Many of you may still not know that Georgia is a country of an ancient culture with rich history and unique artefacts. It is located at the crossroads of Eastern and Western Civilizations, where the fusion of European and Asian lifestyles has been going on for millennia.
It is impossible to visit Georgia and not be fascinated by the traditional architecture , rock-cut complexes, frescoes based on biblical motifs, Georgian cuisine or hospitality, wine, dances and polyphonic music. However, Georgia is also known for other fields of art, especially literature and cinematography, whose unique works we would like to present to you here.
The first Georgian literary monument – “The Passion of Saint Shushanik” dates back to the 5th century. However, the poem “Knight in Panther’s Skin”, which was created in the 12th century, is indeed the crown of Georgian literature. It is recognized as a masterpiece of Georgian Renaissance and world literature. In this work, the poet Shota Rustaveli (Tbilisi’s main boulevard is named after him) sings about love, friendship, loyalty, freedom – all the categories that make human life so rich. In general, the below mentioned works are the best descriptions of Georgian originality and Georgian unique character.
The Knight in the Panther’s Skin
Wandering through Georgia, you’ll find that everything seems to be named for Shota Rustaveli, from Georgia’s highest artistic award, to Tbilisi’s central avenue. “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” is the explanation. Georgia’s definitive epic poem, this 12th century work marks the epitome of Georgia’s medieval golden age, and was traditionally part of any bride’s dowry. The poem is an allegory to the rule of Queen Tamar (perhaps Georgia’s greatest ruler, and still a popular namesake), who Rustaveli may have served as treasurer. In this chivalric work, the knight Avtandil is dispatched to find Tariel, a mysterious knight wearing a panther’s skin. After meeting, and swearing mutual brotherhood and friendship, the knights then set out to find Tariel’s love, an exiled princess. Check GoodReads for where to buy a copy or check if your local library has it. Also available to download on Apple Books.
Host and Guest
This 1893 epic poem by Luka Razikashvili, better known as “Vazha-Pshavela,” follows Joqola, a Muslim host and his Christian guest, Zviadauri, who meet while hunting deer. Insulting his fellow villagers by taking in a Christian as his guest, Joqola refuses to break the code of hospitality central to Georgian culture, setting off a conflict between himself and his community, including his wife. This poem was adapted as the 1967 art film “The Plea,” directed by Tengiz Abuladze, who also directed “Magdana’s Donkey” and “Repentance.” Read the full translation here.
Right Hand of the Grandmaster
Konstantine Gamsakhurdia’s magnum opus, this 1939 knightly novel was a bestseller. Set in the early 11th century, this colorful tale tells the story of King George I through the architect Constantine Arsukidze, who was commissioned in 1010 to build the Svetitskoveli Cathedral. This UNESCO-listed “Cathedral of the Living Pillar” still stands above Mtskheta, the former capital. The book’s style reflects Gamsakhurdia’s time in Germany, where he became friends with Thomas Mann, earned a doctorate in literature, and fell for German Expressionism and Nietzsche. A outspoken dissident, he survived deportation to the infamous Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, and managed to get his works past censors through a mix of powerful friends (such as Beria) and a focus on seemingly innocuous historical fiction. This story was adapted as a two-part film in 1969. Konstantine’s dissident son Zviad, an expert on Rustaveli, became Georgia’s first democratically elected president, following the country’s return to independence. Now very much out of print in English, you can download a PDF version from GoodReads to read on your e-Reader..
Granny, Iliko, Illarion and I
Nodar Dumbadze’s debut novel, this semi-autobiographical 1960 work is centered around Zuriko, an orphan raised by his grandmother and neighbors in a village that has sent off all of its men to fight in World War II. This humanistic bildungsroman follows Zuriko over the seasons, then years, as he pulls pranks, falls in love, and moves to Tbilisi to study. This is yet another story adopted by Tengiz Abuladze, who directed its film adaptation in 1962. Find where to buy or borrow this book on GoodReads.
