Hostages of Migration

in 19th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Salome Kikaleishvili

On November 10-15, the 19th Eastern European International Film Festival was held in Cottbus. Several Georgian films were among the works from 35 countries presented in different programs at the festival. They were: Vano Burduli’s The Conflict Zone (Konfliqtis Zona), Shalva Shengeli`s The Unknown Soldiers (Utsnobi Jariskacebi) and Salome Jashi’s Their Helicopter (Mati Tvitmfrinavi). The young Georgian film director Zaza Rusadze’s 8-minute-long film Folds And Cracks (Naketsebi Da Bzarebi) was recognized by the festival’s Discovery Award.

But I want to dedicate this article to a different Georgian film or rather a topic that arose from one of the Georgian films presented at the Cottbus Film Festival. The story is about the Georgian women who have migrated abroad to feed their families. I am talking about Nutsa Aleksi-Meskhishvili’s debut film Felicita made according to Zaira Arsenishvili’s story The Wife Wept Over Her Husband. The film can be identified as a tragicomedy from the very first scene. In the middle of the room a dead man is rested on a sofa. Several old chairs stand around the body. On the chest of the dead man is a mobile phone from where one can hear the voice of his wife. It turns out that the wife of the dead man has gone to Italy to earn money and cannot come back home to mourn her husband. That is why she weeps over her dead husband in the phone sometimes quite loudly. Neighbors, relatives and even a lover of the man who passed away come to pay tribute to him. The camera only leaves the body to show the neighbors who have gathered in the yard of the dead man’s house. There are seniors sitting with their umbrellas and three small children who stand pitifully and all alone at the gate.

Meanwhile the mobile phone is plugged into loudspeakers and now the entire village can listen to the monologue of the dead Valiko’s wife. The woman who has migrated to Italy recalls their family life and tells her husband how much she loved him. But what was she to do? She was to leave the country to earn money, was she not? “I know that our children will be left completely alone but what sense it makes for me to return unless I bring the money enough to open a store?” she says. From time to time the connection is lost and when trying to reconnect the entire village can hear the mobile version of Felicita through Al Bano and Romina Power. At first look, nothing much is happening in the film, which runs only 30 minutes. A man dies leaving small children orphans, and their mom who has gone abroad to earn living for her family is unable to come back as she has not collected enough money. What is going on? People have lost the sense of humanity and limits. Is migration a way to start a new life or to catch up with something? Meanwhile years fly, children grow up, families are ruined, and they remain eternal hostages, the hostages of migration.

Another Georgian film director Levan Koguashvili, had his picture on the same topic named Women from Georgia (Kalebi Saqartvelodan) released in 2008 in Tbilisi. This is a story about women who do not live their own lives, who have left their husbands, children and have found a temporary shelter in America where they work as caregivers. But the heroes of Koguashvili’s film who left their homes “temporarily to earn living” have become hostages forever! They have become money-making machines and have nothing of their own left. The work they do never changes; the only thing that changes is the place of work. Feeding, washing and grooming helpless seniors, helping them go to the bathroom, cleaning the house, etc. Then comes the routine process of standing in line to send money to their children, mothers, husbands, aunts, etc. For 53 minutes you observe their faces and listen to their stories… You witness how they care about the elderly and how they “raise” their children over the phone. Some of them have been illegal migrants already for 10 years. You hear their short monologues about their ruined families, a new wife or a lover of her husband, a summer house they need to buy and their “naughty” children. You see how they sit in front of TV sets in the evening and show the video cassettes received from Tbilisi to the seniors they are taking care of. The cassettes show a wedding of their “suddenly grown-up children”, a feast of their relatives or a video of their son attending a music class, “This is my child,” the mom says with pride, “look how big he has grown, look how good he is singing. He is a good boy, a very good boy.” On the TV screen you can see a boy aged eight or nine. He is dressed up all nice and neat and sings very loudly. The mother sits on the floor and is glued to the screen while the object of her care sits comfortably in an armchair and agrees to every comment from the mother by nodding.

