Cinema Made it Easier to Talk About My Identity – Elene Naveriani

“For now, I don’t know if I have a home or not, neither physical nor spiritual”, – this is how a film director, Elene Navariani, begins their conversation with Aprili Media.

The interview took place online, as Elene is in Switzerland right now. They say that it has been like this for the last 10 years – sometimes they live in Georgia, sometimes in Switzerland, and they have not yet decided which one is more like home.

“I have learned and acquired a lot of things in Georgia, and this education and society played a very big role in my life. However, perhaps some part of me is from another country, Switzerland, where I went through the same processes at a conscious age,” they tell us.

We talked to Elene about their childhood, identity, personal experiences and, of course, cinema. It is interesting that the answers to almost all questions show their ties with Georgia – the country where they were born and grew up in.

“I Don’t Fit into the Gender Binary Boundaries”

They identify themselves as a non-binary person, which means that their identity and gender expression do not fit into the binary categories of gender only “woman” and “man”.

“Recently, I realized that I don’t like any name: I’m a girl or a boy, I’m a woman or a man, I don’t fit in the binary boundaries of gender. I had a lot of questions about this and I’m happy that I found an answer: I’m neither a woman nor a man, my gender identity is fluid.”

They tell us that due to their non-binary gender identity, they also face difficulties in the film industry, when people don’t know how to approach, which category of competitions to fit them, etc.

“What was very much mine before has now become public and I often face mispronunciation of my gender identity, wrong pronouns. Also, there are questions about whether I am eligible to participate in the festival of female filmmakers. They get very confused, but it’s an interesting process for me too, because it’s a new stage for me and they get split in the industry too, they don’t know how to sort it out.

“In the conditions that are happening in the whole world today, I don’t think we have time to make art just for art’s sake.”

Several times I was asked to participate in the discussion and in this direction in “reforms”, how to arrange everything in such a way that the identity of the person is respected, it is correctly understood and pronounced, and the approach is correct”, – says Elene.

House on Tsereteli

They grew up in Tsereteli, Tbilisi, in a large family, which was often a gathering place. This period is still warmly remembered.

Elene Naverian as a child/photo from the archive

“The condition of the house or the definition of things is important to me. One of my homes is Tsereteli and the territory of Expo Georgia, which was then called the exhibition. I probably grew up in a very ordinary family at that time, including financially. Nevertheless, I remember these years very positively, including the fact that, for example, we had to stay together to keep warm. I don’t even want to imagine what our parents had to do to get us food, but I remember very well the creativity of even cooking, the creative part of making food out of what you have. I think that one of the determinants of a person’s identity is what they ate, how they ate it, how they remember these tastes. After you leave home or go to another country, you realize how important these tastes are, and any food can make you feel at home. “Sometimes I miss the cabbage, which I don’t even remember how it was made, but it tasted very homey,” recalls Elene.

They did not like school. Communicating with many strangers was difficult from the beginning when you had to adjust to the environment. They says that they always needed something to hold onto, where they could express their creativity or themselves. They were about 10 years old when they discovered geography that made going to school interesting and enjoyable for three years.

“Discovering the possibility of making a film was emotionally like discovering that I like and love people regardless of their gender identity and can be with them. From the beginning, I felt very good and what I lacked, it filled it”.

“Some people asked me things, they listened, we formed a group, we wrote papers and it was very good entertainment. It gave me the comfort that I was doing what I loved at that moment.”

Then the teenage years started and they realized that they didn’t want to go to school anymore. They can’t remember if their identity or self-determination had a role in this process — they says they liked girls as well as boys, but they didn’t know what it was called, they didn’t know that people had to hide it and that it wasn’t considered “normal”.

“No one has told me so clearly that the “rule” is like this and either you have to like “that” or “this”. When I grew up, I heard all this, and not in a positive way.”

“My Family Gave Me Confidence and Freedom”

They told their mother that they didn’t want to go to school anymore. In this process, they gained trust and support.

“I didn’t go to school for the last three years, which was very good and I think it saved me. It was very empowering to know that someone supported me and allowed me to do what I wanted to do. That’s when I started watching movies and I attribute my change to that. Watching other people’s stories, opening up other worlds got me out of my situation,” says Elene.

They don’t know what motivated their parents to support them, but they have two ideas – either they had similar experiences and didn’t want Elene to follow the same path, or they simply trusted, “let this energy go somewhere”. They also say that their parents always trusted them and that was very important to them.

“My mother gave me a lot of freedom, I don’t know how she managed it. She gave me freedom, the opportunity to express my own opinion and the responsibility towards life. I often think about why we as children constantly invent things to calm our parents, when we can tell them directly and the parents will grow up and learn something. Parents also need to grow up, they are ordinary people, they don’t know everything and they shouldn’t know either”.

