25 September 2023

Between Freedom and Submission

The history and challenges of independent Georgian cinema

Film still from SERGO GOTORANI© Veli

After the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party came to power, restrictions on freedoms were introduced into various aspects of political and public life. These restrictions had a particularly painful impact on Georgia’s cultural sphere. Cultural institutions that were once independent such as the National Book Center, the Writer’s House, the National Film Center and the National Museum have, one by one, fallen under control of the ruling party. Literary scholar Irina Beridze discusses the evolution of Georgian cinema over the years of independence and liberation from censorship, as well as the challenges cinema faces again with the looming threat to freedom of expression.

ქართული   English   Русский

1990s: the formation of independent Georgian cinema

A new Georgian cinema began to take shape in the early 1990s, when the young republic on the outskirts of the collapsed Soviet empire embarked upon a route of autonomous political and cultural development. The civil war in Tbilisi (1991–1992), the wars in Abkhazia (1992–1993) and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia (1990–1992) had a destabilizing effect on Georgia both politically and economically. During that period not only did Georgian politics break away from the imperial and colonial domination of Moscow but also Georgian culture. Although the era of Soviet Georgian cinema produced a number of extraordinary films and notable personalities, particularly within the so-called ‘new wave’ of the 1960s and 1970s, nonetheless, during the period of independence, new Georgian cinema began to explore a greater diversity of themes and forms. Under Soviet censorship, Georgian filmmakers developed a specific film language and creative mechanisms designed to bypass the structures of total censorship. In the era of independence, Georgian cinema has forged new international and transnational connections without sacrificing its unique identity and style. Filmmakers of the older generation (Lana Gogoberidze, Otar Ioseliani, Merab Kokochashvili, Tengiz Abuladze, Eldar Shengelaia, Sergo Parajanov, Alexandre Rekhviashvili, etc.) concealed their criticism of the Soviet dictatorship beneath a veil of poetic imagery, complex metaphors, allegorical forms (known as ‘Aesopian language’) and poignant satire. In contrast, the cinema of independent Georgia began to develop a fresh film language. Georgian film scholars often refer to “censorship as grace” (Georgi Gvakharia), which aptly describes the tradition of Georgian cinema under Soviet rule.

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the Georgian film sector grappled with a crisis brought about by a dramatic departure from the centralized Soviet film production system and the unanticipated release from censorship.

Film still from ZGVARZEFilm still from ZGVARZE© Georgian National Film Center

A few of the following examples support the argument that, despite political instability, Georgian filmmakers still managed to lay the foundations of a new Georgian arthouse and experimental cinema. These examples include the films by Dito Tsintsadze, who emigrated to Germany during the war in Abkhazia. He made his debut short feature film, STUMREBI (Guests), in 1991 and subsequently received the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival for the film ZGVARZE (At the Limit, 1993), which revolves around the brewing civil war in Georgia. Many of ZGVARZE’s characters will, in real life, perish in the forthcoming Abkhazia war, while some of their lives will be saved due to their involvement in the filmmaking process. As the director explained in an interview, “Filming was easy since no one was really acting.” Furthermore, the war compelled quite a pragmatic approach to cinematic aesthetics. The alternating use of color and black-and-white frames was born out of sheer necessity due to a lack of film stock. Tsintsadze’s film marks a departure from the conventions of Soviet cinema. The allegorical and poetic language gives way to a thorough analysis of specific and pressing topics, presented in a hybrid format that blends fiction and documentary elements. As Tsintsadze himself stated, “Georgian cinema used to be filled with humor and poetry. We introduced entirely different themes — much harsher and bloodier. The films became tougher, addressing issues that had never been discussed before.” (Dito Tsintsadze).

Film still from ARA, MEGOBAROFilm still from ARA, MEGOBARO© Georgian National Film Center

Another innovative work is the short feature film ARA, MEGOBARO (No, my friend) by Gio Mgeladze. Completed in 1993 and filmed in an amateur style, the movie tells the story of young people from Tbilisi who succumb to gang shoot-outs and drug abuse. The film offers a poignant and melancholic portrayal of its historical period, providing a visual snapshot of 1990s Tbilisi and its inhabitants.

