Jackals and Drones (Chronicles of a Summer), Sophio Medoidze, 2016-2018.
This written exchange is a substitute for a Q&A what could not take place when I was prevented from attending Sophio Medoidze’s screening at Peckhamplex in June organised by the Serpentine Galleries as part of their off-site, itinerant cinema programme. Sophio and I were meant to have a short conversation after the screening of her three films Questions and Answers (Q&A) (2012), Black sea is really black (2015), Jackals and Drones (Chronicles of a Summer) (2016-2018) and Sergei Paradjanov’s Kiev Frescoes (1965-66). The conversation would have been interrupted by a reading performance by Frank Wasser. In this written exchange, we have attempted to preserve the informality and spontaneity of a post-screening conversation.
Maria Palacios Cruz: I’m interested in the gesture of the hand pointing in your films (as a way to say “look !”). I think I’m intrigued by it, and drawn to it because it’s a recurrent motif in the work of other contemporary female moving image artists like Ana Vaz and Basma Alsharif with whom I’ve recently worked, and who use it prominently in their films Occidente and Deep Sleep. That latent connection between your films, and theirs, through the hand gesture, made me wonder if we can think of it as a “female” gesture. What do you think about that?
Sophio Medoidze: I don’t think it is a “female gesture” per se (I can’t comment on those films as I have not seen them), my inspiration comes more from Robert Bresson and is closer to what Brecht calls “Gestus”. It is a way of showing that things are out of reach, literally. I share Bresson’s obsession with filming hands (and he films them so beautifully!). I began filming hands in my photographic work very long time ago and it slipped into my videos from there, so there’s a continuity, a logic to why I use certain gestures. As I am dealing with discontinuous spaces, the hand is also what connects them – in fact it is the only thing that connects.
In Black Sea the opening shot shows me tracing the washing line outside the window, while the voiceover says ‘I wish I could give this to you…but it’s flat, it’s so terribly flat’ and it all looks a bit 3D. It’s my way of saying that even 3D images are not three dimensional. There’s an inherent flatness to the cinematic image and nothing we can do about that. I find this limitation very beautiful. Sometimes the hand gesture is more playful, like pointing out the differences in scale – scale is something great to play with in cinema (Buster Keaton is a master of that). I have recently read Jean Luc Nancy’s book about Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema, a very beautifully book about the relationship between cinema and touching and I am interested in that too. But all this comes after the work is made; everything I say about my films is post-factum.
MPC: Pointing is also a way to propose the camera as a body and thus to work within an “embodied” form of filmmaking. What do you think about the relationship between the camera and your body as the filmmaker?
SM: There’s an obvious relationship between the camera and the body, any body, artist’s or not. I am mostly thinking of Dziga Vertov and his Kinoglaz, which made a huge impression on me when I was a teenager. This relationship, the interchangeability of the camera and the eye, a mechanised view, is what is closer to my approach. I am very Bergsonian in that respect- it always comes down to a thinking function (his comparison of cinema to the process of the intellect is still very powerful). Neurobiologists are saying some new things in this direction and I am interested in that too.
Because I usually only see what I am filming through the viewfinder, some of the image remains “out of frame”, reflecting a fragmentation of my reality (or that of the protagonist, which sometimes is the same thing). I often use a framing device like a car window to this effect. For now it’s important for me to do the filming myself, rather than work with a DOP. In this way I am always conscious of my body and its position in relation to other bodies, which comes with its own pleasure and its own risk, to position oneself so close to the subject. Contemporary cinema can be a bit obnoxious in this respect… but that’s another story.
MPC: This gesture of saying “look” is also a way of addressing the spectator directly… which is something you often do, saying “I like you” for instance. Can you talk about that direct form of address and why that relationship is so important to you and to the work? It’s also a form of breaking down the fourth wall, the illusion of cinema, and so I wondered if you are particularly drawn to this self-reflexivity as a way to break away from your background in filmmaking? (I suppose that when you studied film it was in a more conventional, narrative mode?)
The self-reflexivity manifests not only in addressing the spectator but also in clearly enunciating the film is a film and thus making the spectator aware not only of him/herself but also of time (“in 30 seconds…. “, “for the last 3 minutes…”), which I like very much as time is film’s great manipulation.
SM: Yes, completely. I’ve always been fascinated by this space between the screen and the spectator, same when I was at film school. I used to like Shirley Clarke’s The Connection when I was studying film, I still like her films actually.