We asked they, in general, how important family support is, to which they answered after a short pause:

“It’s very, very important and sometimes I think it’s better not for it not to be so important. Family support is very necessary, but sometimes I think we take too much into account their wishes and give up on our own. Support and their love should not turn into a dynamic where you have to make them happy and do what they want.”

Photo from the archive of Elene Naveriani

They explain that until the stage of life, before they realized that it was not necessary to satisfy the interests of the family, to show them something or to prove it, this burden was heavy.

“You try to do what you want, but adapt to what they want. That’s why I sometimes think that I would be freer if I had the opportunity to choose whether I want their opinion or satisfying their desire to be so important to me. I think that one of the main struggles with oneself is related to getting rid of this, it is very difficult to break this condition. Moreover, there were no permanent demands on me to be like everyone else, and I have never been like others. It’s just that you love these people and their attitude towards you and your work is important, but it shouldn’t be a burden that you carry around all the time.”

We also asked Elene about their current relationship with their family. They say that they were strengthened by the work they are doing, including the direction of financial independence, which is very important.

“My family is growing with me and this is a great gift. Some comfort is that this growth goes together. When something is no longer so foreign, it is easier. It is not necessary that everyone loves and accepts everything, but it is about the fact that we are all who we want to be and we do not prevent each other from living together. It’s your problem if you can’t get something. I don’t think it’s necessary to make you understand. It’s happening very well in my family and I’m very happy about it.”

Cinema as a Way of Speaking

“When I was very young, I remember that going to the cinema was a celebration”, – this is how Elene begins the conversation about the cinema.

They tell us that although there was not much choice then and they have seen many films several times, the feeling of celebration has remained to this day and they wish that going to the cinema associates with similar emotions for others.

“Cinema has its own magic – you enter the hall and only you and the screen remain.”

They tell us that the cinema turned out to be a means of survival for them – when they were no longer at school and were alone, they watched several films during the day to pass the time and waited for the next morning with the hope of seeing a new film.

“I discovered that cinema is a business that is very precious, very impressive and has a great power to talk to people. That’s why I love it so much and take it with great responsibility.”

“I hoped that one day I would be better and I would no longer have this weight, which was probably also depression.”

I was particularly impressed by Vittorio De Sica’s film called Miracle in Milan, which tells about the poor people living in the suburbs and the support that existed between them.

“It was a very ordinary story, with social issues, but it was very magical for me to realize that in any place, in any community, there is always a group of people who stick together and try to support each other. When you know you can hold someone’s hand, you can save them. This gave me strength and I realized that this form, this media, has the ability to connect a lot of people with each other”, says Elene.

Photo from the archive of Elene Naveriani

Nevertheless, their original profession was not related to cinema — they studied painting at the Academy of Arts. They say that after graduation, they could not imagine staying in Georgia, and without leaving, they could not be who they wanted to be. At the first opportunity, they went to Switzerland, where they studied art in the context of critical theory and anthropology. But several years of studying passed soon and it was time to return to Georgia.

“I knew exactly that I didn’t want to go back, I had just started to live a little comfortably with myself – I was with whomever I wanted, what I wanted, I did what I wanted.”

They decided to study film directing – they say, then they saw it as a window, like watching movies after leaving school. They collected the documents in a few days and became a student once again.

“It has been 10 years since I connected with cinema. From the beginning, I didn’t have the idea that I must make movies. I only knew that I wanted art, creativity. Somewhere there was also the fact that cinema was not considered a woman’s job, and I didn’t realize that I could do it too. Although there were female directors, information about them was rare in the dominant culture. Discovering the possibility of filmmaking was emotionally like discovering that I like and love people regardless of their gender identity and can be with them. From the beginning, I felt very good and what I lacked, it filled it”.

“Bless me, father” — is the name of the short, 10-minute film, which is the first in Elene Naveriani’s career as a film director. The film was shot in 2013, after the raid on civilians by the patriarchate and the parish on May 17.

“I started shooting the film very thoughtfully, with the emotions that I had to speak, that if I remained silent, I would give this horror, this violence even more legitimacy. When I showed it to my family, I didn’t have to say anything. I showed directly what I was and what I was doing. And what I do is directly related to me.”

They say that cinema helped them a lot in talking about their sexual identity.

“Somehow it made it very easy, and I didn’t have to go through a very complicated process to say, you know, mom, I like people of all sexes and genders. In general, I find it difficult to communicate with people and I often feel alone, not physically, but still. Cinema completes this, connects me with people”.

We asked Elene on what principle they choose the topics they start working on in the cinema. They say, the story must reach me somewhere, touch me, and this energy should lead me to the work process.

“It probably happens because I make some kind of connection between myself and the environment, the life of the person the film is about. It should be very much mine so that I can translate all of this so that it is no longer just my story and becomes the story of others as well”.