During this period films primarily delve into the issues of individual demoralization, isolation, and alienation, reflecting the chaos faced by the young independent state. Georgian cinema of this era is dominated by criminal gangs and drug mafias, themes that are intertwined with newly emerging religious and ethnographic motifs.


The same historical period, however, ushered in the first international successes for Georgian films. For instance, the feature film by Temur Babluani UDZINARTA MZE (The Sun of the Sleepless, 1992) was awarded the Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 1993. Lana Gogoberidze also directed her first full-length, censorship-free picture during newly independent Georgia. The film VALSI PECHORAZE (The Waltz on the Pechora, 1992) highlights the traumatic history of the director’s family which fell victim to Stalin’s repressions.

At the same time, the Georgian director Nana Dzhordzhadze made a joint Georgian-French film titled SHEKVAREBULI KULINARIS 1001 RECEPTI (A Chef in Love, 1996). This was the first picture from independent Georgia to be nominated for an Oscar. Back in Soviet times Nana Dzhordzhadze made significant contributions to the resistance against Soviet censorship. Her film MOGZAUROBA SOPOTSHI (The Journey to Sopot, 1980) was banned by the censors, released seven years later and was first screened at the Oberhausen Film Festival in 1987. Dzhordzhadze’s full-length feature debut ROBINZONIADA, ANU CHEMI INGLISELI PAPA (Robinsonade, or My English Grandfather, 1987), also faced censorship but received the Caméra d’Or at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. The fact that these films eventually found their way to the screen marked a certain shift in the ideological landscape of the Soviet film industry and served as a catalyst for the development of a new era in Georgian cinema.

New institutional structures

In the 2000s a new film institution emerged in Tbilisi, marking the end of over a decade of stagnation in the Georgian film industry. In 2001, the Georgian National Film Center was established under the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia. As a legal entity of public law, the center is supposed to determine state policy in the field of cinematography and provide government support for the advancement of new Georgian cinema. Differing from the Soviet and post-Soviet film studio Qartuli Pilmi (Georgia Film), the Film Center operates with transparent structures and democratic selection and support procedures. As German film critic Ulrich Gregor noted, a (gradual) resurgence of Georgian cinema commenced, with a particular inclination toward documentary productions. Alongside feature films, it is the emerging field of new Georgian documentary cinema that heralds a fresh phase in the evolution of Georgian filmmaking.

The hybrid genre of fiction-documentary film has become a distinctive hallmark of Georgian cinema. One of the notable exemplars of this genre is the film SERGO GOTORANI (Sergo the Rogue), directed, written, and produced by Irakli Paniashvili. The film presents the story of a Georgian refugee family from Abkhazia struggling to survive in a garbage dumping ground. The film had its premiere at the Tbilisi International Film Festival in 2009 and garnered positive reviews from critics in Georgia. However, it remained largely unnoticed by the broader audience, which can be attributed in part to its experimental form and visual language. The first-person narrator is a child, the youngest member of the family. Through this perspective, the film provides a deeply dramatic and unvarnished view of the lives of Georgian refugees from Abkhazia, the people who find themselves thrown out of normal life and cast aside by society.

During the early 2000s, the first international film festivals began to emerge in Georgia. The Tbilisi Film Festival, which initially had limited financial resources, later received support from the Georgian Film Center and the Ministry of Culture, ultimately becoming the largest film festival in Georgia. In 2006, the Batumi International Arthouse Film Festival (BIAFF) was founded and is now held annually in September on the Black Sea coast. It carries forward the traditions of Black Sea movie festivals, such as the ones in Odessa and Varna. Since 2013, Tbilisi has hosted CinéDOC-Tbilisi — the first international documentary film festival in the South Caucasus. The festival aims to promote the “creation of a strong regional identity in the South Caucasus, rooted in shared history and cultural values”. Under the competition section Focus Caucasus and the pitching platform New Talents Caucasus, a unique creative environment has been established to encourage collaboration among filmmakers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia generated a new crisis in the Georgian film industry, which it was only able to overcome a few years later. Speaking of the dynamics of film decolonization in post-Soviet Georgia, one can say that the final break-out with the Russian film industry happened, after all, much faster compared to other post-Soviet republics. For instance, even after the annexation of Crimea, ties between Kiev and Moscow in the area of the film industry remained intact, while the Russian language continued to dominate Ukrainian cinema for a long period of time (Ivan Kozlenko). In contrast, in Georgia, the 2008 war definitively severed the last cultural connections with the former Russian center. This watershed moment marked the liberation of Georgian cinema from the cultural dominance of Russia, signifying the end of an era of imperial cultural supremacy.

