'Dede': Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2017

Courtesy of 30 Steps
Feminism meets fatalism in this starkly beautiful Georgian melodrama.

A young woman rebels against centuries of entrenched tradition in director Mariam Khatchvani's prize-winning feature debut.

The stifling stranglehold that tradition and superstition hold over remote male-dominated communities may be familiar dramatic material, but the young Georgian writer-director Mariam Khatchvani gives these themes a fresh feminist twist in her finely etched debut feature Dede. Shooting in her mountainous home region of Ushguli with a largely non-professional cast, Khatchvani draws on her own family history to chronicle the fate of a young woman fighting for limited freedoms against an oppressive culture of bride kidnapping, arranged marriages and lethal family feuds.

An elemental story with a universal message and a folkloric, fatalistic, almost ballad-like feel, Dede won the Special Jury Prize in the East of the West competition at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week. The combined weight of international production partners and Georgia's rising reputation for quality art house drama could help ease its passage from solid festival booking to niche distribution item.

Dede opens in 1992, in the aftermath of Georgia's post-Soviet civil war. Gegi (George Babluani) and David (Nukri Khatchvani) are brothers in arms returning home to the high snowy peaks of Svaneti. Gegi saved David's life on the battlefield, and is thus invited to be guest of honor at the latter's imminent wedding to his fiancee Dina (Natia Vibliani). But by fateful concidence, Dina and Gegi have also fallen in love during a fleeting wartime encounter without even knowing each other's names. Dina tries to break off her arranged marriage to David, but her mutiny threatens to overturn entrenched patriarchal power and shame both families. "A woman has no say," an incensed David tells her. "Even if you hate me all your life, you will still be married to me."

David owes Gegi his life, but not his wife. Even so, the public humiliation drives him to apparently commit suicide on a hunting trip. Initially suspected of murder, Gegi is cleared of guilt during a bizarre quasi-religious ceremony hosted the village elders. He is finally free to marry Dina, despite the deep rift this causes with her older family members.

Five years later, the couple have a happy union and a young son Mose (Mose Khatchvani), but lingering bad blood remains from Dina's decision to marry for love. When Gegi dies in an opaquely handled offscreen tragedy, it feels like the gods are punishing her for her modest attempts at autonomous agency. Then Dina's longtime admirer Girshel (Girshel Chelidze) forcibly demands her hand in marriage and she turns full circle, from chattel to liberated woman and back again. One step forward, two steps back.

Even though Dede takes place just two decades ago, most of the story feels much older, not just in its archaic gender politics but also in its elemental setting, traditional dress and antique superstitions. Electricity, modern medicine and motorized transport are all scarce in these high mountain villages, with horses still the main means of travel during long snowbound winters.

Dede depicts a harshly backward existence, but does not lay out the conflict between tradition and progress in crudely binary terms. Shooting in Ushguli, a UNESCO world heritage site with a dying language and crumbling infrastructure, Khatchvani clearly has mixed emotions about the homeland that she still describes as "paradise." A young priest serves as her mouthpiece in the latter half of the film, advising Girshel to drop his unrequited claim on Dina. "Some customs are good, some should be forgotten," he says.

Formally traditional in style, Dede is a little over-reliant on narrative coincidence and unbending archetypes. Khatchvani leaves some intriguing questions unresolved, notably the teasing possibility that Girshel was complicit in the offscreen deaths of both David and Gegi. The finale also strikes an ambivalent note that could be seen as a surrender to patriarchal power, though the underlying message is emphatically feminist even if Dina grudgingly accepts compromise in the face of limited options. In any case, the universal subtext definitely feels larger than the specific context, tapping into a rich literary lineage of wronged heroines stretching from Tess of the D'Urbervilles and A Doll's House to The Color Purple and The Handmaid's Tale.

Khatchvani makes impressive use of limited resources, especially considering the short shoot was full of hardships and setbacks, including clashes with the local police. Restless and jumpy at first, Konstantin Mindia Esadze's camerawork soon settles into a painterly stillness, framing ant-like humans against epic mountain vistas. The almost entirely non-professional cast acquit themselves well, while Tako Jordania's spare score helps this understated but absorbing drama build up a strong emotional charge over the long run.

Production companies: 20 Steps, Film and Music Entertainment, MP Film Production, Montauk Film Production
Cast: Natia Vibliani, George Babluani, Girshel Chelidze, Nukri Khatchvani, Spartak Parjiani, Sofia Charkviani, Mose Khatchvani
Director: Mariam Khatchvani
Screenwriters: Mariam Khatchvani, Vladimer Katcharava, Irakli Solomanashvili
Producer: Vladimer Katcharava
Cinematographer: Konstantin Mindia Esadze
Editor: Levan Kukhashvili
Music: Tako Jordania

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Sales company: Wide, Paris

96 minutes

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