Georgia — the nation in the South Caucasus — has been a rising star in world cinema in the past few years, and at the Locarno Film Festival it is the focus of the Open Doors co-production forum, along with neighboring states Armenia and Azerbaijan. Variety speaks to Martina Malacrida, head of Open Doors, about the strength of moviemaking in the region.

“In the last 10-15 years, we can see the filmography (in the South Caucasus) reborn and renewing,” Malacrida says. “The strength of the selected projects lies exactly in this point: in the will to be able to face and work on ‘important’ themes like memory and the identity of their own countries.

“The young generation has started believing again in the possibility to live and express themselves through culture and cinema.”

Although on the face of it, these countries are quite distinct, there are common themes to be found in the 12 Open Doors projects.

“We noticed themes relating to the post-Soviet conflicts in the region, and the relationship between past and present through the folkloristic traditions,” Malacrida says.

“Amongst Armenian filmmakers the genocide is a leading theme (looking towards the anniversary in 2015).

“In all countries we see a particular attention is given to women and their (changing) role in society. Other important themes are the precariousness of society, issues related to identity, sexuality (and homosexuality as well), and youth,” she says.

Of the three countries, Georgia leads the way in its interaction with the international filmmaking community.

“Georgia, for sure, has an important role in the international panorama right now — the selection of two films at the Berlinale this year is a clear sign in this sense,” Malacrida says.

“This said, Armenia’s cinema is also renewing itself with its new generation of filmmakers. Azerbaijan can be noticed less on the international scene, although the selection of ‘Chameleon’ by Elvin Adigozal and Ru Hasanov in the Cineasti del Presente is a very good sign,” she says.

Apart from financing, there are other benefits for filmmakers in co-producing with established producers from other countries.

“Co-producing with other countries is the sine qua non condition in order to be able to access international distribution, which, as we know, remains a difficult task,” Malacrida says.

The Open Doors projects include a number of Georgian filmmakers who have already made waves on the fest circuit. These are led by George Ovashvili, whose 2009 pic “The Other Bank” played in Berlin. Ovashvili will present “Khibula,” about the leader of a former Soviet state who flees to the mountains when a rebel army invades his capital city. He soon discovers that those he thought were loyal followers are all too willing to desert or betray him. Ovashvili cites Julius Caesar, King Lear and the passion of Christ as points of reference.

“’Khibula’ will tell a visual story of sacrifice, betrayal, power and decline. Although the story is based on the life (and death) of Zviad Gamsakhurdia — the first president of Georgia — there are human archetypes buried in the story,” he says.

Another Georgian filmmakers who has made her mark is Rusudan Pirveli, whose first fiction feature, “Susa,” was selected for Berlin and Rotterdam. She presents “Sleeping Lessons,” which follows a 19-year-old guy who, after robbing a woman, is persuaded to meet her again, from which springs an unexpected love affair.

Pirveli says, “The story is full of strong emotions, unexpected plot twists and strong characters with distinctive features.”

She adds that casting will be crucial. “The success of this film lies in the natural charisma and features of the leading actors.”

The other Georgian projects are both docus: Nino Gogua’s “Madona,” about the only female public bus driver in Georgia, and Alexander Kvatashidze’s “See You in Chechnya,” about war photographers.

Armenia projects include Levon Minasian’s comedy “The Second Journey,” which follows a father and son who discover a bundle of undelivered love letters written by their wife/mother, written to a mysterious Frenchman. The discovery forces both to rethink their lives.

Another Armenian project is Narine Mkrtchyan and Arsen Azatyan’s psychological drama “The Valley,” about a German officer who witnesses the massacre of Armenians by Turkish forces during WWI.

Three of the projects from Armenia are by younger femme helmers, two of whom are based outside the country: U.S.-based Oksana Mirzoyan’s “Abysm” is about the effect of a young soldier’s death on his mother and twin sister; while France-based Nora Martirosyan’s “Territoria” is about a young boy, a teenage girl and a stranger whose paths cross in a mountainous no-man’s land; and Nika Shek’s “Long Gardens” is a docu with two strands: one about two villages on either side of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, and the other about attempts by filmmakers to bridge the divide between the two countries.

Azerbaijan’s Arzu Gulijeva pitches “Naked in Baku,” a docu about the love life of a male nude model in a Muslim society. “The central theme is freedom and the way it relates to mentality and sexuality,” Gulijeva says.

Another Azerbaijan project, Asif Rustamov’s “Pipeline,” is about a poor shepherd who is caught up in a conflict between a businessman and some gangsters.

Recent editions of Open Doors have delivered a number of successes, including Li Hongqi’s “Winter Vacation” (Han Jia), which participated in Open Doors in 2009, and won Locarno’s Pardo d’Oro in 2010, and “Jean Gentil” by Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman, which participated in Open Doors in 2008, and received the jury’s special mention in the Horizons section of the 67th Venice Film Festival.

Another success was “Harmony Lessons” by Emir Baigazin (Open Doors 2010), which was selected for the competition of the Berlin Film Festival this year.

“Char the No-Man’s Land” by Sourav Sarangi, which participated in Open Doors 2011, was selected at the Busan Film Festival in 2012 in the docu competition, and in the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival this year.

Proving a link between the Open Doors co-production forum, which runs Aug. 10-13, and the rest of Locarno, 22 films from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan will screen during the festival, including Zaza Rusadze’s “Chemi sabnis naketsi” (A Fold in My Blanket) from Georgia (pictured).