This Sporting Life:
An Interview with Géla Babluani
By James Crawford
Soft-spoken, contemplative, and reserved almost to the point shyness, Géla Baluani has a demeanor nearly antithetical to his impressive debut feature, 13 (Tzameti). Reverse Shot had the opportunity to sit down with the director of this feral and breathless film.
REVERSE SHOT: Your father, Temur Babluani, is an influential and acclaimed director. How much did you learn from him? How much of his influence figures into your filmmaking?
GÉLA BABLUANI: My father? Honestly, he didn’t influence me or motivate me to go into the movies. Because in 1992 he decided to quit the cinema. He said in 1992, “Okay, I don’t want to direct anymore.” So it wasn’t really exciting for me to go by the same way that my father did, even though he’s considered this great director, because he’s just my father. It was twice as difficult for me when I decided to make 13 (Tzameti). I wasn’t really confident, because he was so talented. He’d made great movies, won all these prizes everywhere—and then he decided to stop, so maybe something is wrong with cinema. But after I understood that he was afraid for other things…not afraid, but it was tough, because of the way he made movies, it was so hard. His first two movies were censored, and if you’re an artist, I think you really have to be free. You don’t want to care about all that other stuff.
RS: Then who would you count among your influences?
GB: I don’t think that there’s just somebody. It’s more about the history of cinema. There are so many directors, so many great films. I loved film growing up…I loved Georgian cinema, but it’s not very famous. There was a period in my childhood when we had it really great—really beautiful cinema, very strange, original. They weren’t the usual movies shown now; very surrealist, a lot of fantasy. Would it be too much to say that the story of the cinema has influenced me?
RS: How did you arrive at 13 (Tzameti)’s very gritty, high-contrast look?
GB: I tried to shoot each round of the game very differently. For the middle of the movie, when we arrive at the house, there’s something really mechanical, with the rules, etc.—it’s like an army. So the first time, it starts off as mechanical, and the second round too, when there’s one bullet more. It was really important for me to consider, “What are we going to feel, if we really believe in what’s going on?” How would you feel if you were really living the story, if you put yourself as a character in the drama, during these three different rounds?
I was living in the location—I like to live at the places where I’m shooting. A lot of times I tried to imagine the different situations…. When the game starts, there’s this tension, all the talking, but to make it interesting, it’s important that the point of view never goes the same way. In the first round, we discover the situation, so we focus on his process of discovering everything. The second is like acceptance, so we are more focused on the other players, and we show them more, with the interrelationships and the tension between the gamblers and the players. And for the third, I wanted to focus on the organizer [the man high atop the chair], because I saw him as the intermediary between the players and the gamblers. When I shot these three scenes, I never put the camera in the same place; every time I shot with a different view. Then in the last part, of course, I wanted to get really close on these two guys who really have to kill each other—because before they never had to look each other in the eyes, face to face. It was important that they had to see each other.
RS: That has to do with the main character, Sébastien, in the middle of the drama. But what do you make of all the gamblers—the parasites who are somewhat on the periphery?
GB: I think they have their place. Their experience is very similar to those who are actually involved in the game. I didn’t want to shoot them as bad men, as parasites. It really was a positive thing—even if they had faces that you might really see as ugly, I tried to make them sublime, beautiful. I didn’t want to treat them like bastards. They’re very natural, in their simplicity, in their way of being, in their total absence of conscience. It makes things even more horrible, the fact that they have a complete absence of conscience. There’s no longer even a single part of humanity in them. But at the same time, I tried to preserve their human look, their very natural appearance.
RS: Tzameti is a film that’s concerned with fate and destiny to a large degree, yet there’s also an insistence on human intervention, what with the characters spinning the barrels of their guns. Where does the film fall in terms of its belief in free will versus destiny? Where do your beliefs lie?
GB: I think that it’s very much a question of destiny, but I think that human beings provoke their own destiny. All the men, all the other players, except 13 [Sébastien], accept their places; they accept their fates before they arrive. Except there’s this one person who didn’t know about the game, about playing it, that it meant he had to kill somebody…I think for him, it’s a matter of choice, because he refuses to accept. Even if he has to kill someone to win, he doesn’t accept the idea of it. For me, it’s the conscience [of Sébastien] that allows him to win.
RS: When Sébastien enters this world, he’s able to retain a part of himself. Exposed to the successive rounds of killing, he necessarily undergoes a transformation, his demeanor gets hard, but he retains his humanity in the end. He maintains that conscience that you’ve been talking about.
GB: He’s a really great character, because he doesn’t have the usual development of a character in a film. He’s really absent a lot in the first part, before the game, even though he’s present. His situation marks his development; it’s the situation that decides for him. It’s not a choice he’s made for himself. And the day when he decides to take the envelope, this letter, and goes to this place from which he might never come back, I think his character starts to take shape. It develops in the second part when he is forced to play the game. Then Sébastien becomes complete, really, the moment he sends the money to his family, he becomes someone else.
RS: Then is his murder a moral retribution? Or is it more than that?