These women have only one day off per month. It is actually less than a day: from 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon to 1 p.m. Sunday. They spend these few hours of freedom in a cheap Brooklyn hotel. In Brooklyn there are only up to ten hotels or rather houses rented to Georgians and then rented out secretly from landlords. The illegal migrants in Koguashvili’s film are the clients of this illegal hotel. They gather here, sit around the kitchen table and spend hours chatting. Then they go shopping for their children and finally spend the evening in a Georgian restaurant. And what Georgian restaurant can claim to be a Georgian restaurant, wherever it is, if there are no dances and if men from the next table do not drink toasts for the beauty of Georgian women? The next day the work starts again and the mothers wait for their only holiday, which is always the same.

The work scenes yield to the ‘cold’ landscapes of American winter and the dialogues in a hotel. The film shows empty streets and caregivers with forced smiles who put a cream on the lips of seniors saying: “You are so beautiful, really, really. Very beautiful. Look.” The camera gives a close up of the women and tries not to miss any detail or any words. This allows the viewer to establish a direct contact with the heroes of the film. You become involved in the film as if you are there in a small Brooklyn hotel. You listen, you take a close look and you try to judge… or do not judge at all and try to find a way out of this baffle together with them.

One woman particularly caught my eye and settled in my memory. She sent a wedding present to her nineteen-year-old son – a car. Within a couple of months he had a car accident and killed several people. He was jailed for 6 years. The mother felt guilty: maybe she should not have sent it? Her son was only nineteen and probably did not drive well… And she was not there. She asked her employers to dismiss all other maids and volunteered to do the entire job herself saying that she needed money. “Besides caring for a senior and cleaning the house I have to cook for at least 100 people. I can hardly stand on my legs, my whole body burns but I do this not just for money. I want to feel the pain, to punish myself.” She told the film director that she could not go to Tbilisi because she had a single daughter and she needed to buy her a house.

Levan Koguashvili: “While working on the film I had a feeling of guilt, because I am a man myself and watching all these women I wanted to do something. But what? I think that everybody has a share of guilt in this: both the women themselves and their families. But what often happens to these women and to their family members is terrible. They lose the feeling of limits. I met [a] couple of women who knew the purpose of their migration. One of them wanted to buy an apartment and the other wanted to pay for the education of her child. Both of them thought they would go back after earning enough money. But one need is followed by another and… They stay there forever. Meanwhile, the years fly and their families are ruined. Many such women have children who have become drug addicts because of the windfall. Many have still unmarried children who will need their financial support even more after they create families. So, the mothers stay abroad and continue working hard. There were cases when they could not make it to the funerals of their own children because then they would not be able to go back. One woman sat and made pedicure to her American host when her child was being buried.”

Despite the fact that the topic is tragic, the film director tries not to make it heavier artificially and brings in a certain comic mood in several scenes, which make the reality a bit lighter and satiric. For example, the restaurant scene with an outworn tradition of dances and toasts has the silhouettes of the dressed-up women with fur coats and boas on their necks walking in a street in a night Brooklyn shown in a slow motion. The same reality starts again the next day: gloves, washing, scrubbing, cleaning and a lullaby sung over the phone. This story has not made it in Levan’s film. She was called Manana. Each time her husband and child called her with new offers. Over the years she worked and sent money to Tbilisi to buy a house, to refurbish it, then to buy a summer house. Eight years passed and she returned home. In Tbilisi she discovered that there was neither an apartment nor a summer house. The photos of the houses she received on her email where downloaded from somewhere. All the money she was sending was squandered in bookmakers’ offices. “I was told that after hearing this story the woman went crazy and was [sic] placed in a mental clinic,” Levan added.

* * * The number of Georgian emigrants in the United States is unknown. According to unofficial data, it is around 50-100 thousand. “The U.S. Embassy does not issue visas for caregivers. The women manage to get in the United States under different invitations. Many enter it from Mexico. I cannot tell you anything more,” was a short answer at the U.S. Embassy.

Edited by Tara Judah