by Richard Martyn-Hemphill, RIGA 

This year’s Riga International Film Festival got underway at Splendid Palace cinema last Friday with a showing of Double Aliens, a Latvian-Georgian documentary film shot in Samtskhe-Javakheti, an arid and mountainous region in southern Georgia.

The film is the latest offering from the Latvian director and screenwriter Uģis Olte, meditative video reportage of his travels in the Caucasus with Daro Sulakaurire, a young Georgian photographer.

Filming a photographer at work proves an effective way to reveal a region that remains isolated and little-known. Her presence puts people at ease; she has a soulful, mournful look about her, which locals respond well to, and her high-tech camera equipment is a reminder, amid horse-drawn carts and hand-held ploughs, that this is being filmed, after all, in the present day.

For much of the film, the director places himself in the hands of Sulakaurire. She serves as a sherpa figure throughout, her photographer’s lens pointing the way to gravestones, dusty roads, amateur boxing matches, open coffin funerals, and farmers tilling the soil and shearing sheep.

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A landscape in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Georgia [Image: Double Aliens]

Visually, the film is a triumph. Its two cinematographers deserve credit for taking the cinema-goer on a searing journey across the rugged terrain, and into the day-to-day lives of local residents in the region. It is a film that feels, at times, like it could have been shot on the surface of another planet.

This is a suitable impression, as the film explores ideas of alienation, which is alluded to, perhaps rather too unsubtly, in the title. Throughout, the film toys with our perception of what we could call “foreign.” The people of Samtskhe-Javakheti appear initially “foreign” to the viewer, and very much part of their own landscape’s fabric, whether tilling the soil or wandering among the gravestones.

Neither surface assumption turns out to be true. The forced movement of peoples during the Soviet Union actually left this population with a continued sense of dislocation; a feeling of being foreigners in their own homes. The Russians, Armenians, and Georgians living there remain divided along ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines, burdened by the weight of their own past, yet protective of their respective heritages and their right to put down roots.

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Ethnic Armenians living in Samtskhe-Javakheti [Image: Double Aliens]

Like all travellers, Olte brings his own baggage. His anxieties about the traumas of his own country’s Soviet past weigh heavily, depressingly so considering more than two decades have gone by since both Georgia and Latvia won their independence from the Soviet Union. But coming to terms with the past and developing a revived sense of belonging takes a long time to come to fruition. Divides persist. Communities exist within communities. Historic grievances fade slowly. People can all too easily remain entrenched in the security of the reality they know, however constraining that may be. Soon enough, parallels emerge between Olte’s Latvian experience, and lands that seemed foreign become eerily familiar, bringing to mind the adage of the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”

But the parallels are needlessly made explicit by voiceovers that are slightly grating. The connection to Latvia will be clear to anyone who has witnessed the stillness of a Latvian village, and does not need spelling out. This also limits the film for non-Latvian viewers in some respect. The parallels can be more universal than just the shared historical experience of the Soviet Union.

Close watchers of the Caucasus may be surprised that the film was not shot in the north of the country. The expectation when hearing of a documentary including Georgia’s Russian speakers is that it will be set in the north of the country — perhaps covering the aftershocks of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. The invasion broke off the country’s northern regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and reports suggest that the border is still surreptitiously on the move.

The decision to defy such expectations reaps rewards. This is a view of Georgia that would otherwise have gone largely unnoticed by an international audience, and the setting allows for a meditation on how we define that place we call home. But it does, however, bring complications. The decision to include the Armenian minority, and the issue of the disputed border between Armenia and Georgia in the film, adds yet another tricky set of considerations for the viewer to keep in mind. The film falls short of explaining some of these ins and outs, but admittedly, the Caucasus never provides a simple narrative. Perhaps we can say the film suffers from an excess of riches. Like someone discovering a trove of jewels, the director has succumbed to the understandable temptation of trying to bring back all he can, cramming every gem he can into the film. For the viewer, that can mean puzzling over several messages all at once. The result, for those without an intimate knowledge of the Caucasus, is slight confusion — a feeling after the film that you have witnessed something enriching, but you can’t put your finger on quite what.

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Uģis Olte, Double Aliens director [Image: VFS]

One aspect that does not help is the score; the soundtrack by up and coming contemporary artists Jānis Šipkēvics and Reinis Sējāns bristles with energy and stands up well in its own right. But occasionally the music deviates from the mood implied by the footage. The final scene, which features a revelatory meeting with a white-bearded old man bearing a strange resemblance to a Greek philosopher, is followed by a euphoric anthem that goes far further than seems apt considering the earthly wisdom that the old man provided. Likewise, after a session of shearing sheep, Sulakaurire turns to the camera and says: “My hands smell of sheep.” The music cuts in with exorbitant triumph.

The takeaway is more ambiguous, and rightly so in the circumstances: by the end of the film, the travellers may have achieved an enhanced sense of understanding; they may have delivered a message that gives artistic permanence to what is, one hopes, to be only a temporary state of post-Soviet gloom. But day to day, the ability of the past to paralyse and oppress remains just as strong as the ability of travel and reflection to set one free. The struggle for self-discovery and a sense of belonging must go on continuously, both for those filming, and for those filmed.

Richard Martyn-Hemphill is editor at The Baltic Times

Check Deep Baltic in a couple of days for an interview with Double Aliens director Uģis Olte