'Letters to Max': Marseille Review

Courtesy of FIDMarseille
Record of an international correspondence sheds shrewd light on a very obscure corner of Europe.

Eric Baudelaire's French documentary on the disputed territory of Abkhazia premiered in competition at the French festival.

A genial and even playful record of a long-distance friendship, Eric Baudelaire's Letters to Max has a dead-serious matter at its core: the right of a nation to be globally recognized as an independent country. Shining a rare spotlight on the picturesque coastal-Caucasus region of Abkhazia — officially regarded as part of Georgia by all but a handful of governments — this likable example of epistolary cinema ultimately reveals itself as a little more ambiguous and therefore ambitious than it initially appears. Nonfiction-skewing festivals and channels should check it out, especially with the self-determination of regions being in the news this year thanks to goings-on in Scotland, Catalonia, etc.

Baudelaire has enjoyed a steadily increasingly international profile over the past decade or so, his 2011 mid-lengther The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images proving particularly popular on the edgier fringes of the documentary-festival circuit. For the last couple of years, Baudelaire — who studied photography in Abkhazia at the start of the current century — has, if the film is to be taken at face-value, been engaged in intermittent correspondence with Abkhazian diplomat Max (i.e. Maxim) Gvinjia. This exchange, as represented in the film, consists of Eric sending his friend letters in what's now a somewhat old-fashioned way: through the post. The text of the letter appears silently onscreen against images of varied Abkhazian locations. Max then "replies" orally, his narration dominating the soundtrack from start to finish.

How is Eric receiving Max's responses? Is he present, filming in Abkhazia, throughout? Why is "snail mail" still trusted when it proves so unhelpfully unreliable and email has developed as a convenient, speedy alternative? Are we witnessing a reconstruction of an actual correspondence, or is this more a case of an imaginary, retrospective exchange? Answers are elusive, though the very final moments hint significantly towards the latter rather than the former.

Regardless of the veracity of the film's "text" (and texts), Letters To Max is an illuminating snapshot of a land that has been largely off the world's radar since the end of the civil war with Georgia in 1993, apart from a brief flare-up during 2008's South Ossetia conflict. The "separateness" of this diminutive territory, roughly the size of New Jersey, is taken for granted here — though some context about why so few countries recognize its independence claims (currently only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru) would certainly have been welcome in a "small-scale" picture, which nevertheless clocks in at over 100 minutes. But this size of canvas allows Eric — and Max, in what amounts to a rich creative collaboration — to explore and impart some aspect of this tantalizingly obscure, compellingly exotic quasi-country's "soul."

Production company: Poulet-Malassis

Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer: Eric Baudelaire

Editors: Eric Baudelaire, Laure Vermeersch

Sales: Poulet-Malassis, Paris

No Rating, 103 minutes