"The Way Home" (1981) is set in southern Georgia with striking landscape cinematography. Credit: BAMPFA

The acclaimed cinema of Georgia — the country, not the state — is rich and eclectic, and the largest collection of it in the Western Hemisphere is right here at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.  This fall, BAMPFA is opening its vault, for the first time in eight years, for a Georgian film program that coincides with a program of Georgian music at Cal Performances.

“Georgian cinema is rich in tradition, song, history, love of the arts, and literature,” said  Susan Oxtoby, senior film curator at BAMPFA.  “Filmmakers have often focused on the country’s remarkable and varied landscape and on the centrality of the family in Georgian culture.” 

Georgia’s location, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, as a gateway between Eastern Europe and Central Asia has yielded centuries of rich cultural production in art, music, and literature — and in the 20th century, it became home to one of the region’s most vibrant national film industries, producing decades of homegrown masterworks from the silent era through the post-Soviet period. But, except a brief golden age for global film distribution in the 1960s, almost none of these films were available to audiences in the United States, until an internationally touring retrospective in the mid-2010s brought a trove of undiscovered masterpieces to North American theaters for the first time. And that tour began right here in Berkeley.

These films are among the most treasured holdings of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which originated the 2014–15 retrospective in partnership with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And this season, BAMPFA will reprise portions of that acclaimed program with Georgian Cinema: Highlights from the BAMPFA Collection, a new series that opens this Saturday and will run through Sunday, Nov. 27. 

YouTube video

The series will unspool in conjunction with a visit to Berkeley by the choral musicians of Ensemble Basiani, who will present a program of traditional Georgian music at Cal Performances on Thursday, Nov. 3; both presentations honor the current celebration of 30 years of diplomatic relations between Georgia and the United States, and are programmed in partnership with the Consulate General of Georgia in San Francisco.

The North American rediscovery of Georgian cinema began in 2011, when BAMPFA’s Oxtoby invited the Georgian film archivist Nino Dzandzava to Berkeley to study the dozens of 35mm prints that comprise BAMPFA’s Georgian film holdings — many of which had not been seen by the public in decades. 

Over the next three years, Oxtoby visited archives in Tbilisi, Moscow, Berlin, Toulouse and Amsterdam and worked with many international partners to produce a new body of scholarship on the understudied history of Georgian filmmaking, using the rare film prints housed in BAMPFA’s collection as the springboard for her research, which was supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. This work culminated in an expansive film series that traveled from Berkeley to cinematheques in multiple North American cities, sparking a renewed interest in Georgian cinema among scholars and cinephiles that continues to this day.

Pirosmani a biopic of one of Georgia’s greatest painters,  primitive artist Nikoloz Pirosmanishvili, won a Grand Prize at the Chicago Film Festival. Credit: BAMPFA

Broadly speaking, the history of Georgian film can be grouped into three especially fecund historical periods: the silent era, when the first generation of Georgian filmmakers pioneered new formal innovations that contributed to a burst of creativity in early Soviet cinema; the midcentury period of narrative filmmaking, when Georgian films rose to prominence in global art cinema; and the Georgian New Wave that emerged in the post-Soviet era, when a younger generation of filmmakers found themselves liberated from state censorship and able to push their storytelling traditions in new and exciting directions. 

The high point of international regard for Georgian cinema came during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, when it occupied a position for Western audiences roughly analogous to Iranian cinema today: celebrated by film critics, festival programmers, and a fervent community of European and American movie lovers, all the more so for its creative vibrancy in the face of an oppressive political regime. Among the early fans of Georgian cinema during this period were the curatorial team at the Pacific Film Archive, which accumulated one of the largest collections of Georgian films outside Georgia itself.

Iliko, Ilarion, Grandmother, and Me (1963), is a coming-of-age story about an orphan. Credit: BAMPFA

Five of the seven films playing in the new BAMPFA series are drawn from this golden age of Georgian moviemaking, including some films that were included in the 2014-15 retrospective. Among the highlights this season are:

  •  Pastorale (1975), a lyrical and eccentric portrait of rural Georgian life;
  •  Iliko, Ilarion, Grandmother, and Me (1963), the heartfelt story of an orphan and his grandmother; 
  • Molba (aka Vedreba or The Plea, 1967), a complex tale of revenge based on writings by a famous Georgian poet; 
  • The Way Home (1981), a stylized allegory of Georgian history and myth; and 
  • Pirosmani, a biopic of one of Georgia’s greatest painters, which premiered at BAMPFA in 1974, and is paired with Sergei Paradjanov’s ode to the painter, Arabesque on a Pirosmani Theme.

These classic films are complemented by multiple acclaimed examples of New Wave Georgian filmmaking from the 21st century: 

  • Susa (2010), a stirring neorealist portrait of a young boy living on the margins; 
  • Will There Be a Theatre Up There?! (2011), a multigenerational epic starring the celebrated Georgian actor, the late Kahki Kavsadze; 
  • and the wonderfully deadpan Felicità, which critiques a common societal occurrence of Georgian women working abroad to support their families back home. 
Kahki Kavsadze in Will There Be a Theatre Up There?! (2011). Credit: BAMPFA