GB: It’s not really what I was thinking at the time, but close. Sébastien at the beginning was someone who was living for his family, because they were living with a lot of difficulty. He accepted the responsibility of making life better for his family—he accepted that he had to go somewhere, because he lost his job. And he decided to go somewhere even if it’s dangerous; he decides to go to help his family. For me, Sébastien is a person who makes sacrifices, and then he himself really is sacrificed.
RS: Sébastien is played by your brother Georges; what’s it like working with family?
GB: It’s great. You know how sometimes you work with your family because you don’t have a choice? It’s not that. You do it because you really love it. It’s the best thing in my life—we’re really close. When you can separate your relationship with parents or with your brothers and sisters, because you know each other so well, it makes the work so much easier. We don’t need to go by some [roundabout] way to get somewhere. We know exactly what we want. Even my father’s in the movie.
RS: How did you approach such dark and tortured material, and where did the story come from? Did it reflect your early life in Georgia?
GB: It was a story that I wrote when I was 19 years old, two years after I came to France from Georgia. I think that I really needed the distance from the time of writing to making the film last year. My vision about humanity was really dark. Right now it’s not really a lot of colors, but it’s better. When the perestroika started, I was seven years old, so you don’t really know what it was like before. But as a kid you see everyday, even when your parents don’t understand what’s happening [with the Georgian civil war], the change in this period…But they had a reference point to life before—it was bad, it was good, it was great, nobody cares, but they grew up with something clear. When you’re seven, eight, nine years old, you’re just a kid, you don’t know what that is. You don’t understand. Life is changing, but what is changing, what life is going to become, nobody knows. And even my parents didn’t know. When you start to understand that you don’t have a reference point, you try to make your own reference points. When you grow up in this violent world—because in Georgia, it was really, really violent in this period—you grow up like an animal, and your life is dangerous, but not just dangerous in a stupid way. It’s dangerous because you don’t see any solution. But you don’t understand it. When you’re inside this situation every day, you never know what it was to be afraid of something. Even if someone held a gun to my head, it was, “So what?” I didn’t feel I had anything to lose.
When I came to France, it took two, three years for my attitude to change. We’re much more conscious and aware of a situation when we’re far away than when we’re inside. It was then to understand the way I was feeling back in Georgia. And that’s universal. Even if we speak different languages, I don’t think that we’re really different. We may have different educations, but why do we cry for the same things, why do we feel bad about the same things? The story was related to a time in my life when all the worst things in the world were concentrated. In this movie I really wanted to speak about the negative points of man.
RS: You left Georgia with your family and went to filmmaking school?
GB: No, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t want to be a director; I didn’t care about directing. I came to France to learn the language for three months, and then I stayed for three months more, and so on.
RS: How then, did you become a director?
GB: It all comes down to visualizing stories. I was writing stories, and one day I was really obsessed about my stories—whether they’re good or they’re bad, they can be this or they can be that. I loved to write strange stories, and if you’re just writing they aren’t really true. One way for me to understand if it was good writing or not, was to find the images, the real characters, the real locations, and to see all these characters I’m writing about, all these locations I’m describing, if they’re going to be true or not. When we’re writing something, our imagination works a lot, but with images, everybody sees the same thing. Even if they like the image or not, they see the same thing. But after I started making the movie, I realized that filmmaking was a completely different thing. But I had already started, so I had to finish.
RS: In a way, this film seems like an allegory of sports. It seems like sporting contests taken to the furthest, most insane endpoint.
GB: Exactly. And it’s a life reference too. For me life is a competition; even if we don’t want to, we have to do this thing. To wake up, to go to your work…even if we don’t need these things, we have to do them. Life is working by elimination—you need this job, I want to do this movie—it means I’m gonna have to do better than someone else. Maybe it’s not so extreme, because we don’t have the guns, but I’m not sure that what’s in my film is the hardest thing to do. I don’t remember what year it was, but in France this guy who entered a city hall, and killed, like, 35 guys. He started shooting, and then he killed himself. Afterwards they started looking, trying to understand “Who was this guy?” He was living alone with his mother, and had been for 11, 12 years, in the same house he grew up in. You can die in the same place you were born, and nobody cares. I think to live in complete ignorance is probably worse than having a gun put to your head. Sometimes you see people, and you never know. I use a lot of trains in my movie because I love the ambience of trains, and you don’t know where these people are going, where they’re coming from.
RS: So you’re interested in people’s secret, interior lives?
GB: I am very interested, because it’s not really voyeurism; I want to know what people are talking about, what interests them. It’s these stupid things: I can hear the bullshit conversations that nobody cares about, not even the people having them. Georgia was a great country for crazy things. The telephones had so many crossed signals that you kept hearing other peoples’ conversations. Sometimes you’d speak with someone, and you wouldn’t hear her voice anymore, and you’d hear the conversation of two other people.
RS: What is your next film, L’Héritage, about?
GB: It’s a Georgian story—more Georgian than French. It’s about the things we accept in our life, take for granted, even if we don’t know why.