Hopelessness Is Boring: Alexandre Koberidze on His film "What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?"

Alexandre Koberidze discusses the process behind his second feature film and how creates his specific cinematic worlds.
Matt Turner

After the success of his first feature Let the Summer Never Come, Georgian filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze found his second feature What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? placed prominently within the main competition of the Berlinale’s recent online edition, where it was met with considerable acclaim and the receipt of the FIPRESCI prize. Koberidze’s two features share some similarities, but this second one—made as the filmmaker’s graduation project for the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB) programme that filmmakers such as Christian Petzold and Angela Schanelec studied on—seems like a scaling up. Instead of himself filming (as he did with a Sony Ericsson W595 for his first film) Koberidze works here with a crew and a cinematographer (Faraz Fesharaki, his classmate at DFFB, shooting beautifully on 16mm). He continues some ideas from his first feature (a city setting, a central romantic plot-line, a storyteller-narrator, and the use of classical music inspired by a silent film tradition) and introduces many others that are new. Taken together, these two films display an emerging filmmaker who has a distinctive vision and an unorthodox, idiosyncratic style.

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? begins with a chance encounter. Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) and Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) bump into each other and soon begin a romantic relationship that is challenged from the start when a curse descends on the couple, altering their appearances and transforming their lives. Footballer Giorgi loses all knack for the game that he loves, and Lisa, a pharmacist, can no longer practice medicine. Unable to recognize each other or understand themselves, the path that fate had laid in front of them finds itself quickly waylaid. Much like the narrative trajectory of the film, the line their life will take now resembles a zig-zag, and, as a result, the film expands to encompass more than their story, serving as much as an abstract environment portrait as a linear narrative film.

Set in the ancient city of Kutaisi, the film is backdropped by summer scenes in a city where a World Cup frenzy is settling in, but this is only one detail in a film made from many. No single moment is deemed more important than any other, and the film flitters from one character to another, the camera drifting gently to gaze upon objects, animals, or buildings before looping back to develop the central story. Giorgi and Lisa draw closer and move apart, eventually finding each other when a crew casting a film about couples mistakes the two strangers for long time lovers. The film takes many contours, but what is ultimately conveyed is the value of chance and the importance of incidental experience. Out of a series of small romantic moments, Koberidze makes an amorphous portrait of a place and the people within it, showing how all the tiny individual parts and pieces of a city fit together to make something feel material and real.

Notebook spoke with Koberidze about the underlying philosophies and inspirations that inform the making of the cinematic worlds he creates, and about his love of football, cats, and music.

NOTEBOOK: How did you get started making this film, and how long did it take? What were you thinking about when starting to develop the project and did this change over the production period?

ALEXANDRE KOBERIDZE: One evening, late at night, I was asking myself what sort of films I want to make. I decided that I wanted my next few films to be fairytales. I read a lot of fairytales, and then started writing a script for a film. When reading a lot of fairytales, you see that anything can happen, and you feel much freer than you did before. That's a nice way to think about folklore, as something that releases you from the restriction of having to to stick to the rules of reality.

When I finished writing it, I felt that the project was too large to make at this point in time, but I had meanwhile gathered some other ideas through digging into this world. One of these ideas then became the core of this film. I wrote it quickly, but my intention was very different at the beginning. I thought I wanted to make something simple that used only one or two locations, but when I arrived in Kutaisi, it was immediately clear I wouldn’t be able to stick to single locations because it was a place that offered so much. It was clear that I needed to be more open to the location, and that this simple idea I had initially come up with would no longer suffice.

NOTEBOOK: Why Kutaisi?

KOBERIDZE: My last feature was set in Tbilisi. I shot that film there for more than a year, so I felt that I had said enough about that city for the moment. Meanwhile I had written a script which would be set in Batumi, on the coast of the Black Sea, so when I started to plan this film, I thought about Kutaisi, Georgia’s third largest city. Kutaisi is the heart of Georgia, many important things started there, and many people who are crucial to Georgian culture, politics, sports, or sciences have come from there. A few films I admire are also set there, so I knew it would be fertile land to start making something. I knew a lot about the city’s past but little about its present, so I spent a year there with my cinematographer Faraz Fesharaki and my producer Mariam Shatberashvili, and each new day spent there gave us more reasons to believe that our decision to come to Kutaisi was the correct one.

