They make lists of changes they want in the editing. And in the end we get films that look perfectly produced, with a lot of money – wow. But do they really go deeply into emotions? Do they really change the lives of the audience? Will you think about them 5 years from now?
N: There is one big mistake in the thinking of producers and some directors: that they should know everything. As a director or writer it’s impossible to know everything. A painter who is painting a portrait also follows some kind of intuition and doesn’t have to explain every step. Cinema is not a science. It’s art, visual art with sound and other elements. But the current funding system forces you to explain your every step. It’s a mistake. It’s impossible to know everything. There are so many moments in life when you’re doing something, and you can’t explain why. So why, in cinema, would you want to explain every step of your character? Now Manana’s moving out. Now she’s doing this or that. That’s not real life. We do things that we ourselves can’t understand. Maybe after 5 or 10 years but not in that very moment. This is a feeling we want to preserve in My Happy Family. If you start to understand everything, it’s not cinema.
- Serge Daney, “Falling out of Love,” Sight and Sound 2.3, July 1992, p. 14. ↩