The two features that the Berlin-based Georgian filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze has completed at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB) are at once overflowing and miniature. Shot on a 2008 Sony Ericsson cell phone, his FIDMarseille prizewinner Let the Summer Never Come Again (2017) told a sparsely narrated love story between an aspiring dancer and a military officer in Tbilisi. But for most of its three-and-a-half-hour runtime, Koberidze observed the city and the comings and goings of its pedestrians, whose alternately strange, funny, somber, and aimless activities encircled and eclipsed the narrative focus by mixture of acute vérité patience and the curious, playful impulses of early silent cinema. All the while, the film’s ultra-low-quality camera rendered audiovisual details choppy, saturated, and at times nearly abstract; in effect turning the document closer to the sensorial. This paradox seems central to the effect of Koberidze’s work, which engages, in both form and content, the flow of time, the inexplicable feeling of a shared memory, and the dexterity of cinema to behold the realm of everyday beauty beyond literal representation. The immense scope and inventiveness of that debut remains in his latest, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, which recently had its world premiere in competition at this year’s Berlinale, where it was awarded a FIPRESCI jury prize. Structured in two parts and narrated by Koberidze himself, the writer-director-editor’s second feature is one part love story, another part city symphony, with a flight of fancy at its center, but one not untethered from the wonders and disorders of its contemporary setting.
What Do We See begins with a quote, positioned against an azure background, by the Georgian writer Rezo Cheishvili: “These morons have never seen a raven, Guia A. thought, but you couldn't notice anything on his face.” Eschewing the crude motion of his first feature’s pixelated video in favor of crisp digital and lush 16mm cinematography by Faraz Fesharaki, Koberidze introduces his main characters and their surroundings in a vividly brisk play of time across the opening credits. The film’s first shot statically observes children and parents spilling out of a schoolyard entrance. Any nod to the Lumière brothers dampens amid the growing din of high-pitched chatter and inserts of certain students—one boy feeding a dog, others climbing into a parked construction vehicle, a girl shyly dancing on a step. Bresson comes closer to mind once a close-up isolates a cluster of small sneakers standing around, until each gradually fades away and all that remains is asphalt and birdsong. A zoom-out gradually reveals the schoolyard again, now empty, and the surrounding verdant foliage, before returning to the ground on which the main characters, Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze), meet. Framed only by the actions of their feet, they bump into each other and proceed in the wrong direction not once, but twice, before continuing on their initial path. From the start, Koberidze appears captivated by the junction of detail and essence, part and whole, and ellipses that evade causality. The purpose here is not to deprive a certain agency from Lisa and Giorgi, who in fact form the core of the film, but to contain them within this domain of imagination and perspective—the domain where Koberidze wanders freely with his own obsessions, curiosities, and doubts.
Not long after this sequence, Lisa and Giorgi meet once more on a road, this time in an extreme long shot, framed as two barely discernible figures among the darkened buildings and shimmering lamplights of Kutaisi, an ancient provincial city located west of Tbilisi and the primary object of Koberidze’s fascination. After the young lovers schedule a date at a nearby café for the following evening, Lisa encounters an unusual group of characters—a seedling, a surveillance camera, an old rain gutter, and the wind—bearing bad news. In comically matter-of-fact reverse shots, and as Koberidze, the narrator, explains, these entities put the natural order of the world aside to tell Lisa that an evil eye had just cursed her to awaken the next morning in an entirely different body. However, two crucial details the wind fails to convey (because a car got in the way) is that Lisa’s most important skill, medicine, will disappear with her body; the other is that this same curse will befall Giorgi, a soccer player. What follows is an openhearted dream of a film; one lifted just a hair above practical concerns but still close enough to the ground where the everyday effects of people, animals, a soccer bar, even a pop song, take on mystified connections to the environment and to the shared experiences on which human life depends.
To keep us wondering if Lisa and Giorgi (now played by Ani Karseladze and Giorgi Bochorishvili) will unite again isn’t Koberidze’s concern so much as what their new bodies do in the meantime, and what else he can show us now that he has our attention. It’s from here that What Do We See expands beyond its fairytale of lovers lost and into a poetry of place. Embracing Lisa and Giorgi is an entire city rich with the long-held traditions and new endeavors of its inhabitants, each in a world of their own. From the friendships of local dogs and residents anticipating the World Cup to a film crew struggling to complete a project about the nature of true love, Koberidze slows down narrative pacing in order to nestle such moments among the movements and motifs of their natural surroundings and, perhaps especially, the film’s abounding music. At times his composer brother Giorgi Koberidze’s eclectic synthesizer score combines the comic precision of Merrie Melodies with the grandness of opera, when other segments occasion orchestral arrangements of Schubert; impromptu Georgian-style polyphonic singing over dinner; and, in one glorious slow-motion montage of children playing soccer, the duration of Gianna Nannini and Edoardo Bennato's “Notti magiche,” the official song of the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
About halfway through this soccer-obsessed film, Koberidze explains the origin of one of the two most popular soccer bars in Kutaisi. A “long time ago,” back when Torpedo Kutaisi won a historic victory against Dinamo Tbilisi, this building—now a kiosk featuring one television that faces the street—used to be a prop workshop with the town’s only working radio. Consequently, it drew a crowd whose subsequent generations carry on the custom. Over this story Koberidze monitors the gestures and posture of a spellbound neighborhood: a few old men occupy the business’s al fresco bench, one young boy watches raptly from the street, another person inside their parked car. “Now there is neither the workshop nor the people who remember this story,” he says, “But a tradition is a tradition.” The idea of these goings-on as something to be contemplated rather than used to propel a plot provides some relief to the narrator, for whom the comforts of modernity become more removed from history each day.
Vaster context arrives when Koberidze explicitly dates his film during a “brutal, merciless” period. “I have no doubt that this time will be perceived as one of the most violent times by the people of the future,” he says while a shot follows a soccer ball ebbing and flowing with the currents of Kutaisi’s Rioni River. “For example, how we deal with our brothers and sisters from the animal kingdom, is unprecedented for the past.” It’s one of many brutal examples the narrator implies can be referenced, but he leaves well enough alone. If the film, however briefly, shoulders the heavy burden of manmade anguish, it’s still not without an obligation to the fantasy it has so carefully, and spiritedly, constructed. Koberidze’s world is one that’s perfectly realized, and yet perfectly unreal—an imaginary object that exists in place of the unattainable.