A search for oneself between two worlds: Anna Dziapshipa’s film “Self-Portrait Along the Borderline” at DOK Leipzig3 min read
Self-Portrait Along the Borderline is a touching exploration of identity and family history set against the backdrop of war and displacement. Anna Dziapshipa, the movie’s director and protagonist, finds herself wandering through the past of her mixed Georgian-Abkhazian upbringing, searching for the place where she belongs. She seeks answers in a journey to the house from her past, which was left empty for 23 years.
The 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia caused the death and displacement of thousands of Georgians and Abkhaz. Since then, Abkhazia has remained an isolated and largely unrecognised territory. The physical rupture of the impassable Georgian-Abkhaz border is preventing the healing process for those affected. If in another recent documentary, Water Has No Borders, the same border appears tangible and reachable, in Self-Portrait Along the Borderline, the border takes on a deeper symbolic meaning, representing also a division within one’s personal identity.
The movie begins with an image of ruins: what was once the grandiose, neo-classicist building of Sukhumi railroad station now stands dilapidated as an eerie reminder of the unrest in the region. But in the rest of the documentary, we will see Abkhazia differently. First, Abkhazia appears as a heavenly land with a mild climate and evergreen forests, celebrated in archival Soviet footage where “various nations coexisted harmoniously.” Then, in the present day, as a half deserted place, a “paradise lost” as Dziapshipa says, with many tourists, for whom local attractions, such as the many lakes and mountains, are disguised as exotic, where pictures with peacocks in the background are offered. The camera lingers a little longer on a man, a local, who helps a tourist family to take such photographs. These dreary scenes are captured with attention and tenderness, revealing Dziapshipa’s compassionate perspective on the “unrecognised territory” with its demolished buildings and abandoned courtyards, where nature triumphs over man-made structures.
Although the documentary delves into politics, touching upon nationalism and bloodthirsty political slogans, its primary focus remains deeply intimate. It unfolds as a personal narrative, painting a self-portrait within a divided country. The metaphor of the portrait runs as a thread throughout the film. In between the shots of herself, her family’s personal archive, and documentary films, Dziapshipa confides: “I often listen to the voice of the first president of independent Georgia, who constantly repeats to me that I do not exist.” Indeed, the whole film is about a person’s search for herself, as if constantly doubting her very existence.
The reasons for her doubts come from the outside: the surname she inherited from her Abkhazian grandfather, the name that is so difficult to pronounce in Georgia, or the school in Tbilisi where she felt ashamed and defensive. No wonder that as another metaphor, the film periodically shows scenes from a documentary about spiders weaving their webs as both a home and a trap for insects. The movie reaches its climax when Dziapshipa finally steps into her grandfather’s house, where she finds a long lost portrait of herself at the age of ten. But does she find answers or set herself a trap?
This is where the film ends, leaving the audience slightly uncertain, perhaps mirroring the uncertainty in the director’s own quest. Dziapshipa skillfully constructs a narrative using Soviet footage, family videos, and documentaries, creating a cinematic window into Georgia’s recent history. Self-Portrait Along the Borderline offers a clever and sensitive look at the aftermath of conflicts in the former Soviet countries, while more generally the film is a wonderful artistic exploration of intergenerational trauma and the struggle for self-discovery.