This popular 1975 novel by Chabua Amirejibi, a dissident who somehow survived 15 years in the Gulag, follows its eponymous hero, a Georgian outlaw. Embarking on adventures reminiscent of Robin Hood, Tutashkhia keeps managing to escape the Czarist police, including the novel’s main narrator, a retired Hungarian-Russian count. Set in Georgia after its conquest by the Czar in the early 19th century, this novel combines the escapades of its iconic hero and his band of thieves, with philosophical debates akin to Dostoyevsky, as Tutashkhia tries to figure out the best ways to help others, in the face of a repressive political system. Throughout the tale, Tutashkhia is tailed by his doppelganger, his cousin Mushni Sarandia. A gendarme chief, Sarandia’s determination is reminiscent of Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. In 1977, this book was adapted for TV. Find where to buy or borrow this book on GoodReads.
Flight from the USSR
David Turashvili’s debut novel, “Flight From the USSR” was published in 1988, and later adapted as the stage play “Jeans Generation.” The plot centers around the 1983 hijacking of Aeroflot Flight 6833 by seven young people from elite families, including one of the original actors in the film “Repentance.” The flight crew managed to fight off the hijackers and return to Tbilisi. A Soviet counterterrorism squad then boarded the plane, killing eight people, including two passengers and three crew. At a time when even the thought of escape was seen as criminal, the trial that followed was followed closely by the populace, who debated whether the youths were mere terrorists, or if Soviet life justified such desperate measures. Ultimately, most of the surviving hijackers were executed. This novel explores their motives and dreams. This incident was also covered by the 2003 documentary “Bandits” and the 2017 film “Hostages.” Find where to buy or borrow this book on GoodReads.
If you want to get further to know Georgian values in more detail, you have to watch the masterpieces of Georgian cinema, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The year of birth of Georgian cinema is considered to be 1908, when Vasil Amashukeli started making films in Baku. It is noteworthy that in the history of Georgian cinema, many films were honored with various prizes at international film festivals. Georgian cinema is rich with world-class movie stars, as well as directors and screenwriters.
This 2013 drama is a bildungsroman following the friendship of two teenage girls shortly after Georgia regained independence in the early 90s, a time characterized by a complex civil war and vigilante justice. Despite their close friendship, the girls’ lives have already determined by their gender, families, different classes, and other events beyond their control. This subtle semi-autographical coming-of-age story by Nana Ekvtimishvili took the CICAE prize at the Berlinale, and was Georgia’s submission for the Academy Awards. This film is enhanced by the characteristic long takes of Oleg Mutu, the renowned Romanian cinematographer behind “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”. Watch the trailer here. Watching the whole movie will be complicated though as it’s not available on streaming services. You may be able to track down a DVD copy.
This moody 2005 black-and-white thriller follows Sebastien, a desperate Georgian immigrant in France. When a French client dies, Sebastien steals a mysterious envelope from the man’s home, and follows the instructions within, descending deeper into the underworld, and into an especially high-stakes game of Russian Roulette. This film feels like Tarantino trying his hand at film noir. The director, Gela Babluani (the son of renowned director Temur Babluani) aimed to combine the corruption and instability of the Georgia of his youth with the atmosphere of classic black-and-white Soviet cinema. The same director was brought in to remake the film for Hollywood in 2010, resulting in “13” (the translation of the word “Tzameti”), which included 50 Cent in its cast. While the original film took Sundance’s World Cinema Jury Prize, and did well at the Venice Film Festival, its American remake was universally panned. Watch the trailer here, again you’ll need to dust off the DVD Player to watch the full movie as it’s not on any streaming services.
A Trip to Karabakh
Based on Aka Morchiladze’s bestselling novel “Journey to Karabakh,” this 2005 road trip drama follows a group of lost youths in the early 90s who journey to Azerbaijan in search of drugs. Naturally, they end up bumbling their way into the Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenians and Azeris. A darkly humorous examination of ethnic conflict, this film stands out for its cinematography. “Karabakh” is also something of an introduction to the strife that split the Caucasus after the Soviet breakup. The full movie can be found on Youtube with English subtitles.