They tell us that it is a very common story when the cinema deals with what is happening at that particular moment and the director also tries to have a connection with reality, to have a reaction to the current events. They also say that there is cinema that is aimed at visual pleasure and that is also very important, but for them art is not just aesthetics.

“Even today, cinema is important because it is relevant, with its own methods it talks about what is problematic, what needs to be solved and what cannot be solved. It is some kind of contribution that maybe something will break through somewhere. If I don’t do that, that is, I’m not relevant, there’s no connection between my work and my life, seen every day, I don’t know what to tell then. Cinema, which is only aesthetic, removed from reality, actuality and politics, is uninteresting to me. Just satisfying my ego that I am a creator and a master is not important to me, I can do that in sketches as well.”

“The people who work with me are like chosen families – you choose who you want to work with in this great process. I am very comfortable there and I can work tirelessly. When the shooting ends, I can start a new one in a week, because this is the most comfortable place for me.”

Is art political? – we asked Elene. Their answer is positive and explains that politics is not only parties and parliament, but it is everyday life, the existing structure.

“I think that art has the resources to change something in this big structure, to create a movement. Cinema, even more so, because it can bring people together — when you think on the way home from the cinema that you won’t do what is expected of you today, because the movie gave you a boost, that’s politics too. Small changes will be reflected on the scale. The cinema touches you in such places and awakens such dormant cells that you want to change something, do something or not do something, help someone, etc. In the conditions that are happening in the whole world today, I don’t think we have time to make art just for art’s sake.”

“I have often thought that in the cinema I stand behind the camera and the actors are at risk”

Elena’s last film, Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry is based on Tamta Melashvili’s novel of the same name. This film has already received many awards and positive reactions from the Georgian audience. The story revolves around Etero, a middle-aged lonely woman who lives in a small town in one of the regions of Georgia. Thanks to an unexpected incident, she takes steps that he would not have dared in the current environment, including embarking on a love adventure.

As in the book, there are intimate scenes in the film, and we asked Elene how she manages to work with actors in an environment where discrimination, stereotypes are strong, where the body, and even more so, nakedness, is a taboo and where an actor can be in danger because of the role of a gay man. They says that they have often thought about it:

“In the cinema, you stand behind the camera and expose the actor to a different risk in an environment like Georgia”.

Elene Naveriani with the actors playing the main roles of Berry Berry Blackberry / photo from the archive of Elene Naveriani

That’s why, and not only that, when working with actors, it’s important for Elene to know that they understand why they’re playing a particular role.

“For example, knowing why nudity is important in a particular scene and that it has something to say should change something in the audience. It took time for the actors to understand and overcome the difficulties that these scenes entailed. I think this is a very common struggle, but when you accept this struggle and understand why you are doing it, it is already a big step. Everyone took a big step for themselves, for the film and for the audience, and I tried very hard to convey it all correctly.”

Another full-length film by Elene is Wet Sand, which also won a number of awards. The plot concerns the tragic story of the 22-year secret love of two men, Eliko and Amnoni, and at the same time, it shows us the everyday life, attitudes, hatred, love and struggle of people living in a seaside village.

Elene tells Aprili Media that it was difficult to choose an actor for the role of Amnoni, because many people who came to the casting turned down the role of a gay man.

“Male actors came and said, I can’t act in that, I have a family, grandchildren. Someone ran from the room, someone immediately tried to belittle me, to question my legitimacy, that “you are a little woman, how do you even make a film”, etc.

Finally, 66-year-old Gia Agumava was chosen for the role. As Elene tells us, while talking to him at the casting, they realized that the actor understood why the director wanted to tell this story, why it was important, and how many people’s voices she could be.

Elene Naveriani and the actor playing Amnoni in Wet Sand, Gia Agumava

Wet Sand was filmed with the funding of the National Film Center, although they are sure that if they were to shoot the film now, they would not give them a single penny. They did not even apply for the filming of Berry Berry Blackberry – the film was prepared with Swiss funding, and it also had a donation from the Georgian Public Broadcaster.

“In Georgia, like many other things, the film sector is small and if it continues like this, whoever owns it today and as it is, will simply no longer exist, it will be destroyed. If it goes in the direction that the current Minister of Culture wants, Georgian cinema will be completely irrelevant, it will have no international interest, no one will want to see it, it will not be able to communicate with today’s world and will be completely isolated. There will be a space where some directors will make some films that will please the state — films about victory, Georgianness, food and that life is beautiful. All authors who look critically at the state of the country and the processes that are taking place have deliberately cut their way. This is called censorship, and they communicate to the public by lying and providing incorrect information about all of this ,” says Elene.

Saint Nino

Elene revealed to us that she has been working on a project for a long time, through which they want to tell the story of St. Nino.

“However, the way I see all this: why she could have come, what she did and what she brought and what is left today, why she is an important figure or what is her narrative. I want to tell the story of a woman who decided to get up and go on a great journey, to bring love where it is most needed.”