NOTEBOOK: How did you approach the look of the film? There is a texture and tactility to the images, a focus on surfaces, bodies, as well as on the scenes of ordinary city life.

KOBERIDZE: We devoted a lot to talking with Faraz about how we wanted our film to look and I think at some point we reached some general, unspeakable feeling about what we liked and what we did not. I had a special trust with Faraz that we would treat everything with the care and respect required. When you first start shooting, you have to be careful to not show too much or too little, to not go too near but to still catch something. In moments like this, it was great to have someone like Faraz by my side who I knew would never disturb a sleeping cat on the street by putting his tripod there.

NOTEBOOK: I’m interested in your approach to hybridity. In both of your features, you mix constructed scenarios and observational material, placing actors within real situations. The films are almost like urban documentaries for me. What are your thoughts about this?

KOBERIDZE: One of the things I like the most is to go out and take pictures and record video with my small camera. When I walk around, I can sense some hidden rhythm or logic amongst all the things that are happening simultaneously around me. I think it can be relieving to feel that we and everything around us are part of some big movement, what I call a “main rhythm.” Moments when one is able to observe this rhythm or even feel part of it are somehow very spiritual. I also think that human beings are doomed to not be involved in this rhythm all the time, and that it requires great effort to be able to experience this sensation even for a short time. But when I observe my cat, I can see that she is permanently part of it. So when I make films, I try to catch these moments. Sometimes for example, while an actor is doing something in the foreground, something unplanned may be happening in the background. These two scenes interact and become one.

On the other hand, I like to write very much. Making things up—situations, moods, images—is an essential part of filmmaking for me. It can be interesting to see how written and staged scenes can be blended with observational ones, how observation can become fiction and vice versa.

NOTEBOOK:  Speaking of rhythm, can you talk about the use of music in the film? As with your last film, there are bursts of ecstatic, joyful classical music that give a different sense of magic. How did you approach choosing music, and editing your film in a rhythmic, musical fashion?

KOBERIDZE: I think one of the purposes of cinema is to help bring us closer to a hidden rhythm, to the flow of time. One—but not the only—way to achieve this is to observe your surroundings while hearing music. This music helps to reveal the actual music of everyday life; it helps us to see that the chaos all around us is in fact a well-composed symphony. Sometimes I gave some references to my brother Giorgi Koberidze, the composer, to explain the direction that I wanted to go and he would then create pieces which were flowing in a similar way. In other cases, I gave him some parts of the film without saying anything and he would make the music he felt was right for the scene. I had moments when I set the scenes I gave him without music to the music he composed, and I had the sense that the scene had now come alive—now we can observe the rhythm.

NOTEBOOK: One thing I thought that was similar about this feature and your last one was that they are both love stories in which chance and fate play a large part in the direction that the films take. I wanted to ask why you are such a romantic filmmaker?

KOBERIDZE: I think this romantic approach to the surroundings that you see in these films is what I lack in my everyday life, so I try to compensate through the films. I think how people behave and communicate in these films is more like how I would wish it to be in my life or in my surroundings, which it is frankly not.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the role that football plays in this film and how it began a key part of the story? Why did you decide to set the story against the backdrop of the World Cup?

KOBERIDZE: Football is my biggest love and passion. The history of football is like mythology; it is a story of gods, titans, heroes, victories, and tragedies. I have my own heroes and I love being able to follow their fates, even when they seem tough or unjust. Some great wisdom lies there—how the more difficult road can be the better one to follow. In my film I lead the events in the direction that I wanted them to go, not the way they ended up going. In sport, you can see this same rhythm I mentioned before. It is still rare, but we can see instances where some athletes become one with this “main rhythm” and achieve magical things.

