Georgian filmmaker George Ovashvili continues his exploration of the civil war and post-Soviet conflicts in his native homeland with “Khibula,” which screens in competition in Karlovy Vary. The drama focuses on Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first democratically elected president, as he struggles to regain power following his ouster in a military coup in 1991. Ovashvili has examined aspects of the Georgian Civil War in his previous films, “The Other Bank” and “Corn Island.” The director spoke with Variety about his interest in the still largely opaque period in Georgia’s recent history.
What inspired you to tell the story of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his presidency?
The story of Zviad Gamsakhurdia is distinguished with high sensitivity in every Georgian and I am not the exception. I think it is a very unusual story of a very special person. It was interesting for me in different angles, but my main intention was to tell the story of a president who is not president any more. It is a psychological study of an internal world of a person who once had great power, but now has lost everything — his position, authority, influence. The way Zviad Gamsakhurdia went through this situation was absolutely unique. Material loss and physical pain were nothing in comparison with the spiritual pain he was suffering on his way to the end. This point was the most inspiring for me.
Were you more interested in this personal story of a once powerful leader dealing with defeat and simply trying to survive or rather the historical and political circumstances of the putsch and his struggle to regain power?
The personal story definitely. I begin with his attempt to survive and reclaim the throne, as he is convinced he will find enough loyal supporters in the mountains who will help him. Soon he realizes this is an illusion. His personal story develops with more depth from that moment and we can argue whether he is trying to survive or vice versa.
For some people in Georgia, Gamsakhurdia is a heroic leader who led the country to independence, but for others he was an authoritarian figure who exhibited dictatorial behaviour. How do you view Gamsakhurdia in your film?
I absolutely do not touch this theme in the film. It was not essential for what I wanted to express. In the episode where the film starts, his presidency is over, not legally, but in fact and I do not care if he was a hero or an authoritarian during his governance. In any case, he has lost all his supporters and it affects his psychological state of being a lot.
How is Gamsakhurdia regarded in Georgia today and how would you describe his legacy in your country?
In spite of the fact that 25 years have passed, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, with his political and personal life, is still very current in Georgia. I certainly can’t say that there is a common opinion about him in the society. I think the contradictory judgments will exist until we manage to find the answers to the questions from that mysterious period of our history and until we realize the real reasons of that national tragedy.
The events in the film took place 25 years ago, but the story continues today in Georgia and parallels can also be seen in Ukraine. What can your film and the events that led to the civil war and the death of Gamsakhurdia teach people today?
Zviad Gamsakhurdia was trying to return to power, but in the end he gave up. It was his choice of course, but the whole nation, including the political forces and the ordinary citizens, helped him a lot to make this choice. Indifference and irresponsibility of the society led him to pick the way to his personal end and led the country to the mass disorder that could not be put in order for decades. I hope people will manage to examine the problem impartially, identify their own mistakes and study how not to act in the future.
How significant was the role of Russia in the ouster of President Gamsakhurdia?
Unfortunately, Russia has always played a negative role in the history of Georgia. Zviad Gamsakhurdia gained the independence of Georgia and took it out of the Soviet Union. It’s obvious he could not be Russia’s beloved person. Eduard Shevardnadze, the successful Soviet politician and the Soviet Union’s former minister of foreign affairs later became the leader of the military council that overthrow Gamsakhurdia’s government and after Gamsakhurdia’s death he was elected as the second president of Georgia. I guess it explains everything.
Your two previous feature films, “The Other Bank” and “Corn Island,” also deal with aspects of the Georgian Civil War. What impact have the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had on you and your work as a filmmaker?
A direct and throbbing impact, since I have dedicated all three of my long films to it. Many people think Georgians have a morbid attraction to this theme, but I think it is natural. Those diverse and interesting, unfortunately mostly cruel aspects of the 90s are impossible to be fully explored. It is a time from our living history that we are very much concerned about.
Are you already planning your next film project, and if so, what will it be about?
I am going to make one more film project about the Georgian-Abkhazian war. Georgian writer Guram Odisharia, who was forced to leave Abkhazia, his homeland, during hostilities, has described this hellish way of escape in his novel “The Pass of the Persecuted.” The coastal motor road was closed due to the ongoing civil war and to reach a safe zone people had to walk over 200 kilometers, crossing the Caucasian Mountains — and the most challenging mountain pass situated at a height of 3,000 meters above sea level. Hundreds of people died. The script is based on that novel, which is based on real events.