What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? is 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…
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 fairytale stories I heard as a child.
It’s rare to see a film like yours that genuinely celebrates the extraordinary in the everyday and 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 in my life. As for technology and phones, aside from how much time they steal from us every day, I 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.
This 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 timewise. I finished in summer 2020 and it was my 12th year of being there. Which 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.
Even now, I wouldn’t say that cinema is more precious for me than football!
Like in your previous film, Let The Summer Never Come Again, you use an omniscient narrator, and you even provide the voiceover for What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?
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 film, 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 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. And football… Well, football is my big passion and I love it. It was my passion much earlier than cinema, that came later.
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 – 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 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… 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, 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!
Without a romantic view of the world, nobody could start something.
What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? is a love story that evolves in various directions, with an ending that 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, and 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 something. 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? opens on April 4.
Aleksandre Koberidze studied film and TV in Georgia before moving to Berlin in 2009, where he studied film directing at the DFFB. His docufiction debut film, Let The Summer Never Come Again, won the Best Experimental Film at the 2017 Preis der deutschen Filmkritik. His DFFB graduation film and second feature, What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?, continues to explore the sensuality of love stories, as well as the ravishing dirge-like sensations that decry from Georgian city streets. It was presented in Competition at last year’s hybrid edition of the Berlinale, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize (International Federation of Film Critics).