Dito Tsintsadze about ZGVARZE (GE, 1993).
Talk held on the 08.02.18 at dffb cinema.
When we first met a few days ago, the first thing you asked us, was if we were also infected with the virus of cinema...
Yes, cinema is a virus. And you are all infected. But it's a very good one... well, it depends on which way you use this illness.
Can you tell us a bit more about the circumstances in which ZGVARZE was filmed?
There was a civil war. After the Soviet Union vanished, all the different republics gained their independence, which Georgia also did. Then the battle for power started. There were rebels fighting against the first elected president (ed. Zviad Gamsakhurdia) and the fights turned into a big conflict, a war. And while it is easy to start a war, it is difficult to end it. It was kind of a never ending story. Now it is also very difficult to follow up on all the events, because it was out of control. About the beginning, we know that it started because of this president. But then it went nowhere. Street gangs, wars lords and so on... really a colorful period of our life.
Most of my friends and people around me got guns and weapons and went to fight. There were many and all different kind of reasons. A small group of friends and me, we decided to make movies. Later, when the war was over and we were able to look back, we realized that making movies has been a sort of therapy for us. It is probably the reason why we survived.
I could not imagine my life without making movies, it may sound pathetic, but it's not. It's true. If I'm not doing films, I don't know, it's a sort of death.
So when you filmed the movie in 1992, the conflict was still going on...
It was only kind of starting. The president was already gone and it was the period when groups with weapons started to fight against each other. But honestly, if you ask me now, I can’t even remember who was fighting for what. Every party was claiming to be on the right side. And actually nobody asked them what it meant to “be right”. I talk about it in the movie, if you can remember it. The whole country was in this absurd situation. We were in a war. But with whom, against whom... probably against ourselves. Maybe that was the main problem.
What did you learn from that period as a filmmaker?
In a way I must say that I am glad I lived during that period. Some experiences that I have made in the Nineties are very special ones. I learned to look at things from different angles. That allows me to find irony everywhere. It is very important – I think about irony as the highest point of intelligence. If someone doesn't have a sense of humor, it's trouble. It's dangerous. Most of the troubles are coming from people who don't have a sense of humor.
How was ZGVARZE received in Georgia?
It was shown in Tbilisi at the festival in 1993. We even got a price. Everybody wanted to watch it. I was happy that the movie was shown, but I was disappointed by the reaction of the people. When the protagonist shot some people at the end of the movie, people started to laugh. It was very strange for me to see it and I got really scared. There you can get an idea about the condition in which society was at that moment. While in foreign countries the scene shocked everybody, in Georgia the reaction was a completely different one. I don't know how to call it but it was absolutely abnormal. It was a sign that society was sick.
How did you manage to make a movie in that turbulent period?
It was easy. In that situation everything was really easy, because corruption was at the top. I could get fifty soldiers for free just with a phone call. I would call one of the war lords. I didn't know him personally, but a friend of mine knew a friend of his... it's a small country. When there is a chaos, you are directly calling the boss and tell him: “You know, we are making a movie, we need fifty soldiers.” The next day, there you have fifty soldiers. Without payment, without anything. We would choose a location and they would come wherever we wanted to. And they were happy to be there, otherwise they would have been killing each other. They were simply enjoying it. We had fun, if you can call it fun. The surroundings were awful though...
There was no time, no money, only twenty-one days of shooting. Everything was out of control, but again, sometimes this chaos can be helpful if you have good guys around you. It can even be positive. Nobody was checking on what we were doing. For example, the last scene when the protagonist is shooting several people on the street. There were some blocks of houses around the street where we were shooting. A man saw the scene from his balcony, hundred meters away. He called the police, but they came just half an hour later. It was kind of normal for them: killing was happening every day. We explained them what we were doing and everybody was happy.
How did you finance the movie? Did you use state funds?