New Georgian women documentary films

In 2003, the ‘Rose Revolution’ resulted in a change of political power in Georgia. While the new liberal democratic system successfully navigated past the decade-long stagnation of the Eduard Shevardnadze era, the recovery of the film industry was not as straightforward and immediate. With feature films dominated by men, it was Georgian women documentary filmmakers who played a transformative role in shaping contemporary Georgian cinema. Starting in the 2000s, a wave of debut films emerged by young female directors, often graduates from journalism departments. This new wave of Georgian women’s documentary cinema tackled pressing social issues head-on, purposefully placing women at the center of their narratives. These filmmakers also devoted significant attention to the public sphere, often setting their narratives within specific regional contexts, linking them to the transnational spaces of the South and North Caucasus. Key themes explored in these films include women’s emancipation, the experiences of ethnic and religious minorities, environmental concerns, and the particular female perspective on war, often intertwined with the traumatic experiences of refugees.


The central figure in the new wave of Georgian cinema is the Georgian-French director and actress Nino Kirtadze. After completing her literary studies in Tbilisi in the 1990s, she initially worked as a reporter, covering the wars in the Caucasus. During this period, she also appeared in films by Nana Dzhordzhadze. In 1997, Kirtadze emigrated to France and in 2000 she made her directorial debut with a film about Eduard Shevardnadze titled, “Les trois vies d’Edouard Chevardnadze” (The Three Lives of Eduard Shevardnadze). This was followed by her documentaries Chechen Lullaby (2001) and MILSADENIS MEZOBLEBI (The Pipeline Next Door, 2005), a film that focused on the construction of the ‘New Silk Road’ — the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline passing through the resort area of Borjomi Valley in Georgia. The documentary portrays a rural community in direct conflict with the interests of the major international oil corporation BP and the logic of capital. Kirtadze’s work has marked the inception of a tradition of Georgian environmental cinema.

Film still from DADUMEBULEBIFilm still from DADUMEBULEBI© Salomé Jashi

Simultaneously, the first short documentaries of Salomé Jashi made their debut. Her introduction to this genre – MATI VERTMPRENI (Their Helicopter) was showcased in 2006 at the DOK festival in Leipzig. In 2008, she co-founded the independent production company Sakdok in Tbilisi, alongside her colleague Anna Dziapshipa. In 2009, Jashi directed the experimental short documentary DADUMEBULEBI (Speechless), offering a cinematic testament to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the devastating traumas it inflicted. Her 2010 film, LIDERI KOVELTVIS MARTALIA (The Leader is Always Right), delves into the Georgian camps of ‘patriotic leisure,’ shedding light on their role as a breeding ground for unfiltered ideological indoctrination.

Film still from ALTZANEYFilm still from ALTZANEY© Artefact Production

In 2008, Georgian producer and documentary director Nino Orjonikidze established the production company Artefact Production. She obtained international recognition after the collaborative 2009 film ALTZANEY, created with Vano Arsenishvili, was presented at the DOK festival in Leipzig in 2009 and at the Krakow Film Festival in 2010. Currently, Nino Ordzhonikidze teaches experimental and documentary film in Tbilisi and oversees the multimedia platform Chai Khana. This platform produces multilingual short films with a specific focus on the South Caucasus. Her 2012 film, INGLISURIS MASTSAVLEBELI (English Teacher), serves as a commentary on the former President Saakashvili’s nationwide ‘linguistic revolution’ initiative, in which he attempted to attract foreign English teachers to rural Georgian regions as part of a modernization project. The film highlights the disparity between this initiative and the actual realities of life in rural Georgia. In GVIRABI (A Tunnel, 2019), Nino Orjonikidze and Vano Arsenishvili chronicle the large infrastructure project ‘New Silk Road’ (see above: Nino Kirtadze), which is designed to connect China and Western Europe passing through the territory of Georgia. The road project poses a threat to peripheral spaces and ecosystems of the country. Once again, the film highlights the conflict between the interests of global capital and the living environment of Georgian farmers in remote areas.

