“Going to Abkhazia is like stepping into a fairytale — it’s impossible”: Maradia Tsaava’s film “Water Has No Borders”4 min read
Ostensibly a documentary about a hydroelectric dam and power station situated on the Georgian-Abkhaz border, Water Has No Borders (2021) instead acts as a flawed exploration into the pain of closed borders.
The sound of rushing water fills the ears as the camera pans across Georgia’s towering Enguri hydroelectric dam as it emerges out of the swirling mist. Enguri is the world’s second highest concrete arch dam, and from a distance, its labourers appear as miniscule workers ants crawling on an ant hill. Completed in 1987, the dam and its respective hydroelectric power station have, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in the 1990s, been situated across the consequential border. The fact the dam still operates, providing electricity to both Georgia and Abkhazia, is a powerful display of cooperation between the authorities on both sides.
Initially, Tbilisi-based journalist and freelance documentary filmmaker Maradia Tsaava visits the dam in order to learn more about the infrastructure and its workers, given the government’s plan to turn the area into a tourist destination. However, when she learns that many workers must travel back and forth through the Abkhaz border checkpoint every day to work at the power plant, she decides she wants to join them in crossing the border. “Remember Abkhazia — this is the slogan my generation grew up with. We have heard endless tales of the most beautiful place we lost,” she notes through text on-screen. “For my generation, going to Abkhazia is like stepping into a fairytale, it’s impossible.” Tsaava is not ready to accept this impossibility, however, and she spends the rest of the film attempting to get permission from the border authorities to cross into Abkhazia.
In her first attempt, Tsaava rides on the Zugdidi bus with the workers, but is refused entry and told to disembark at the border. Rather than accepting defeat, she starts using all the connections she can find — from her guide at Enguri to members of the Georgian government — to get approval from the Abkhaz authorities. At every turn, she is told to lessen her hopes, as many people, even those with personal connections to Abkhazia, have been denied entry.
While waiting for news about her visa application, Tsaava spends her time speaking with workers at the dam, especially the women, to hear their stories related to Abkhazia. She gathers a number of heart-wrenching stories, from the woman who spent three days climbing over hills and rocks to cross the border illegally in order to see her dying mother to the men who smuggled a 20-year old corpse across the border in order to have it buried in Georgia. It is these stories that gives the film some merit.
Besides these testimonies the rest of the film, though visually captivating, is slow-going. It meanders between personal narratives and dramatic shots of Enguri, showing a lack of focus on the part of the filmmaker. In addition, Tsaava’s actions often make her appear ignorant of the true pain the border situation creates, and naive about the security situation. She constantly pushes her interviewees to help her get the visa, pushing past their calls for patience. At one point, though she has not heard back from the Abkhaz authorities about her visa, she rides the bus again to the checkpoint; after being denied entry, she only gets off the bus after her Enguri guide pleads with her not to delay the other workers any further. Given that people have died attempting to cross the border, Tsaava’s manoeuvres come across as privileged and somewhat offensive.
In the end, after months of visiting Enguri, Tsaava ultimately gets her chance to step foot on Abkhaz soil — via the dam’s underground tunnel. Completely emptied of water for technical repairs, she and her cameraman reach the administrative border underground, finally achieving her unimpressive goal. It is an unconvincing ending, one that leaves viewers with more questions than answers about the goal of such a film. It is a shame the filmmaker’s personal quest overtook the narratives of the local population, whose stories are both more compelling and of greater need to be told.