Maybe the best way to answer your question is to describe a scene: if you remember in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis Barrault’s character leaves the stage (chasing his beloved!), he runs out on the street and there’s a carnival procession! He is still wearing his stage costume. That is a beautiful sequence about the interchangeability of the cinematic and the “real” spaces. It’s that old question of where does the theatre (or cinema) end and the life begins. So for me from the very start it’s not just about what’s on the screen – there is also the audience, a dark box, a projectionist, the chairs etc. One of the techniques I use to show this is the direct speech that you mentioned (and I use different techniques according to each idea, as opposed to “style”). When I was living in Georgia I was doing a lot of DJing, I had a programme on the radio called Midnight hour. Radio occupied a very special place in the 1990s – because of the power cuts TV was a bit of a luxury and the radio just needed some batteries. There is a lot of intimacy in radio, especially if you are doing a late night show, those long conversations with the listener. I think I tried to translate that intimacy into my films, this is where the tone of my address comes from for example. Radio also has a special relationship with duration which I like very much, you say things like “this song is 3.5 minutes long” or “in 10 minutes we shall have a weather forecast” etc.
But I would not call it a manipulation – it’s more like stripping the film of its artifice in a way that becomes even more artificial, because we are not used to being addressed in this way in a conventional set up. I developed this technique more fully in This video is about children and language (2007- 2008). It was not used so much back then, so maybe I should credit myself a bit 😉
I guess I am always looking for the new ways to disrupt the narrative flow, this conventional dramaturgy of the beginning, middle and end, which I find very false in relation to the reality of production. Besides, this is not how we experience things in real life anyway. I try to show that time is out of joint, there’s no continuity.
MPC: Was Black sea is really black made during the same trip to Georgia as Jackals and Drones? Can you talk about their relationship and about showing in the cinema space (as you did at Peckhamplex) a work that appears to be meant for the gallery space?
SM: The two films were made about a year apart and they were made for the cinema, or something as close to that as possible. I think the cinema set up strangely reflects the awkward intimacy of my films and I like that doubling.
The story of making them is rather simple: I travelled to Vardzia Cave City and I was so impressed by the caves I decided to go back and make a film; so I made Black sea is really black, which is a diagonal line if you think of it in Geometry, a line from the mountain cave going down towards the Sea. A year later I decided to go back and make another film, a different kind of film (Jackals and Drones). I like working in this way, staying with the subject matter for a long time, allowing time to pass between the shoots so the work becomes also about the time spent, about the memory of a place and the memory of the film. I start from basic questions, like “what is it, a Cave?” After filming I realized that my fascination was with this feeling of being inside a sculpture, inside an artwork. I was at the time interested in the relationship between the body and architecture and have just finished another film, Andropov’s Ears, which is about a Brutalist monument in Tbilisi that in my story becomes a living space for an unnamed protagonist.
Because I am dealing with politically charged geographies (there is a Russian crossing point close to the Cave city and this is where the Soviet polygon used to be), there are layers and layers of meaning, but it remains underground so to speak, under the image, while the voiceover describes something else; I think my films are always about putting the different modalities together to see what happens between the two.
When I showed Jackals and Drones – Chronicles of a Summer at the gallery at Goldsmiths, I built a large box and put down some chairs (car seats), making it a bit like a cinema space. As I also work with the objects I sometimes bring the two together: some lines converge, new relationships are forged, sometimes unexpected ones, but it is never about showing the same thing twice, I am not interested in that.
MPC: Your talk about politically charged geographies. Can you say more about those layers beneath the image and why the landscape of your native Georgia is so important to you and continues to inspire your work?
SM: I do tend to film mostly in Georgia (though not exclusively, I have made films here in the UK too like This video is about children and language) for several reasons. First of all, it is where I grew up and I know it best. But it also keeps changing every time I go back, so I feel a bit like a tourist. I think this allows me a certain perspective which is something in between a native informant and a tourist’s gaze, and I am interested in that (hybrid) way of looking, which is manifest in my filming and framing. My children also appear in my films sometimes as I am interested in their viewpoint, which is completely different from mine as they were born in the UK and they have a completely different relationship with Georgia.
Georgia is also a very beautiful and troubled place, a bit like someone you might fall in love with; it is going through (and has been for a while) a difficult process of transformation of sorts, it still feels like a social experiment with all the different political setups we have experienced in a relatively short period of time. Everyone’s watching what is going to come out of this experiment, which could then be reapplied to other small countries that are similar geo-politically… of course this is all very worrying.
