Picture the scene.
You randomly bump into someone, pick up the book they just dropped and, without warning, that’s it: somehow, you’ve fallen in love. As if this meet-cute wasn’t enough, the universe conspires to put this person on your path once more, only a few hours later. You exchange further pleasantries and organise a date for the following evening. However, the universe isn’t the only force conspiring: the Evil Eye has cursed you both, altering your appearance in the night so that when you show up to the date, neither one of you can recognise the other.
This is the barebones premise of Georgian director Aleksandre Koberidze’s second film, Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt? (What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?), one of our favourite flicks in this year’s Berlinale Competition. It went uncrowned when the Bears were dished out, but its blend of timeless romance and magical realism won over the International Film Critics, who awarded it the FIPRESCI Prize.
We caught up with Koberidze prior to the Summer Berlinale to ask him about folklore, the joys of football, finding hope in protest and how his film celebrates the extraordinary in day-to-day life.
What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? premiered at this year’s digital Berlinale. How was that for you?
It was strange. When I watch films at home, I have to admit I’m a bad watcher. If I don’t like something, I’ll start to get distracted, do other things, make coffee. I might not even watch until the end… So, it’s a very bad fantasy when this exact scenario might happen and someone does it with a film you’ve made. (Laughs) Especially when it’s a festival and you know people like yourself are watching many films each day. But after a few days and reading some of the critics’ reactions to the film, I saw that people watch films differently than me, so that’s reassuring.
You must be thrilled that a wider audience are finally going to be able to see this film on a big screen.
Now it gets really interesting, as it’s the first time someone who hasn’t worked on the film or who isn’t a film professional is going to watch it. I will be at the Summer Berlinale in person and, even if I don’t particularly want to see the film anymore, because I’ve seen it so many times, I will still stay to hear and see the reactions of the public.
The film is your diploma work for the DFFB (German Film and Television Academy Berlin). Can you tell me more about the genesis of the project?
Yes, it’s my diploma film. The good thing about the DFFB is that you don’t have too much pressure, time-wise. I finished in Summer 2020 and it was my 12th year of being there. This means I had enough time to work on a script and understand that the script I had written was too big. The project was too big. I spoke at the time with the head of the school and he gave me excellent advice: “Make something else.” It opened my mind and allowed me to take a step back.
It’s a hard film to describe and do justice to in a logline, but it starts as a love story that develops into something akin to a modern bedtime story. How am I doing?
I’m not angry at that description. Every time I make a film, I try to make something which will be shown in a cinema in which everybody is sleeping and seeing good dreams. So, in that sense, your description works, as the film is also inspired by fairy tale stories I heard as a child.
It’s rare to see a film like yours that genuinely celebrates the extraordinary in the everyday and that sees traditional folklore and curses as part of the very fabric of day-to-day life. There’s also a noticeable lack of intrusive technology throughout the film. Do you think we’ve become numbed to seeing beauty in the seemingly mundane?
Of course, it’s very different depending on who you are and where you’re from. I know a few people who have time for traditions and folklore in their lives. Speaking for myself, I think I give it time. As for technology and phones, aside from how much time they steal from us every day, me and the people I was making the film with agreed that we don’t like how smartphones look and what kind of light they make. So, we thought that in this world where the film takes place, maybe these elements can be hidden from the eye.
Like in your previous film, Let The Summer Never Come Again, you use an omniscient narrator. You even provide the voiceover on the new film.
Yes, there’s some kind of narrator in every film I’ve made – short films, my two feature films… I took some classes for this time, because I’m not an actor and my diction isn’t perfect. But in the end, it’s more about the voice and the musicality. For an international audience, it works, but since there hasn’t yet been a Georgian premiere for the film, it’ll be interesting for me to see how Georgian audiences will react to my narration work.
The presence of this voiceover narration emphasises the fairy tale quality of the film, but also suggests that there is a hand of fate, that we are puppets.
I believe that there is something which we can call fate, or that some things that happen without our participation. But on the other hand, I think that there are moments in which we decide. It’s about recognising the signs and knowing when to act.
The film is set in the city of Kutaisi, which feels like a timeless bubble. It’s so transportive that it feels at times like the portrait of a city more than a romance.
It wasn’t exactly my intention, but when I came to the city and spent time there every day, I saw things I wanted to have in the film. Somehow, the city’s presence was growing for me and I wanted to have as much of it as possible in the film.
