Azerbaijani integration and education in Georgia: “Hey, Gunesh!” at the Tbilisi International Film Festival3 min read
Green Georgian hills and white sheep making their way across the backdrop is defining imagery for the Georgian short film Hey, Gunesh! (2021), directed by Ana Jegnaradze and Marita Tevzadze. The short film focuses on a father-daughter relationship set among the Azerbaijani minority living in the southern mountains of Georgia. The film won the Golden Prometheus Award in the Short Documentaries category at the Tbilisi International Film Festival, where it was screened on 11 December.
Hey, Gunesh! is the story of the young girl Gunesh. Her family belongs to the Azerbaijani minority in Georgia, and her father, Fasha, works as a shepherd. While early marriage and lack of Georgian language skills are common among the Azerbaijani minority, Fasha wants something better for Gunesh and her siblings. He wants them to learn the Georgian language, receive an education, and embark on a professional career.
The short film touches upon several contemporary issues in Georgian society, including the integration of ethnic minorities, access to Georgian language education, and early marriage. According to the latest Georgian census, Azerbaijanis constitute the biggest minority at 6.3 percent of the population, most of them living in the regions of Kvemo Kartli and Kakheti in the southeast and east of the country.
Growing up during the Georgian civil wars of the 1990s, Fasha himself was too afraid to go to school, and thus was never able to learn the Georgian language properly. He feels ashamed at his inability to communicate in the language of the country he lives in, and wants it to be different for his children.
Almost 75 percent of those who speak Azerbaijani as their first language report that they do not speak Georgian fluently — just like Gunesh’s father. The Georgian government has tried to address this issue by supporting Georgian language education in schools and providing a 1+4 programme for university, where the first year concentrates solely on Georgian language studies before the student is then enrolled in an undergraduate programme. However, the lack of language knowledge and access to education remains an issue. Hey, Gunesh! is a bittersweet story about the failures of ethnic minority integration and hopes of a better future.
Access to and completion of education among ethnic minorities is also an issue in Georgia. According to statistics from the 2018 Georgia Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), only 45 percent of Azerbaijanis in Georgia finish upper secondary school. Azeri girls are also less likely to finish school than boys. Reasons for this vary, but one factor is early marriage and early childbearing. Around 40 percent of Azerbaijani girls are married before the age of eighteen, and 4.9 percent before turning fifteen.
This also leads to fewer women engaging in paid work. According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia’s latest Labour Force Survey, only around 24.5 percent of Azerbaijani women participate in the labour force, compared to 41.9 percent of Georgian women. This is partly a result of early school leaving due to marriage.
Keenly aware of this issue, Gunesh’s father wants something different for his daughter. Gunesh dreams of becoming a teacher, and while Fasha does not care what profession his children pursue, his main wish is that they have a profession.
The urban–rural divide also plays a part in the question of language learning. Tbilisi-based Azerbaijanis tend to have more extensive Georgian language skills, while in the countryside, many people live in Azerbaijani-majority villages where there is less exposure to the Georgian language. This is also shown in the film, which lets us know at the end that Gunesh has since moved to live with a relative in the city where she is going to school.
Interspersed with landscape shots, everyday shepherding life, and Fasha telling his story and hopes, we witness how Gunesh takes care of the lambs, practises her Georgian vocabulary, and names the features of her face with excitement. The short film weaves together important and contemporary issues in Georgian society with beautiful scenes of rolling hills and grazing sheep. Hey, Gunesh! is a touching story of a relationship between a father and his children, and the wish to provide them with a better life.