Shot in 1984, this classic was banned until 1987, when glasnost allowed the release of films like this allegorical critique of Stalin. Once set free, this film shot out of the gate, taking three prizes at Cannes, including the Grand Prize of the Jury, as well as “Best Actor” at the Chicago International Film Festival, and was the Soviet entry for the Academy Awards. Repentance revolves around an old woman who refuses to let the body of her newly deceased mayor lie in peace. At her trial, the mayor’s tyrannical reign becomes clear, referencing the acts of Stalin, Hitler, and Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of secret police (and fellow Georgian). The mayor’s relatives respond differently depending on their understanding of themes like guilty and Christianity.
Production was slowed when one of its original actors, Gega Kobakhidze, was arrested for taking part in the hijacking of Aeroflot Flight 6833, the inspiration for the novel “Flight from the USSR.” Although director Tengiz Abuladze, already famous for co-directing “Magdana’s Donkey,” was so nervous that authorities would destroy the film that he supposedly slept with the last remaining copy under his bed, its release brought record crowds. Abuladze won the Order of Lenin for this work, and accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev on his first official visit to New York City. You’ll find the full movie on Youtube.
This beloved 1977 comedy took top prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. Mimino (“Sparrow Hawk”), the protagonist, is a bush helicopter pilot in the Georgian mountains,, who dreams of flying airliners. Realizing his wish with the help of an Armenian truck driver, he goes on many misadventures, in Moscow and abroad (parts of the film were shot in West Berlin, but the crew had to return to East Berlin every night). Even after finding himself behind the controls of a supersonic Tupolev Tu-144, the sleek, noisy Soviet take on the Concorde, his sense of homesickness grows. Vakhtang Kikabidze, who plays Mimino, was already a popular singer, and sings the film’s hit title song. The full movie is on Youtube, with nearly 6m views.
Father of a Soldier
This 1964 black-and-white drama follows an elderly peasant who travels to a hospital during World War II to visit his wounded son. Finding that his son has returned to the front lines, and reluctant to return home empty-handed, the father enlists in the Red Army in an attempt to finally be reunited with his boy. This long journey takes him all the way to Berlin. Sergo Zakariadze won “Best Actor” at the Moscow International Film Festival for his role as the father, while the director, Revaz Chkheidze, won plaudits for the film as well. This film was recently re-released in color and you can watch it for free if you have Amazon Prime (or if not, you can rent for $1.99.)
Heralding a new wave in Soviet cinema, this 1956 black-and-white social drama follows a widow and her three children. The family’s desperate lives improve after they adopt and heal a sick donkey, until the original owner arrives. This film won Cannes’ best prize for short fiction, and was the debut for Revaz Chkheidze, who is better known for directing “Father of a Soldier,” and Tengiz Abuladze, who would go on to direct “Repentance.” You’ll find the full movie with subtitles on Youtube.
Recommended by Moonika, our staff member in Tallinn, this 2013 Estonian-Georgian co-production was a hit in both countries. Even today, it’s often the first thing that comes up when Georgians and Estonians meet, and a reminder of the surprisingly strong relationship the two countries share. Set during the fighting in Abkhazia (a breakaway region of Georgia) in 1992, this film centers around two Estonians struggling to harvest one last crop of tangerines from their farm. Unfortunately, the war comes to them first, and they take in the two wounded survivors from a nearby shootout, a Georgian and a Chechen on opposing sides (a plot similar to the 2002 Russian dramedy “Cuckoo,” set in Lapland during World War II). As they recover, and discover their mutual humanity, the wounded warriors are forced to confront the reasons behind their hatred. This Academy and Golden Globe nominee has a solid cast, and took top prizes at film festivals from Barcelona to Warsaw. Available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime video.
Ready to visit Georgia yet?
I hope you’ve been inspired to learn about Georgian culture, history and society by some of these books and films. It’s a great preparation for visiting the country!