Between independence and subordination: Contemporary film protests

Amidst an ongoing period of still fragile democracy, another change of power occurred in 2012, which subsequently brought about some shifts in the cultural and political dynamics of the Georgian film industry. Over this period, the National Film Center established itself as the primary institutional structure and the only fundamental support system for new Georgian cinema. However, the Center in Tbilisi continues to operate under the direct authority of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, which retains the autonomy to appoint its director. Presently, the center is fighting to obtain an independent institutional status. In March 2023, Gaga Chkheidze, the long-time director of the center, who was honored with the Goethe Medal by the Goethe Institute for his contributions to the development of Georgian cinema, was dismissed. The official reason cited was: “serious shortcomings in the existing financial management system.” Additionally, the Tbilisi International Film Festival, which Chkheidze also oversees, had its governmental funding partially revoked. The actual reason for Chkheidze’s removal appeared to be his decision to discontinue the purchase of Georgian films from the Russian state film archive Gosfilmofond. The center considered it inappropriate to cooperate with a Russian state-funded entity amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine. Chkheidze’s dismissal was endorsed by Tea Tsulukiani, the notorious Minister of Culture representing the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is effectively led by Bidzina Ivanishvili. Following the targeted destruction of the Georgian National Book Center, the ministry announced the so-called ‘reorganization’ of the Film Center. In August, Georgian filmmakers, producers, screenwriters and other cultural figures staged a protest in Tbilisi outside the Georgian Film Center and in front of the Ministry of Culture. The action was an attempt to protect the Film Center from mechanisms of state censorship, propaganda and ideological indoctrination through which the Georgian government seeks to assert control and exert its party influence over all cultural institutions in the country.

Film still from MOTVINIEREBAFilm still from MOTVINIEREBA© Mira Film, CORSO Film, Sakdoc Film

This process was set in motion last year, spurred by the international acclaim garnered by the documentary MOTVINIEREBA, (Taming the Garden, 2021) by Salomé Jashi. The film was featured at the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), had its premiere at the Sundance film festival, and earned a nomination for the European Film Award. MOTVINIEREBA documents the ambitious undertaking of Georgia's wealthiest individual, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to establish an exotic garden on the western Georgian Black Sea coast. Ivanishvili buys up century-old trees from the surrounding villages, transports some of them via the sea, and replants them in his private garden. After public criticism, part of the garden was opened to visitors.

Salomé Jashi's critique of the de facto ruler of Georgia led to the swift cancellation of her film’s screenings at the Tbilisi House of Cinema, ordered by Mindia Esadze, the director of the Georgian Film Academy.

The incident prompted strong reactions from the Georgian film industry and the Georgian PEN Center, both of which determined it to be alarming and pronounced it the first instance of censorship in the history of independent Georgia. In a show of solidarity with the director, a few movie theaters and cultural venues organized impromptu public screenings of the film. The state’s attempts at taming Georgian culture and cinema have resurfaced after a three-decade break. The documentary Taming the Garden has taken on renewed significance in the context of ongoing cinematic protests. In June, Irakli Kobakhidze, the leader of the ruling party, publicly attacked director Salomé Jashi and her film, labelling it as “shameful” and “absurd,” criticizing the Film Center for allowing such projects to proceed in the first place.

In November 2022, Georgian documentarians created a new platform called DOCA (Documentary Association Georgia). The platform is designed to consolidate filmmakers and give birth to the first independent structures outside the state-controlled Film Center in the future. As outlined in their mandate: “DOCA Georgia works for the independence, accessibility, transparency and viability of the film industry in the country.”

Today, new Georgian documentary cinema is stronger than ever. However, the pivotal struggle for the independence of Georgian cinema is still far from over.

Translated from Russian by Kun