There was no state-money at all in that period. It was all private money, but don't ask me whose money it was, I honestly don't know. There was money laundering going on all the time and we somehow got a part of that money... I wasn’t the producer, the producer was a friend of mine who had some kind of connections with television. To be honest I don't remember, there were some banks who stopped existing so it’s quite complex. If you ask me what the budget was, I would probably day 30 000 dollars.
You were having real soldiers playing in your movie. Does it mean that you were working both with professional and non-professional actors?
Yes. I usually work this way. I think it is really interesting to bring together professional actors and the non-professionals. I don't mean that all non-professionals can be great actors. But there are some that are even better then professionals. In my case they were kind of learning from each other. Actors were learning how to be totally natural and non-professionals were learning how to make for example ten takes while not freaking out. In the beginning they hated each other but eventually we somehow found a common language. It is always good to bring interesting individuals together, ask them to do something and see how they interact. It can lead to quite surprising results.
Was the main character of the movie played by a professional actor?
Yes, he is a great actor. This was his first cinema part. He was twenty-three or twenty-four at that time. I had the chance to work with a lot of great actors and I can say that Giorgi Nakaschidze is one of the greatest actors I ever worked with.
Because he has this kind of an animalistic approach to the character. In the beginning he could kill you with all the conversation, where he would ask any kind of question. Sometimes I don't know what to answer, how to put in words what I'm doing and imagining. It's not easy sometimes. But it is only for the first three, four days. Then tthe character gets under his skin and everything starts becoming easy. You don't have to talk to him at all. With one glance, one look, he understands everything and very naturally he understands the situation you want to create. He even gives you impulses that are always very helpful.
His character is a very passive one...
He looks passive at the first look, but in the inside he is not a passive guy, and he is getting active at the end. Everything around him is breaking down: his daughter, his whole family, his relationship with another woman, his friends... everything is divided, he is on the edge. Not only him, but the world surrounding him as well. He wants to do something, but is not able to do it. Nobody was. Back then you could only run away and nobody knew where to, or become a part of the absurd. Everything pushes him to get a gun, at the end. He doesn't even want to, they are begging him to do it. He is not passive, he just wants to find a way – which he eventually finds. It sounds a bit cynical, but why not? We were, and still are facing this situation around us, why not talk about it?
In ZGVARZE you combine color and black-and-white images. What is the story behind that?
Shall I be honest?
The thing is, we had several boxes of black-and-white Russian film material. Which was quite good, because there was still silver in it. Then, we had five boxes of Kodak color material. That's what we had. There was no idea, why I'm using black-and-white or not. I was coming in the morning and my DOP was asking me, what material should he take. I would tell: “Today is kind of... today let’s take color.” Some critics found some interesting logic there, which I kind of like, but to be honest there was no serious intention. But I am very thankful to the critics because they opened my eyes and I suddenly saw why I did it.
How was the rest? Did you plan a lot, how things should be or were you improvising, leaving space to changes?
I'm always leaving a lot of space to changes. In that case there wasn't even an existing script, only like ten pages. It was not a script in a way we know scripts to be like. We were improvising a lot. For example, the scene with the prisoner. They feed him with Kaša. It was absolutely improvised and we had a lot of fun shooting it. It is fun when you have a situation like that. There is a prisoner, there is a torturer and they are former friends. The fact is that it was realistic, because classmates could have killed classmates, it was normal. Since we were all boiling in that can, we all knew what it meant. Somehow everybody knew what to ask and what to answer. Or when the journalist is asking questions to the soldiers, I didn't tell them what to say, because for me it was interesting to see what they would answer and the answers that you see in the movie are all very honest ones. You can see how they were thinking at that moment. It's precious, when you have the chance to catch something and not to push it. When everything you need is already around you, it is there, so why destroy it? It is better to go with it, to become a part of it, then everything gets easier, because it's natural.
How do your DOPs react to your willingness to change things at the last moment?
