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Georgian Filmmaker Mariam Khatchvani on Capturing a Vanishing Culture in ‘Dede’

“Dede” is Georgian filmmaker Mariam Khatchvani’s testimonial to a people, a way of life and a region that is rapidly changing, and a culture that is in some ways disappearing. Khatchvani is a native of Ushguli, a community and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Svaneti, a region in northwestern Georgia, high in the Greater Caucasus mountains. She spoke with Variety about her feature film debut, which captures the old world traditions of the Svan people and their endangered language as well as the harsh climate and natural beauty that surrounds them. “Dede,” which screened in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition, centers on a young woman who challenges centuries of tradition when she falls in love with the “wrong” man.

What inspired you to tell this story?
I was a little girl when my grandma would tell me the story of how her mother got married and how she chased after her with bare feet; for me it was hard to perceive and I cried together with my grandma. When I grew older I got interested in Svan traditions. I protested the traditions that prohibited women from having rights to make their own choices, though it was not only women – men very often also didn’t have freedoms. I wanted to make a film about freedom. How the deprivation of rights to make one’s own choices destroys one’s life.

What were some of the challenges you faced making this film?
There were many difficulties while doing the project. Two weeks after we started shooting, my husband and some young actors were arrested because of a little incident with the police. This happened because of one unprofessional policeman’s pointless actions. The young actors were sentenced to four to seven years in prison. These young people were my family members who were about to lose their future. It was impossible to change the actor playing David [one of the main characters] because we had already shot many interesting scenes with him. I had to change the script and take out characters.

When the shooting of the winter scenes in Svaneti was done and we were about to come back to the city of Tbilisi, the road was closed due to heavy snow. There was no electricity and the majority of the crew got sick.

Many of the people that appear in the film had no acting experience. What difficulties or benefits did this result in for the production?
We have only one professional actor in the film, George Babluani; the rest are non-professional locals, as I wanted to show the real life of my land with real people. Svan is used in the film, which is one of the languages in Georgia. There are approximately 10,000 people who speak this language, but unfortunately this language is being forgotten. Young people don’t learn Svan anymore and in 50 years it probably will no longer be spoken. With my film, I want to leave something about the Svan language and the people, with their interesting and harsh traditions and culture, and the harsh climatic conditions.

Ten days ago an 8th century tower collapsed in Ushguli and I cried. How can we allow the destruction of ancient heritage because no one takes care of its restoration?

I would say I can work with non-professionals. I found the right cues and made them act quite easily. We didn’t have rehearsals; we would just shoot straight away. But there were cases when non-professional actors didn’t want to participate in the movie and I had to take out all of those scenes in which they had appeared.

The story is set in 1992 and deals with a disruption in culture and tradition. How strong are these cultural traditions in those remote regions today?
Yes 1992 was one of the hardest periods in Georgia, when the country lost its power. There was total anarchy in Svaneti. My grandma’s story was my inspiration for the film, which I wanted to tell. Of course some traditions have changed. Our region has become a tourist attraction. But there are still families that are not based on love. This isn’t only in Svaneti. The situation is harder for our female Muslim citizens.

Did the fact that you are a native of this region make it easier or more difficult to tell this story?
I was born and raised in Ushguli and of course it is easier to show the life happening around you. But the most important thing is to carry your message to the audience correctly. To show the advantages and disadvantages. I showed harsh traditions and climatic conditions in my film, but at the same time I showed paradise, where these people live. Ushguli is paradise for me.

What will your next project be about?
I am working on two projects. One of them is the story of what happened with the actors while we were shooting. It is about the situation, how one person’s thoughtless action can change people’s future and it doesn’t matter who this person is, a policeman or whoever.

The second project is again about Svaneti. Today Svaneti is a tourist area and lots of people claim land there, lots of them are coming back to the region. But they don’t give land to women. The film tells the story of two sisters who don’t have a brother. They are supposed to inherit land from their father but the clan does not allow it.

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