Not ‘just’ a duck documentary: Reviewing Saxon Bosworth’s “Mr. Velvet Scoter”6 min read

 In Caucasus, Review, Reviews

With his documentary Mr. Velvet Scoter, Saxon Bosworth gives us a precious glimpse into ornithologist and PhD student Nika Paposhvili’s fight to preserve the last of Georgia’s Velvet Scoters. He explores deep and sensitive topics related to the human dimension of environmental preservation, in the form of family relations and intercommunal dialogue. Mr. Velvet Scoter is simultaneously a heartrending look into the scoters’ fight for survival, a manifestation of hope, as well as an ode to nature, unconditional love, and togetherness.

In 2014, Nika Paposhvili was a Master’s student at Ilia State University. While on an excursion to Tabatskuri Lake, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, he spotted what he thought to be a group of Velvet Scoters — ducks believed to be extinct in the Caucasus. Poor weather conditions made him unsure of his discovery. When he brought the news to his professors, they were doubtful about the alleged sighting. But as he returned to Tabatskuri the next year, catching a female scoter in a nest on Mamia’s island, he felt vindicated in his prior judgement. Nika then embarked on what has now become an almost decade-long journey to conserve the last of the scoters in the region, venturing into a PhD programme in the process. In Mr. Velvet Scoter (მისტერ გარიელი), filmmaker Saxon Bosworth guides us through Nika’s fight to protect “Tabatskuri’s long lost treasure.”

The film premiered on May 31 in the San Diego Building of Ilia State University, Tbilisi. While Bosworth handed out hard paper posters featuring art from his friend and talented Tbilisi-based artist Luka Tkemaladze, Paposhvili, alias Mr. Velvet Scoter, graciously treated the public to a glass of his family’s Saperavi wine — which he symbolically named “Garieli,” the Georgian name for velvet scoter.

Mr. Velvet Scoter is Bosworth’s latest and final release in a cinematic trilogy on Georgian wildlife conservationists. The first of the collection, Like an Animal (ცხოველივით), delves into Lagodekhi-based conservationist Nika Kerdikoshvili’s dedication to the preservation of the Caucasian Tur. The second film, Vanishing Sky Lords (გაუჩინარებული ცის ღმერთები), is an investigation into the vulture population of Georgia, with an exploration of Kerdikoshvili and Paposhvili’s friendship as conductive fabric.
In his third and last film of the series, Bosworth gifts us with a careful collection of nature shots and interviews, interspersed with animations produced by Luka Tkemaladze. Mr. Velvet Scoter, though a heartrending look into the scoters’ arduous fight for survival, transcends the bounds of classic wildlife film production. It is a layered piece that also acts as a vessel to an emotional human journey, through a deep immersion into Nika Paposhvili’s life.

It commences with the sound and image of Nika’s four-by-four engine starting in his Tbilisi garage. The car is then seen smoothly sliding through a sundry collection of landscapes, fully submerging the viewer in the beauty and abundance of Samtskhe-Javakheti’s nature. Bosworth’s cinematic finesse is made evident within the very first minutes of the film.

His narration slowly eases us into Nika’s life in Tabatskuri. Marina, Nika’s wife, joins him in speech. While her face remains unshown, her delicate, mellifluous voice gently, and almost ethereally, accompanies us into her husband’s passion. Her simultaneous seeming absence and omniscient presence appears to metaphorically capture her and Nika’s reality. Marina and Nika live in Tbilisi with their two children, Sandro and Danieli, and as a toddler, Sandro started sporadically joining Nika on his adventures. “Our second child, Danieli, he misses his father,” Marina avows. “He wants to have his father in Tbilisi, bring him some cake, entertain him, take him for a walk (…). Despite all this, I think [Nika] is on the right path; he should continue doing what he does.” “(…) I’m a lucky man,” says Nika, “because my wife can understand my thoughts, and she is always standing by my side. And it’s giving me strength.” Throughout the film, it becomes tacitly evident that the scoter has become an extended relative of the Paposhvili family, as all its members are uniquely invested in the bird’s conservation.

Simultaneously, the topics of intercommunal contact and dialogue, as well as linguistic barriers, are prevalent, yet delicately touched upon. As is the case of the Paposhvili family’s interpersonal relations, they are approached with a rare sensitivity. The communities that Nika works with in Tabatskuri are predominantly Armenian-speaking. The film reveals that Nika, who does not speak the language, first managed to connect with locals thanks to Hrant Muradyan, a young native of Tabatskuri, and a speaker of both Armenian and Georgian. Through Muradyan’s intermediary, the community swiftly mobilised itself in an effort to help protect the scoters.

Perhaps unintendedly, throughout Nika’s struggles and victories, the Bosworth-Paposhvili pair also teaches us about friendship. Bosworth never takes the floor, positioning himself as a cautious observer of Nika’s life — yet, much is to be found in the unuttered, and how active and intimate a participant in Nika’s world he is becomes conspicuous. The respect, synergy, and support between the filmmaker and the subject are palpable, lending the film an emotional depth unknown to many creations.

In a moving last scene, Nika is seen reading an inscription he wrote in a book, Birds of Europe — a newer edition of the one that inspired his personal and professional journey as an ornithologist — before gifting it to Bosworth. “This message is to remember one of my foreigner best friends, Saxon, who I believe will remain a best friend in the future (…),” he reads. “I hope my next present will be a ‘study of birds,’ a book by me.” As the scene cuts, the film closes with a clip of Nika’s brother-in-law, playing Panduri in their home city of Gurjaani, Kakheti.

Whilst exploring deep, complex themes pertaining to environmental security and human reality, sometimes crossing into tragedy, the film consistently carries an unusual gentleness. It is a careful investigation into the human dimension of nature preservation, in the form of both family relations and intercommunal dialogue. Furthermore, It is a beautiful tribute to Nika, Marina, Sandro, and Danieli, who give us one of the most precious presents of all — an intimate glimpse into their lives, their love, their hopes, and their heartbreaks, not only in relation to one another, but also to the scoters. More than a wildlife documentary, it is a manifestation of hope, as well as an ode to nature, unconditional love, and togetherness.

Mr. Velvet Scoter and all of Saxon Bosworth’s films are available on his Youtube channel — Découvrir La Vie by Saxon.

Feature image courtesy of Saxon Bosworth
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