DOPs are very nasty people, by the way. But I love them. They are very special guys. When they get to know me then it's very easy. I'm telling them: here we have a script but it doesn't mean that it is a bible, I could suddenly tell you that I don't want to make the scene in the way it is written. I am telling it from the very beginning so it's like an open game, it's not a surprise for them. They are nodding in the beginning. When you come to the praxis it is difficult, as you know. After a couple of days it's very easy and if you ask all the DOPs that were working with me they loved to work with me. All of them. Because I give them freedom, I'm not dominating. I always listen to them, if they have something interesting to offer. It's kind of a dialogue and they love it because they are part of it. We are in it together. We are trying to find something fresh. And while we are trying around, it doesn't matter who will find the idea for the fresh sequence. It's ours. It's for the film. This is why I'm open to any kind of suggestion which fits in the entire movie. So yes, DOPs loved to work with me until now. I hope it will continue like that.
You once said that German cinema is lacking of ambivalence. What do you mean by that?
I think that the drama and problem of German cinema at the moment is political correctness, which is bullshit. Maybe I am a bit pessimistic but it's reality. You can’t have directors here like Gaspar Noe or Leos Carax. It doesn't exist. Everything is under control. Somehow politically correct. And that's why most directors are doing family dramas. Sometimes they are well done, sometimes they are extremely boring, but there is no genre. There is no horror, no very good comedy. I'm talking about intelligent comedy. I can come up with some Italian films, or French films, or Spanish. But they don't exist here.
I don't want to be politically correct, it's not my job. I want to be extremely incorrect. I'm a film director and I still believe that filmmaking is an art, I may be naïve. It's a way of communication, of telling something which bothers you from the inside which you have to share. For me it’s art, pure art, when you are brave enough to share with the audience something very personal.
But of course there are some very interesting exceptions. I don't want to name this guys but there are very interesting German directors. Somehow they are brave, but there are few. It all very much depends on the taste of television. We all know what this means. Commissioning editors from ZDF or ARD or whatever, they try to put you in a drawer, to give you limitations. Which I hate, since I exactly try to go overcome these restrictions. That is probably the main thing I would say to young filmmakers: please, don't listen to advisers. Follow your intentions. You are always right, they can’t understand what you feel and they will never do until you show them the film. They all try to distract you.
Talking about advice, you were also in a cinema school and your most influential teacher was probably Otar Iosseliani. I suppose you were looking for advice, or didn't you?
Not for ZGVARZE. There was no time for advice and I was happy about it. Otar Iosseliani is a great filmmaker. But he has his own rules, which I admire, but they are his own. For example, for him close-ups are awful. In a dialogue between two people, he never cuts close-up to close-up. He hates it. He thinks it's television. You can discuss it or not, agree or not, but I personally disagree. He is a great artist with his own language. But this doesn't mean that everybody should follow it. There are lots of ways in the cinema, you have to find yours. Also, in ZGVARZE the protagonist is a killer. Otar distances himself from brutality, he doesn't like it. If there is a murder in a story, he always avoids showing it directly. He is very radical in his way of filmmaking.
Since you mention it, I find it interesting that most of the scenes in your movie are wide angled...
Yes. If you ask me, I prefer wide shots to close-ups. I am leaving a lot of things to the audience, I don’t want to force it to focus on something. I love long shots when many things are happening there, because the audience can choose what to see. In a wide shot the audience is working more, it has to choose what to focus on inside the frame. But of course it depends on the scene and I don't think that you can use this technique for every scene.
You said Germany is a difficult country to shoot in. Nonetheless you made five feature films here. How come?
