It is the eyes that one notices. Tedo, a young Georgian, suffers from a severe case of strabismus which, when gazing at the world around him, no doubt gives him a particular angle – or is unable to see it as it is.
The fact is that Tedo, a twelve-year-old refugee who lives in a region bordering Georgia and Abkhazia, two countries in the fog of war where borders are blurred or, better still, fuzzed in such a way that resembles the boy’s own visual impairment. He sees life differently, or one can say that in his case life is deferred.
He lives in a village, weary of being bounced around, working in a garage at very low wages, thus indulging in petty theft with a friend, while his mother prostitutes herself. Tedo nevertheless sets his mind to search for his father who is fighting behind the lines on the side of the Abkhazia.
Unable to speak the language of the enemy, he is no more able to grasp what underlines the hostility that turns one country against the other. Like so many children in his situation, the world appears as one borderless entity. And his impaired vision serves as a metonymy of his gaze where enemies and landscapes crisscross, so much alike in that part of the Caucasus that they seem as one. It is through Tedo’s anomaly that we grasp the social and political realities that surround him. His eyes become the absolute sign of his presence, not only as an actor (and a non-professional one at that) facing the camera, but a complete human being, anguished, frightened.
The Other Bank is the first work of fiction by this filmmaker, a picaresque style movie, for we witness the odyssey of a child who, through his travels and encounters, fares across ideological territories and cultural traditions not even knowing what they mean.
Besides, he is advised to play the deaf-mute when he encounters strangers, and to show them his handicap by moving his head. The child seems indifferent to the world around him. For his trek is within himself and his eyes do not fail him, though they can fool us (thus the uneasiness that stems from the obscure character that blurs the storyline).
His sojourns could be compared to a Bildungsroman, although the amazing, flabbergasting scene at the end that shows the dance with the soldiers, in spite of its enigmatic beauty, leaves us with a vague sense of what Tedo’s future would be.
But, unmistakably, what we feel, what we know, is that the voyage is one of despair, hatred, horror, where sometimes a glint of compassion, tenderness and sympathy flares up (as when Tedo takes refuge in the home of a couple, the wife cooking a meal for him and washing his clothes).
It is also a journey into a dreadful childhood, where a world of innocence and joy is battered, turned into a violent settlement of suspicion and cries: A torn world that Tedo is the first to witness, as the audience follow him, in all its lurid reality, but a world as incomprehensible to him; as is the mixed brew of the Russian, Georgian and Abkhazian languages he hears in the background of fury that escort his travels.
Everything is seen, but left unexplained, everything is incomprehensible and yet true.
Broken and humiliated and fearful, such is the state of Tedo, but he is also, and perhaps much more, an obsessed and stubborn being, impetuous and crafty in the midst of chaos; an accidental hero and the metaphor of chaos itself. Somewhat an angel, one would say, that evolves in such a heartless world, a world whose cruelty is emphasized by the violent landscape. It is from the depth of that chaos that Tedo gathers the energy to find his father, a man he believes is still alive, and hopes he will one day catch up with.
His journey is both an initiation and a catharsis. We say to ourselves that Tedo will be able from now on to face all types of situations, as have all the children that proliferated for so long the cinematic world.
The Other Bank is part of the great movies about childhood, just as in the past, to mention but a few titles: Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Roberto Rossellini’s German, Year Zero, Valéri Kanevski’s Freeze-Die-Come to Life and Bohman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses.
The work of Avashvili is one of suffering, incomprehension and abandon. It is all about war, or rather the ravages of war shown through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy, whose gaze stresses his powerlessness throughout the entire movie, in such a way that touches us deep down.
It is for its humanistic qualities and its sober direction, powered by a naked and raw poetry, free of complacent lyricism, that the jury of the FIPRESCI awarded George Avashvili’s film at the Seattle International Film Festival which, by the way, celebrated its 35th anniversary this year.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2009