NOTEBOOK: In both features, plot serves to frustrate as much as resolve the narrative, with the direction changing often, moving away from the story and then returning to it. How did you develop your approach to the role that narrative plays within your films, which is different to a traditional approach?

KOBERIDZE: It's a big question I think, what is narrative for a film and can we make a film without one? When asking myself this, a bigger question arose: what is a film, or what separates narrative film from video work, for example? Personally, I often like films that have no story, but I want the films I make myself to have one. That's one of—if not the only—rules I set for myself when thinking about what cinema is. if I want to call what I make a film then it has to have some kind of story.

So I often gather many ideas that I want to include in a film and then think about what sort of story could connect all of these things that have nothing to do with each other. I mostly try to have a simple story which won't require much time to tell, as that leaves more time to show things which are more interesting. I read a book by the Russian animator, Yuri Norstein in which he said something like “the simpler the story, the more space for the film” and that resonated with me.

The story for What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is not so simple. It needs some time to be understood, which is why I used the narrator as a way to help guide the viewer. Having a narrator gives the feeling of being in a fairytale because it means you do not need to be as active a viewer; it provides moments where you can watch and listen passively and you will get everything you need. At other points, you have to watch more precisely and think harder about what you are seeing. I’m looking to mess with the viewer’s perception: sometimes you are required to be active and sometimes you can relax—almost like a child hearing a bedtime story. 

NOTEBOOK: Could you also talk about the metatextual elements in the film? Why did you add the film-within-the-film and the casting of the couples?

KOBERIDZE: I always knew that the protagonists were going to be cursed, but I needed that curse to be lifted at some point because hope was a big question for this film. Should the film be as hopeless as I feel, or should it have some hope? Eventually I decided that hopelessness is boring; it’s really obvious that this is how most people feel today and it doesn’t bear repeating. There has to be a chance for these characters to overcome their curse. I was thinking about how someone could help themselves when faced with a situation like this where they wake up within a different body. In modern life there is no solution for such a situation, so that’s why the characters mostly do not even try to overcome their problem—they just wait and hope. Then I started thinking about how cinema is kind of the magic of our time; I find it really magical what people can do with this medium. So I thought that in my film this particular kind of modern magic can descend upon the characters as a source of hope—something that comes to help them.

NOTEBOOK: Related to this idea of hope and hopelessness, I was also interested by the section of the narration that talks about all the harm we have brought to “our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom”, and this idea of the world as a dark place in a dark time. I wanted to ask about the ecological underpinnings of this film, and what you were thinking about with that?

KOBERIDZE: I think this is something that most people think about pretty often. The more that I think about it, the harder it gets to continue thinking about it, but equally to think about anything else. This situation is so aggressively present that it is almost absurd. Just being alive in our modern society means you are a kind of criminal. Maybe you don’t want to be but you are a part of this very bad thing that is happening. I don’t have any tools to do anything about it, but I knew that I had to at least say a few words about how I feel and how I see this time. I knew before starting What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? that whatever it ended up as, I would include a few sentences in which I say what I think about the world as it is now. This section wasn’t in the script, but whilst shooting I knew it was going to have to be said somewhere. When shooting the river scenes, I felt this could be a good moment to include this. It was clear for me that when it came to this, I had to avoid speaking with allegories and metaphors and just say this as directly as possible, not hide it.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about how the de-centering of humans in the film factors into this? In the film, animals, objects, buildings, are given equal space in the universe you create. Why did you decide to make this universe with equality of all life forms, whether human or non-human?

KOBERIDZE: There is still a sort of hierarchy in the film over what is more important and what is less, and it is expressed through time. Some people in the film get more time and others get less. But we knew that we didn’t want to mark any difference through how we film them. This was a way to express our feeling that no human is more important than any other human. Maybe for me personally, some humans are of course more important than others, but to whoever it is that made it all, every human and every creature is equally precious. I think we tried to recreate this gaze that looks equally upon everyone and everything.

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