“A large family with conflicts is still 1,000 times better than loneliness”: “The Northeast Winds” at the Tbilisi International Film Festival4 min read
The Northeast Winds (Aghdgoma, 2022) is a moving and diverting examination of Stalinist nostalgia in Georgia. The second feature documentary by Georgian filmmaker Nikoloz Bezhanishvili, it received its world premiere at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam in November before being screened here in Tbilisi. The film’s starting point is the 2010 removal of the six-metre bronze statue of Stalin that stood in the central square of Gori, his birthplace. It was removed unannounced and in the middle of the night to avoid protests by local Stalin-admirers. Though it was originally meant to be transferred to the local Stalin Museum, it has since lain on private property decaying and has thus become a protest point for some residents who demand its return.
Filmed in the cinema verité style, Bezhanishvili fully immerses the audience within the story, which focuses on two elderly residents of Gori, Makvala and Robizon, who navigate between two fringe political parties — the Stalinist Society and the Georgian Labourers — both of which believe they are the true guardians of Stalin’s legacy. The Stalinist Society aims to see the statue placed at the Stalinist Museum, and makes use of signed petitions and protest marches. Its leader, however, can be viewed as a caricature of Stalin himself, with a dictatorial style of leadership that brokers no challenges from other party members. The Georgian Labourers, on the other hand, believe the statue should be returned to its original plinth in the central square, and use their free newspaper to advocate their claims, including that the leader of the Stalinist Society is actually a capitalist because he owns a small lemonade factory. Over time, both parties lose sight of their original aim — the return of the statue — instead focusing on one-upping each other and accusing party members like Makvala and Robizon of betrayal, furthering the groups’ decline.
Many of the scenes have an air of humour about them, strategically captured by Bezhanishvili without losing the gravitas of the situation. In one scene, a large portrait of Stalin is taken to an Orthodox Church so the priest can bless him. Bezhanishvili lingers on a shot of the portrait placed directly underneath a depiction of Jesus on the cross, allowing the audience time to appreciate the ironic absurdity of it all. In another incident, a bottle of Coca-Cola is contrasted with a Stalin mug, highlighting the dissonance between what the party members want and how life really is.
The film’s greatest strength, however, is in its delicate portrayal of Makvala and Robizon, unravelling how their lives have changed since the fall of the Soviet Union and why Stalin holds so much significance to them.
Early on in the film we listen to Makvala discuss how her life was meaningful under Communism, and how everyone knew and respected her in the city due to her position within the Communist Party. Now, Makvala questions who she is, an identity crisis that can be seen in many of this generation.
The film also looks at the poverty that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union and its effect on the elderly. Robizon, for example, lives in what can only be called a shack on the edges of a marsh. According to 2020 data from the Social Service Agency, more than 41,000 pensioners — or one percent of the total population — live alone in extreme poverty. For these residents, the new Georgia has not provided them with adequate support, neither financially nor emotionally. It is no surprise that many look back to their youth under Communism with nostalgia.
It is the film’s last line, said by Makvala, that truly sums up the motivation of the Stalinists in Gori: “A large family with conflicts is still 1,000 times better than loneliness.” For Makvala and the other elderly residents of Gori, these gatherings are the only opportunity they have to meet with people who understand them and the struggles they are going through.
The film was screened on 6 December as part of the Georgian Panorama programme of full-length documentary films presented at the Tbilisi International Film Festival. It was followed by a Q&A with Bezhanishvili, who suggested that there will always be some people who will disagree with the current government and try to make change, such as the Gori Stalinists.