A statue of a knight and a panther locked in mortal wrestle graces one of the busiest intersections in Tbilisi, flanked by the prominent works of Soviet brutalist architecture. Every day, the epic battle draws the attention of thousands of commuters who head from the city’s periphery to the center and back. Every day, thousands of commuters contemplate the scene as they are stuck in traffic jams. Do they take in its concept? Do they ignore its meaning?
The statue stems from “Poem of a Panther and a Knight,” a folk epic about combat, loss, and grief. The poem begins with a chance encounter between the two during a hunt. Having fought valiantly, both die. So far, so banal. But the second part transitions the point of view of the fallen knight’s grieving mother. Reeling under her tragic loss, alone with her grief, she decides to reach out to the tiger’s mother who, she reasons, mourns “day and night” bitterly, just like her.
The poem is one in a strand of Georgian literature that simultaneously romanticizes battle and humanizes enemies – even non-human ones, in this case. The trope of sympathy that transcends enmity has melted many hearts in the country that has known perhaps too many bloody battles.
Yet, the battle has been immortalized in stone, and the more humble scene of two grieving mothers embracing each other remained on paper. But a recent attempt to touch a similar nerve in a film elicited a battle cry instead of the intended pacifist reawakening.
Here is Nini, and the Dispatch to tell you about Georgia’s yet another (this time longer than usual) chase after its own demons.
Walking in your shoes
“Walk on, Lisa” (იარე ლიზა), a movie set against the backdrop of 1990s conflict in Abkhazia, reached big screens around the 30th anniversary of the bitter defeat of the Georgian troops and a perilous flight of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians to safety. The film, directed by prominent filmmaker Nana Janelidze, claims to be based on recollections of those who directly experienced the conflict. It attempts to delve into trauma and reflect on forgiveness and responsibility.
Told in part through poignant Bruegel-inspired animations – one of its most memorable features – the film offers a glimpse into the losses of ethnic Georgians whom the bloody conflict of the early 1990s left with many scars – and without homes. Despite what you hear on social media, the film references Russian responsibility for triggering and escalating the conflict.
But just like that poem, this is where the film attempts to shift the point of view and show the conflict from the Abkhaz perspective. The film makes it its central theme to own up to alleged crimes committed by Georgian fighters toward the ethnic Abkhaz population and portray the conflict as a shared, mutually inflicted pain. Verses from “Poem of a Panther and a Knight” are recited and eventually become a movie soundtrack.
The story is told from the perspective of the main protagonist, Liza, a present-day ethnically Georgian talk show host. Haunted by her memories of experiencing the conflict first-hand as a war reporter and troubled by the ambiguity of the recollections, Liza embarks on the long and somewhat chaotic journey to contemplate the past and walk in the shoes of the other side of the conflict. As the film and the journey progress, the piece advances the message “forgive me, too,” supposedly seeking reconciliation and sympathy through acknowledgment of mutual blame in the shared trauma.
The messages of the film are hardly new. They would periodically come up in peace-oriented discussions and occasional, short-lived attempts to revisit the past. But this time, they were communicated from the silver screen in a dramatic visual, making it hard for the viewer to look away. Undoubtedly, the dramatic backdrop – the war in Ukraine and the mass exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh – contributed to the urge to pick on the past traumas to define and/or redefine them.
So the film fell on fertile ground – fertile for the bitterness of the arguments and visceral to the extent that some of the most avid debaters reacted before seeing the film. The discussion took off on social media and took over the mainstream media in a slow-motion storm. The images of heated in-person exchanges emerged from initial screenings.
Loudest were those unhappy with the film, its content, and its messages. Many, including those who suffered the conflict and displacement, pointed to factual inaccuracies and shared anger at what they saw as the false moral equivalence that its authors drew between the displaced ethnic Georgians and those who forced them to leave. The filmmakers were also accused of exaggerating the crimes allegedly committed by Georgian combatants and not duly documenting the massive ethnic cleansing against ethnic Georgians, who still fail to reclaim their homes. Others complained that the film wrongly generalized the crimes of some fighters to caricature Georgian fighters as war criminals, drug addicts, and looters. From the political quarters, the criticism was that the film underplays Moscow’s role and especially its direct engagement in the conflict, portraying it as primarily an inter-community or inter-ethnic war.
The argument opened a debate about responsibility and agency, the elusive simplicity of defining the enemy, and the complexity of deciphering the layers of social interactions leading to the “hot” conflict. It also revived the persistent contradiction in Georgian society – at least its active part: shall we build bridges and engage directly with the Abkhaz? Or is that effort futile (some say, even comical in its naivety and tragic in its consequence) while the Russian occupation persists and the key conflict to resolve an inter-state conflict with Russia?
Some pushed the idea that while owning up to mistakes may be a good thing in peace efforts, it would be unreasonable to do it until Russia, currently exercising effective control of the region, disappears from the scene (although how exactly that “disappearance” may come about, remained a mystery).
Art of War/War on Art
In discussions about the violence of the 1990s, Georgians often complain they are being treated as the “oldest child.” After all, why should it always be me who apologizes when the other side, responsible for ethnic cleansing, among others, doesn’t even bother to have that discussion?
It is hard to ignore that posing the question in this manner implies the existence of the “parent,” an impartial or, at least, infinitely more powerful arbiter that one appeals to. Often, the only difference between various political and opinion leaders has been deciding about that arbiter – is it Russia? Is it the U.S.?
The groups backing the reconciliation often maintain that it is a grown-up thing to do and, thus, a sign of democratic maturity, not some kind of an open-ended capitulation. They argue that reaching out has an intrinsic pragmatic value for bolstering the country’s democratic credentials and towards conflict resolution. And both international prestige and resolving that conflict, they say, is what Georgia desperately needs to move forward. Their opponents retort that one ignores the Russian meddling and malevolence at one’s peril.
Or, perhaps, this is all too rational? Perhaps something hides behind that rationality, like the urge to dig deeper and unpack the entire context of the early 1990s, in which – to name one example – the character of violent or looting Georgian in military fatigues is entirely believable? After all, wouldn’t culture scholars agree that repressed trauma and shame from those years may be responsible for much of the present-day turmoil?
And if that is true, perhaps the unprocessed shock of those years makes the current discussions somewhat difficult to follow logically, to discern the reasons behind that pent-up anger, the penchant to label the opponents as agents and traitors, occasional calls to ban the film and punish those who gave money to film it (grotesquely, the current justice minister, irascible Tea Tsulukiani joined the opposition and pointed finger at her predecessor – from the same party).
What are we trying to censor, after all? Our memories? Our feelings of shame and guilt? Or impotence to change what we see as a profoundly unfair state of affairs?
As it often happens, the controversy only aided the box office sales. Curious audiences flocked to the movie theaters. I was among them and can attest that the screening did not conform to the social media frenzy. After the film, the viewers could be seen leaving the room in calm chatter. Some even tried to start clapping (but instantly stopped themselves. Social media pressure?!).
Many seem to be still figuring things out and drawing their own conclusions. It will take time before Georgians can strike a balance between seeking justice for the trauma, admitting their own mistakes, and moving forward.
But after days of heated exchanges, perhaps (finally) there is something to agree on: before reaching out to those we consider (or considered) enemies, we must first learn how to talk to each other.