Khibula: A psychological exploration of the issue of power
by Vladan Petkovic
- KARLOVY VARY 2017: Georgian director George Ovashvili is back in competition at the Czech gathering with a film about an ousted president
Karlovy Vary's favourite Georgian director, George Ovashvili, whose Corn Island [+see also:
interview: George Ovashvili
film profile] won the Crystal Globe in 2014 before getting shortlisted for the Oscars, returns to the festival's competition with a new, and quite different, film: Khibula [+see also:
interview: George Ovashvili
film profile]. While both his previous effort and his 2009 debut feature, The Other Bank [+see also:
film profile], dealt with common people in dramatic circumstances, Ovashvili now takes a historical figure as the basis for a psychological and contemplative exploration of the issue of a leader and how he perceives power, and his own position in the world.
Loosely based on the last days of Georgia's first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who died under unresolved circumstances, Khibula takes place in majestic but unforgiving mountains, as the unnamed President (played by veteran Iranian actor Hossein Mahjoub) is on the run from the forces that ousted him in a coup d'etat. With a group of some 15 supporters, including the Prime Minister (Kishvard Manvelishvili), the President initially plans to leave the country before attempting to regain power. But as the group at the beginning of the film finds shelter in a desolate hotel, where the manager and the young receptionist girl (appear to) show the President that people still believe in him, he decides to stay and not abandon his motherland. They also learn that scattered forces of the National Guard, who are on his side, are trying to meet and regroup at a water reservoir a couple of days’ walk from the location, so they plan to join them.
But the synopsis in this case may be misleading. This is not a suspenseful thriller with chases, shooting skirmishes and a complicated political background. While the Georgian situation in the 1990s was indeed complex, Ovashvili forgoes the details and frames the story in a more universal context. As the group travels through the mountains, with unseen pursuers on their heels, they find shelter after shelter with friendly people, but in such a situation, it is hard to completely trust anyone. They get their share of refusals as well, most significantly near the end of the film, when an old woman shouts at the President: "Why have you come here? You have ruined the country!"
As the supporters gradually leave the President, with the group getting smaller and smaller, he starts to realise how deceitful power is, and how much one's accurate perception of his or her position depends on the bubble that surrounds him or her. Here, Ovashvili employs sequences of dreams and/or hallucinations, with the President first hearing a crowd chanting, "Glory to our President," which soon turns into "Judas, Judas!"
This approach will not be easy to digest for everyone, but an open mind will result in a rewarding experience and plenty of food for thought. The flawless technical contributions will certainly help, from DoP Enrico Lucidi’s (Baaria [+see also:
film profile]) masterful framing of both the glorious exteriors and the authentic interiors, to editor Sun-Min Kim's sustained pacing, to Josef Bardanashvili's evocative string music, ranging from suspenseful to melancholy registers. Ovashvili's recurring theme of man versus the elements reaches a completely different level thanks to a more contemplative and psychological directing approach. Finally, Mahjoub infuses what could be a generic character – a type, rather than a person – with complexity in a performance that can serve as a master class even for experienced actors.
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