The Beauty and the Beasts of the South Caucasus By Ingvald Bergsagel
It’s often best to start with a joke. Here’s one that isn’t very funny. It’s Armenian and quoted in the Lonely Planet’s guidebook for Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan:
A boy asks his grandfather why the Armenians haven’t sent a man into space. The old man replies “If the Armenians sent a cosmonaut into space, the Georgians would die of envy. If the Georgians die of envy the Armenians will die of pleasure. And if the Georgians and Armenians die, the Azeris will be left with all the land”.
The joke will be more comprehensible for outsiders who get a chance to see A Trip to Kharabakh (Mogzauroba Karabagsh / Gaseirneba Karabakhshi) by the Georgian director Levan Tutberidze, even though the strife and tensions described in this film is mainly between Azeris and Armenians.
A Trip to Kharabakh, which won the first ever FIPRESCI-price at this year’s Tbilisi International Film Festival, relates, in fiction form, one of many bloody conflicts, but also involves the beautiful landscapes, warm people and black humor within the complicated patchwork commonly referred to as the South Caucasus.
The story is set in the early ’90s and the main plotline follows a young man from Tbilisi, Georgia, who, accompanied by a quirky, dope-headed friend, goes on a hazardous and not too well planned road-trip to buy some cheap drugs in the neighboring Azerbaijan. A wrong turn somewhere in the middle of nowhere and the guys end up in the hairy enclave Nagorno-Karabakh, a highly disputed territory mostly populated by Armenians but enclosed on all sides by Azerbaijan.
The hero quickly becomes a participant and/or hostage – it is hard to decide which – on alternating sides in the guerilla warfare. He gets acquainted with the absurdities, dangers and attitudes of war, but feels at the same time a previously unknown peace inside.
The scenes from Nagorno-Karabakh are mirrored by recent flashbacks from Tbilisi where a stern father and an unacceptable, mystical girlfriend gives both the tragedies of the South Caucasus and the inner transformation of our protagonists some sublime perspectives.
The bursts of laughter among a mainly local audience at the Tbilisi festival-screening made it vividly clear that local references and humor are abundant. This does not, however, make the main themes in any way incomprehensible to outsiders.
A Trip to Kharabakh has poignant and universally recognizable observations about the bizarre, farcical and tragic consequences of any conflict – armed or not – between neighbors. The eternal and naïve question “why can’t you just get along” is incorporated somewhere in the subtext, but the answer is not one that can be described with words. That’s one of the reasons we have films like this.