Interview with Otar Ioselliani

He may be eighty years old, but his next film is already in the works. Renowned Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, who has live and worked in France since the 1980’s, is a special guest at the Golden Apricot Film Festival in honor of his 80th birthday last February, and he’s looking as sharp as his films.

The Retrospective offers three films he made in Georgia in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Falling Leaves, Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird and Pastoral, as well as his most recent film Chantrapas (2010), a French/Georgian co-production. A clear but whimsical rebellious streak runs through his work, which shows the love/hate-relationship that comes with the dilemma of freedom and humanity.

Chantrapas shows how young filmmaker Nicolas is brutally censored in Soviet Georgia. But while his film is strictly denied any screening, he has no trouble getting a visa to travel to France to make a new film. Sadly, the West does not give him the freedom he is looking for: his producers are too greedy to let Nicolas work on his own and interfere with his editing, just as Soviet censorship had done before. Time is money. Iosseliani’s films have a striking lighthearted irony reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s comedy’s, while his economical use of dialogue and music belies his education in music and mathematics, before he became a filmmaker.

 N: What does the word Chantrapas mean?
O: It has become a common term in Russian, which is a mutation of the French phrase “Chantera ou chantera pas?”, meaning “Will he sing or not?”. It originates with an Italian professor who taught the children of the Russian elite in St. Petersburg, but spoke very bad French. At that time, a century ago, the St. Petersburg elite spoke French. The professor decided to teach the kids to sing, and with his peculiar pronunciation with a strong Italian accent, the phrase was misunderstood. That’s how it became a Russian expression, which is used to denote persons who are ‘good-for-nothings’, disinterested, vagabonds, poets. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tjechov, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff; they all were chantrapas-es.

Nicolas seems to be a chantrapas too, but in a more positive way. Is the character based on you?
No, it is not necessarily me, but you can make of it what you want. He stands for all my beloved colleagues who tried to do their work but were prohibited, either by ideological censorship, or they had to leave the country because of public censorship even. Directors like René Clair, Fritz Lang, Tarkovsky, Parajanov… The list can go on and on.

The censorship in Chantrapas happens on both sides, East and West. Was this your experience as well?
Yes. The Soviet censors actually love Nicolas’s film, but they are obligated to censor it. They are under so much pressure, they have not other choice. But in America many directors aren’t really the auteurs of their film either. By the way, there is a certain contempt for the term cinema d’auteur. Yet there seems to be only this auteur cinema. Is the rest a macaroni factory?

Anyway, in America often someone else edits your film. My friend Wim Wenders went to America to make a film. After having shot his material, the producer wanted to send him away. He wasn’t allowed to touch his own material. Once, a filmmaker friend of mine was even paid a million dollars so that he would leave, so he couldn’t stand in the way of the editing process. I make sure I edit my own films.

Has France been good to you?
Well, I think all the films that I have made in France, Chantrapas included, have not been successful. But I guess that’s normal. (shrugs) Yes, the film has been recognized by various festivals, but the audience of today, in France but also Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, Belgium… They are young people who grew up on Hollywood cinema. Producers receive interesting projects from all over the world, but then they think about whether this 20-something-year-old boy will go see it or not. That’s ridiculous. They decide beforehand that the film will not be worth it. In a way, this is public censorship at its worst.

Chantrapas was still shot on celluloid, but edited digitally, which is turning into the norm. What was your experience with working digitally?
Well, it’s almost the same thing as working with celluloid. But there is a danger you’ll make too many versions, you shouldn’t do that. You should still edit like you’re at the editing table with a pair of scissors. Then, you had to think hard before every cut. The same should go for filming digitally: it’s tempting to make a lot of shots, but you should refrain yourself. Just take two, like always.

 Have you kept up with filmmaking in Georgia?
Of course. There is a new wave of young film directors at the moment. They address contemporary issues, such as how youths who are starting a life for themselves realize that life in Georgia is not that great. Still, they remain brave. I am very optimistic about it, they make good work although Georgia isn’t in the best financial situation. Luckily, production in Georgia isn’t that expensive. I find that women especially are making interesting films.

Unfortunately, another problem is that the films of my younger colleagues in Georgia have little chance to be seen, because there are only a few film theaters even in big cities like Tbilisi. On about 2 million inhabitants, there are only three screens.

What can you tell us about your next film?
I don’t want to talk about it yet. You don’t scream before you’ve taken the leap! NH

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #6– 18th of july 2014

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