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Review: Life and Death of a Christmas Tree


- Georgian workers risk death to harvest fir seeds for affluent Danes to sell as Christmas trees in Arturas Jevdokimovas’s doc snapshot of two sides of capitalist Europe

Review: Life and Death of a Christmas Tree

A decorated fir tree is a familiar winter seasonal addition to homes in Europe that accord with Western Christian, or more recently consumerist, Christmas traditions. Where these trees originate from is little known or discussed, despite revealing much about the workings of cross-border capitalism in the region. Lithuanian director Arturas Jevdokimovas, who examined the stories of migrant Lithuanian charity-clothing industry workers in Great Britain in his debut documentary, Second Hand (2019), has turned his focus to the harvesting of cones from fir forests in Georgia and their export to Denmark for farms, in his politically insightful, albeit scattershot and digressive, sophomore documentary feature, Life and Death of a Christmas Tree. The film, which had its Lithuanian premiere at the Vilnius International Film Festival (Kino Pavasaris), traces the relationships, processes of production and differences in labour conditions between the two countries, which underpin considerable human drama, as young workers risk their lives up towering trees in the Caucasus mountains for affluent Nordic suppliers and their customers.

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The cone-harvesting of Nordmann firs is a major source of income in the mountainous Racha region of Georgia, with 80% of European Christmas trees grown in Denmark from hand-picked Georgian seeds. The dependence of locals on this business for survival means crews keep scaling these massive trees for the annual harvest despite frequent falls and deaths. Even great care and protective equipment cannot prevent a treetop from breaking, and the danger is a constant shadow looming over the community. We are offered a window onto life in one remote village, where the school only has three pupils, housing is basic and Orthodox belief is the only bulwark against existence’s rough unpredictability.

Archival footage from the early 1990s – a period of civil war and tremendous turbulence as Georgia broke from the dissolving Soviet Union – shows a younger Marianne and Lars, whose lucrative Danish business grows trees from Georgian seeds, on early trips to what was for them the unknown, mysterious side of the Iron Curtain, to scope out a seed source. Times were tense; one of the mayors kept a hand grenade beside him in meetings, they recall. The Scandinavian couple, fans of fine dining and Tarantino (the Hollywoodisation of violence as casual entertainment is easy to digest at a safe remove), live in bourgeois comfort, their most pressing concern fencing off hungry deer from their produce. Their security is at jarring odds with the precarity of their Georgian suppliers, even as they emphasise their commitment to safe working conditions and funding support for health and education for the inhabitants of Racha.

A murder that rocked the village, as young teen Luka Kbiladze was shot dead by his best friend for completely unknown reasons one snowy winter’s day, also features prominently, along with a highly emotional graveside ceremony attended by his distraught mother. The boys were to have been central protagonists of the film. The decision by Jevdokimovas not to erase their presence after the tragedy, even as it derails the focus, respects community realities, and hints at something not fully teased out about a historical legacy of violence and economic hardship, against which extractive capitalism and superficial touristic curiosity pose no salvation or relief.

Life and Death of a Christmas Tree is a co-production by Lithuania’s AnaBen Films, Georgia’s Funky Production and Denmark’s Gotfat Productions.

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