I was shocked and disappointed that Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s “In Bloom”, Georgia’s Official Foreign Oscar submission, didn’t get shortlisted.
Happily, the film, which premiered at Berlin, won the Grand Prize at the 15th Tokyo Filmex, Best Film and Best Actress (for both its stars) at the 19th Sarajevo Film Festival (including a cash award of $21,000) plus the Grand Prix of $20,000 at the 9th annual Eurasia Film Festival, and swept up the premiere awards at Hong Kong (considered a showcase for budding filmmakers), the Firebird Award in the Young Cinema Competition, and the coveted Fipresci prize.
Roughly based on her own teen years, tyro director Ekvtimishvili and co-director Simon Groß’s coming of-ager is vivid and raw, shot through with lyric moments. It’s the early 90’s in the Georgian capitol of Tbilisi. The Soviet Union has collapsed and the country is in turmoil. (Georgia’s first elected president, Nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, has been deposed in a bloody coup setting off civil war. Ethnic wars and succession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia followed.)
Fourteen-year-old best friends Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria) are going through hard times. Withdrawn Eka lives with her lay-about, boy crazy older sister Sophiko (Maiko Ninua), and her mother Ana (Ana Nijaradze), who’s always at work to support her kids while their father serves a prison sentence for murder. Outgoing, flirtatious Natia’s house is a nightmare, everyone in the family, granny (Berta Khapava), mom (Tamar Bukhnikashvili) younger brother (Sandro Shanshiashvili) and alchie dad (Temiko Chichinadze) fight at the top of their lungs like it’s an indoor sport. What a scene. It’s as dense as anything in Mike Leigh’s BBC body of work.
Natia, on the brink of womanhood, is the object of all male eyes in their neighborhood, Shy Eka, an observant outsider, tries to cling to the freedom of childhood, before society exacts its price on her as a woman. They complete each other, wending their way through the challenges of a country in disrepair with long food lines and decrepit buildings, and the traditional patriarchal society that makes life a cage for all the female characters, a cage that can be stretched by cunning adaptation, but never evaded.
Through it all they are teen-age girls and they find ways to normalize the patriarchal aggression seeping into their lives. They ditch school, and show survival skills dealing with the lurking street thugs in the windy streets.
There’s an enchanting scene, as dreamy as anything in Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby”. Sophiko’s older girlfriends gather at Eka’s house, to sing and drink wine and smoke and exchange important gossip. When her mother returns, they all pretend to do homework, good little girl, hiding their womanly knowledge to buy more time for unmarried “freedom.”
The radio warns the populace to arm. Abkharia’s war of succession war spills over into their daily lives. Lado (Data Zakareishv), the gentle boy courting Natia, gives her a handgun and one bullet to keep her safe while he travels to Moscow. “I’ll come back and marry you”, he explains and she laughs in agreement. It’s a choice moment. She closes her eyes, as if for a kiss, and opens them to see the gun. She’s not offended. She understands and watches as he loads the one bullet.
“You know what I think?” says Eka sagely, “That guy doesn’t want anything to happen to you, anyone to insult you or scare you. I think he really loves you, that’s what I think.” She’s happy for her friend, She wants to believe in true love. “I guess you’re probably right,” muses Natia, wondering about her future.
Were this a Hollywood picture, the loaded gun would infect the following acts as we wait for someone to use it. But the directors aim for subtler game. The girls, empowered by the tool, trade it back and forth, banked fires. It gives them a modicum of Zutz, of courage, each in her own way.
Eka walks a daily gauntlet of neighborhood bullies. Natia urges her to scare them off brandishing their secret gun. It works.
But Natia faces something she can’t stop. Kidnapped by Kote (Zurab Gogaladze) and his posse, she’s forced as part of the age old tribal Bride Kidnapping, still practiced, and on the rise in the Caucasus (Georgia, Azerbaijan Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia) central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Karakalpakstan, as well as Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda and other places, including Morman regions in Utah.
Kidnapped out have the breadline, and no one lifts a finger. When Eka berates them as cowards, an old man knocks her down.
Cut to the wedding feast. Sullen Eka sits next to Natia and her possessive husband, while men offer ironic drunken toasts, “To our women. What would our lives be without them?” Eka brings the gun instead of a gift; Natia will need the borrowed courage.
With one culturally sanctioned act, churlish Kote ends Natia’s childhood and her hopes for the future. Forget becoming a pianist. She’s trapped in his home, unable to finish school, or even invite her friends over; trapped worse than she was in her family’s loud dysfunctional apartment. Now it’s Lado’s mother (Endi Dzidzava) and father (Zaza Salia) that scream at her instead of her own.
Lado’s family won’t let her invite her friends over for her birthday. Eka and Natia go to her home, where dotting gran serves them a birthday meal on the terrace. A haunting song from the below sends Natia hurtling down the stairs, Lado and his paid singer serenade her. The two gaze at each other shyly. The old attraction and deep feeling is still there. Suddenly Kote and his family appear to drag her home. “Life is so bitter and so harsh,” sings the musician, as Kote eyes his rival and plans his revenge.
Alone in the bathroom, all helpless Natia can do is load the gun and point it at her enemies outside the locked door.
Kote’s posse spots Lado and chases him down the street. (It’s like the honor killings of Romeo and Juliet come to life) and Lado knifes him down in broad daylight.
Natia’s tempted to use the gun to revenge his death, but Eka, who’s lost her father to jail for an honor killing, steals the gun back, to prevent her. “Give it back,” screams Natia, finally taking space in her new home.
Lado’s mother hasn’t a clue what the girls are arguing about. “You think you’re in your own house, Street girl? I deserve worse for letting you in this house. Where is that husband of yours?” “That son of yours killed a man, got it?” screams Natia, taking the upper hand. Momentarily stunned, silence reigns until his parents storm out, arguing again; it’s the only thing they know how to do.
In an unexpected scene at Natia’s wedding Eka joins a traditional dance, out dancing everyone in the room, who make way for her. With downcast eyes, hiding her inner life, she dances a series of hypnotic movements, spiced with rage, alone and “free” in the center of traditional, ritual constraints.
Aware of her growing sexual power (that may someday imprison her in a traditional marriage) Eka enjoys her dance, a smile flickers at the corner of her lips.
Showing an independence that Natia’s lost forever, she enjoys her body; for now it’s all hers and for a moment, all her audience is her prisoner.
Natia’s disappointing coming of age is sexual, Eka’s is intellectual, ‘real politic’, as befits an observer. Stopping Natia from committing an honor killing allows Eka to forgive her father. She’s ready to visit him in prison.
The civil war in Georgia is over. Georgia maintains that Abkhazia and South Ossetia (“under Russian occupation”) are legally part of Georgia. NGO activists estimate that hundreds of women are kidnapped and forced to marry each year. Although an educated generation of Georgian women has become breadwinners, few have acquired positions in the military, law enforcement, or government. Nor do they hold positions of power in either the Orthodox or Muslim faiths. Until that changes, the daily war against women continues.
First time directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß show skill and sophistication, creating nuanced vignettes, beautifully edited by Stefan Stabenow. Co-stars Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria breathe vivid life into their roles, the entire cast, assembled by casting director Leli Miminoshvili is memorable and the desaturated production design by Konstantine Japaridze, shot in long takes with a minimalist neo- realist gaze by Romanian star DP Oleg Mutu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “Beyond the Hills”) make “In Bloom” one of the strongest films in this year’s Foreign Oscar submissions.