I am very thankful to Germany. It is the only country in the world probably where you are allowed to make films without knowing the language. It would be absolutely impossible for me to make movies in France, or in Spain. Here it's not a problem. Suddenly the possibility came to make a totally crazy movie – I'm talking about LOST KILLERS (ed. released in 2000). I was lucky enough to meet Peter Rommel, the producer. It was his first movie as well. I told him there was no script and I told him about my experiences of the last two or three years, which were pretty crazy. It was a miracle. Sometimes miracles happen in life. I got absolute freedom. I could change scenes while shooting, change dialogues and relationships. It was kind of a jam session. Never again I had as much freedom as in Lost Killers. We had a brilliant DOP, Benedikt Neuenfels, who was the most experienced person in the team. I'm very thankful to him. The first days were very hard for me: it was the first time I got a walkie-talkie, first time I worked with direct sound, first time I was shooting in German. At that time, I couldn't understand a word of it. I was very weak. Without Benedikt on my side, any member of the team could have easily destroyed me. I was totally insecure, Benedikt felt it and the first three days he was guarding me from the outside. I needed that time to understand that we were going to shoot the movie under these circumstances and that I was the boss. Then it continued very easily. Nobody believed that it could have happened, but it happened. Everybody was very careful in the beginning but then we all found out that it is possible.
Is it not problematic to make movies without being fluent in the language?
I could make movies even in China. No problem. I'm not joking. When you are making movies the relation between you and your team is unique. We are talking in a different language, which is above verbal language. Or beyond it. It's another dimension. Of course I'm choosing very carefully with whom I work. But usually I have a brilliant team. I mostly ask young people to work with me. They are risky and open minded. They don't have any fears. I'm very often listening to them. It's not like I'm directing... no. My profession is quite tricky. It's about choosing the right people and then listen to them. Of course I'm the one deciding at the end but when I have a good DOP, good actors, intelligent people around me... it's difficult to explain it, it works in another dimension.
You were teaching editing at Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin... Can you tell us a bit about that field?
A film should be seen as one piece. There should be cuts of course, but after the movie you should have the feeling that you watched something that has really a full form, there are no breaks inside it. You don't have to see how it is done.
Editing is like writing. For me the script is not important – I'm sorry, script writers. The thing is, the script should never be the end product. It is not a poem, not a novel. It's a script. It's alive and you can always touch it. I always burn my scripts after shooting. It's a ritual. I think they should not exist anymore. They are replaced by the material you have filmed. Then there is the editing, which is one of the main things in filmmaking. You find a rhythm, you create time. You are like God. You are cutting out things that you think are not necessary for the story. It's as if you would be making a sculpture from the stone cutting out everything which is not necessary. The same for films. Maybe you love a scene so much that it's painful to cut it out. You try to put it there, to put it here, you try everything but then you have to be brave and say ok, this scene should be left out. It's not an easy decision. You need to be brave and step over yourself. Over your narcissism. We are all narcissist in this profession. But it's a compliment.
Talking about narcissism, do you like to look at your own movies?
I don't like to watch them entirely, but sometimes – for example when I'm preparing new ones – I like to watch parts of them. Just to remember the freedom I had. Getting older you loose the ability of being crazy, risky and free to yourself. Getting older, getting experience, you start thinking twice about the scene. Back in the days it was not like that. There was not a big gap between the moment we came up with an idea and the moment we realized it. When I was shooting ZGVARZE for instance, an idea would come up and five minutes after we were doing it. Nobody was discussing it, everybody was doing with. It was interesting: while shooting I was writing. It's a sort of writing without pencil, you write with film lenses and actors. Nowadays it's not that easy, because everything is under control. The production... political correctness… and so on.
Last year you shot two movies in Georgia. How did it feel to be back there?
At the moment really interesting things are happening in Georgia. Society has changed, which makes me very happy. Young people are very open minded nowadays, the situation is getting better, the country is starting to become a real country. They want to be part of Europe. It's not easy. We have to learn a lot and continue developing. We are moving forward though. Particularly young people. Also in filmmaking: there are very young Georgian directors and they approach cinema in some very interesting ways, particularly young girls. This year at the Panorama Section of Berlinale there will be one of the young Georgian films (ed. HORIZONTI, directed by Tinatin Kajrishvili). So in every big festival there is a young Georgian name. They are able to talk about things which ten years ago nobody would have been able to talk about. They are breaking rules. They are brave and I like that very much.