The camera does give a lot of time to the city, but also gives equal time and framing to all things non-human, like dogs, grass, drainpipes and, of course, football.
We tried to have a concept of not separating things. We said that if we filmed someone, we film him or her the same way as we film the leading actors. And the same goes for animals, objects, things. It was the wish to show that everything is equally precious. Of course, some have more time on the screen and some have less, but at least in the framing, we tried to make everything equal.
And football… Well, football is my big passion and I love it. It was my passion much earlier than cinema, which came much later. And even now, I wouldn’t say that cinema is more precious for me than football. I haven’t been playing much so, somehow, it’s a compensation to have football in the film when it’s not in real life. But also, I love to observe the reactions of a football crowd, which can be huge, and it’s so interesting to film people who are playing football, because of the big emotions.
A lot of the actors are non-professionals in this film. Can you tell me a bit more about the casting process?
I tried to not fix myself by saying that I only work with professionals or non-professionals, because everything is interesting. I was open to everything that came my way. I travelled a lot, going to small theatres in small towns, meeting actors. We also made a casting of sorts in Kutaisi, where we opened the doors and said that if anyone is interested, they can come and we can talk. Many came, and that’s how we found our lead actors. They weren’t actors – they were just interested in doing something different. The lead actor, prior to the transformation, is a professional arm wrestler, for example. To me, it’s fascinating to see the different facets of people. And I like to work with sportspeople – they have a discipline, and their physicality is very impressive.
Your cinematographer, Faraz Fesharaki, uses a mix of digital and 16mm that adds a tactility to the image but also blurs the perception of time somewhat. How was this collaboration?
We knew each other before the film, but had never worked together. We needed to see how we worked together, so we decided do to a pre-shoot during the 2018 World Cup in Kutaisi. We were shooting quite a lot of things like the way people watch football, the dogs in the city… And after this pre-shoot, it was clear to me that it would be great to do the rest of the film with Faraz. In the beginning, I wanted to work with someone from Georgia, because every country has its own specificities, and it takes some time to adapt and understand what is exotic and what is normal in each culture. But Faraz adapted so quick, in part because there are many similarities with Iran – culturally, but also the language.
The film feels anchored in Georgian culture and aesthetic, but at times has the soul of a silent film and even the spirit of films by Bresson and Rohmer. Did you and Faraz have any specific film references in mind for the film’s look and feel?
Silent cinema is the base of our film, I think. It’s what we were building around. Still now, I think of it more as a silent film than anything else. Faraz and I were showing each other some films during preparation – Georgian movies, but also French, Italian, a lot of Nanni Moretti, a lot of Bresson. I think Bresson is one of the best influences you can have.
The soundtrack is also very eclectic, with classical pieces from Debussy and Schubert, plus Italian pop songs.
Some songs were already in the script, others came later during editing, but I’d say about 80 percent of the soundtrack is written by my brother. He mostly works with electronic music, so it was interesting for him to try other things. It was the first time that I had the possibility to have music made for a film and that’s a wonderful way to think about which sounds make a picture feel more alive, and how some music can make you see a scene completely differently.
What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? is a love story, one that evolves in various directions. The ending seems to metatextually reflect on cinema as a form of magic on the same level as a curse, one that reveals something the eye can’t see.
Yes. Cinema comes into the world of two people who can’t find any help, and cinema is what helps them. It took me a long time to find an ending I was happy with – the script had a different ending, a less hopeful one.While working on the film and even when editing it, I didn’t have much hope. But I have to say that seeing the protests happening in Kutaisi around the river you see in the film gave me hope.
They are planning to build a hydroelectric plant which will destroy everything – the river, the whole ecosystem around it. And the protests became the biggest hope I have experienced in my life in relation to the country. It’s both beautiful and hard, and the way these people fight every day gives me the biggest hope that we will one day live normally in this country. This hope influenced the ending of the film.
As hopeful as the ending is, are you comfortable with people calling the film romantic?
Yes, very much, and the romantic way of seeing the world is something that I’m looking for. Much like in the protests I just mentioned, without a romantic view of the world, nobody could start anything. In the beginning, everything around you says that there’s no chance, but still, with a romantic view of the world, things can happen which are out of the reasonable, out of the pragmatic. And that’s something to cherish.
What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? screened in Competition at this year’s Berlinale, and is showing on the following dates at the Berlinale Summer Special: 16/06 – Museumsinsel / 18/06 – Studentendorf / 19/06 – ARTE Sommerkino Schloss Charlottenburg.