The winners and the losers. The dictum of every war. The winners take all, the losers lose all. Their land, homes, identity, belongings. Displaced persons in the name of ethnic solidity and artificial nationalism. Cultural and racial diaspora, increasingly occurring within national borders. Internally Displaced People (IDPs) make up more than double all the refugees requesting asylum(UNCHR 2015). They are the losers who cannot cross national borders, who are expelled from their lands, forced to move. We are conventionally led to believe that for the winners it is usually better. However, this is not always so.
This is the perspective, original and quite effective (even in being quite cryptic), of HOUSE OF OTHERS, by the first-time director, Rusudan Glurjidze, awarded Best Film at the International Festival of Karlovy Vary, in the ‘East of West’ section.
It is already quite clear from the title that Rusudan Glurjidze, Georgian, is turning our focus on the Abkhazians between 1992-93 – they killed, plundered and occupied. The film is set in a rural village in Georgia, where everything that had belonged at one time to the losers now belongs to the winners. A village where for centuries Russians, Armenians, Jews, Estonians and Abkhazians had always lived together. There had even been the Greeks living in those imposing villas, testimony to the flourishing communities of the past, but now desolate and ghostly dwellings, ready to become the homes of someone else.
It is Ginger, a shady wheeler-dealer militiaman, who thinks of bringing the village back to life, ferrying the new inhabitants through the hills. Astamur, Liza and their two children arrive in the village on his decrepit military vehicle. In the background, the sound of incessant rain falling, the mist enveloping the houses scattered across the hills, an impressive scene. Ginger extols (in Russian) the beauty of the place and its mandarins.
«The mandarins from Georgia or Morocco are no good, their peel is too soft. Ours are the best.»
In their new home, Astamur, Liza find traces of life everywhere that are difficult to ignore. Objects left in a great hurry by the former inhabitants, fleeing down the mined path, on an icy winter’s night.
«Who lived here?» (Liza)
«I don’t know.» (Ginger)
«I don’t understand how they managed to escape from here.» (Ginger)
In just one single night, about 300,000 Georgians left behind their homes, belongings and identity. Wardrobes full of clothes, cutlery, mirrors, lamps, medicine boxes. In the rooms, like ghosts, the haunting presence of those who had been there before: the Georgians.
Between 1992-1993, in the middle of the Georgian-Abkhazian war there occurred, generally ignored, an actual operation against the Georgians of ethnic cleansing. Tbilisi, defeated in the field, bowed to Abkhazian secession (led by Moscow). 15,000 deaths (International Red Cross), tens of villages destroyed, 200,000 displaced persons,mainly in the district of Gali,in the south-east of Abkhazia, on the (new) border with Georgia. Before the war, 95% of the population had been made up of Mingrelians, a Georgian ethnic subgroup. Over the years, about 50,000 displaced persons have returned to Gali. Most of them do not possess an Abkhazian passport.
On 7 June 2016, the United Nations General Assemblyrecognized the right of the displaced (independently of their ethnic identity) to return to their homes. A right destined to remain only on paper due to the lack of any reception facilities or housing and social settlement programs on the part of the Abkhazian authorities. The objective of the Abkhazians was to help their co-nationals reinter (with appropriate incentives), and not the Georgians.
Astamur and Liza, Ira, Azida and her daughter, Nata, their neighbors, are the main characters of HOUSE OF OTHERS. The winners, yet, at the same time, the losers, unable to rebuild a life for themselves “in the liberated regions”. Survivors of a war that still is inside them, in the interstices of their souls.
«Our neighbors woke us up. They told us there were soldiers in the town headed towards the theater, near our house. We fled out onto the street. Papa had been so afraid that he had put different colored shoes on. There was shooting, so we went to relatives of my mamma. We remained there a long time, nine people in two small rooms. We found out that our house had been burnt down.»
Leo, Astamur’s and Liza’s son, remembers their escape. He and Nata, two teenagers, are the only ones living the village, exploring the abandoned houses, hunting down their ghosts.
«I took these glasses from your house before you arrived.» (Nata)
«You stole them?» (Leo)
«What they left behind no longer matters.» (Nata)
Ira, with her androgynous features, is the most hostile character in the film. Wearing a military uniform, she still feels he is at war, ready with her rifle to shoot, to burn, to destroy. The mandarins in the orchards are her usual targets, when there is nothing better. She also wants to teach Leo how to do it, to shoot well.
«Why do you set fire to everything? The people in the village will do it.» (Astamur)
«You are wrong, they hope to return and maybe they will.» (Ira)
Astamur is the most tormented character, unable to free himself from the old and embrace the new.
«I no longer know who I am, where I am and why everything here is different. It seems like it is all an illusion.»
He drags himself apathetically from one room to another, from one tree to another, while Liza tries to “conquer” her new home, to make it feel more hers and less of the Others.
HOUSE OF OTHERS is a rather gloomy film, hermetic and often allegorical. Quietly disturbing. A film about the feelings of guilt of the winners, the occupation of conquered lands, the encroachment on the lives of others. Besides its melancholic and atmospheric setting (everything is seen through the mist), HOUSE OF OTHERS also has the advantage of authenticity, drawing from a direct testimony, that of the director’s herself.
«Twenty years ago I lost my home and with it my childhood, my memories, my past and my identity.» (Rusudan Glurjidze)
The film ends with a decrepit military vehicle moving down a hill. On board, Astamur and his family again. They are leaving as they had arrived, unable to live in the House of the Others.