I am currently working on a feature film produced by Adam Pugh (Tyneside cinema), where we are looking at the accelerated development of the countryside in a remote mountainous region in North-east Georgia, which remained largely unchanged until recently. I am interested in what is manifest in the current relapse of identity politics, not just in Georgia but everywhere else, and working there is a way of narrowing things down for myself, in order to find a platform from where the ideas can be launched in all sorts of directions. I guess the question (and the challenge) for me is how to speak of these commonalities without reducing them to the issue of globalisation.
MPC: Your bio says “born in USSR, brought up in the Republic of Georgia and lives in London”. There’s a change of country that happens in that sentence without you actually having had to move, which I find is significant. Like you, I grew up in the Soviet Union and lived there (in Moscow) at the time of its collapse. And so I’m interested in your experience of that historical moment, that transition, and how your work reflects it and reflects on it.
SM: Well, of course, my work reflects my biography but only in so much as there are many selves and many biographies – there’s this inherent multiplicity, which is manifest in the multiple ways of telling a story (a voiceover, written commentary, variations in tone but also different languages). I was part of the first generation of post-soviet teenagers and that is something I keep going back to in my films, but without nostalgia, because I would not want to be stuck in the 1990s Tbilisi, if you see what I mean. The reality of growing up there was very grim, with two wars in a short space of time (the Abkhazian war and the civil war), economic collapse and the emergence of extreme nationalism…But what I am interested in are the trivialities, more than grand narratives, because I think it’s the only way I can make sense of those events, by scaling things down. I have a vivid memory for example, of how the mass import of VHS players coincided with the Liberation movement and the war in Abkhazia, so that there was more Rambo on TV screens than any actual fighting, with some Steven Seagal thrown in here and there. The war was always happening somewhere else, off screen, on the shores of that mysterious blue and black sea… I have written extensively about that, the coincidence of these two image modalities. I guess that ties in with what you asked me at the beginning, about my interest in the spillages between reality and fiction.
We were also teenagers like any others – amidst the power cuts and the food shortage, all we were concerned about was if we had enough battery power for another replay and what song would come on next.
MPC: At Peckhamplex, you chose to show your films with Sergei Paradjanov’s Kiev Frescoes, the surviving 14 minutes of an unrealised project. Can you talk about this choice and your relationship to Paradjanov’s work and by extension to Soviet Cinema? I like the choice of word “Frescoes” instead of “Tableaux”, as there’s something monumental about frescoes and also they are generally public works of art, which were prevalent in socialist art. There is a also a relationship to both time and architecture in their monumentality…
SM: For awhile I thought I didn’t like Paradjanov’s cinema, I guess I was a bit bored of his persona and all those legends you hear at the film school in Tbilisi. Besides, I don’t like theatricality in cinema. My films are more economical, I am often recycling images and sounds as a way of reflecting the precarity that existed (and still does) on so many levels.
I saw Kiev Frescoes more recently and I was mesmerized by Paradjanov’s innovative use of sound. Frescos is also unlike his other films in that it is the only film he made about the contemporary reality (a soldier returning to his lover after the WWII). The film was never finished because of censorship and what we saw at Peckhamplex was an assemblage of the test shots. So it’s a memory of a film, a memory of a memory.
I think he might have chosen the title because of its religious connotations, he admired the early Christian icons you find in the old churches in Georgia, especially in the mountains, with simple gestures, vibrant colours and non-perspectival views – a bit like his films really.
Sophio Medoidze is an artist and filmmaker. Medoidze was born in USSR, brought up in the Republic of Georgia and lives in London. She works with film, photography, text and sculpture, and for a time, she worked anonymously as part of the Clara Emigrand collective. Her work is marked by precarity and explores the poetic potential of uncertainty. She often acts in her own films, which progress by juxtaposing different image modalities and bashing sounds against one other, often to achieve a tragicomic effect. Her work is driven by the desire that is caught up between state violence and personal agency. Her work has been shown at Kunstmuseum Luzern, Whitechapel Gallery, Arnolfini, Tbilisi Art Fair, Silk Museum Tbilisi (upcoming). She is a current a recipient of Tyneside cinema artist film commission and is working on her first feature film in Georgia.
Maria Palacios Cruz is a film curator and Deputy Director at LUX.