“Catharsis in Fiction”
Alice Lovejoy (University of Minnesota)
It’s useful to begin a discussion of The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear with its centerpiece scenes. In these, against the pockmarked wall of what might be a warehouse, a succession of young women and men fidget nervously as director Tinatin Gurchiani’s offscreen voice questions them about their lives and hopes.
These scenes are casting calls that Gurchiani held throughout Georgia, and with their one-sided conversations and invisible interlocutor, they recall films such as Kiarostami’s Homework or Ten, largely fictional works structured by documentary techniques. They also echo a motif in recent East Central European documentary (whose network of funding and mentorship agencies helped support Machine): a form of portraiture in which subjects pose, self-consciously and snapshot-still, for the motion-picture camera. Like those in Peter Kerekes’s 66 Seasons or Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death, Gurchiani’s “portraits” claim the documentary subject as at once an historical actor and an actor tout court. It is no surprise, then, that fictional strategies are as central to her film as they are to Workingman’s Death, which revels in the aesthetics of staging, or 66 Seasons, whose reenactments invite the film’s subjects to reckon with their complicity in historical events. Machine, however, suggests the inverse: that the film’s young protagonists are the twentieth century’s casualties, deprived of their parents’ and grandparents’ historical agency, yet subject to their choices.
This points to a frequent observation about this film: its indistinct, almost dreamlike quality. With its single title card and few visual or sonic indications of place, Machine suggests a child’s sense of geography, and its few mentions of history or politics require research or foreknowledge. Although Georgia’s separatist region of Abkhazia, for instance, is familiar from recent news cycles, it’s the Abkhazian War of 1992-1993 that forms the harrowing background to one interviewee’s story.
History, then—although omnipresent and structuring—mostly buzzes in the film’s background, just out of reach. And just as its interview scenes rarely expand beyond a medium-long shot, Machine is principally concerned with its protagonists’ inner lives. These occupy the same generic borderland that the film cultivates so carefully: Aspirations to the fiction of acting bring young Georgians to Gurchiani’s auditions; the long biographical disquisitions that the director elicits spark the staged scenes that follow.
This fluidity shifts in the film’s two final vignettes. In the first, after a student actor’s wrenching encounter with her estranged mother, we watch her transported by her work in a puppet theatre, whose black backdrop reveals none of the blemishes of the warehouse wall. And in the soliloquy that follows, a young man rails against life, a comedy “created to ensure that when the tragedy becomes so terrible, so unbearable, and so difficult to comprehend, that you would rather laugh.” If his speech returns the film to its opening scene—in which an interviewee, asked to cry, laughs instead—it also suggests that there is catharsis in fiction, a pole toward which, we realize, Machine itself has traced an arc.
“The Big Play Called Life”
Ilona Hongisto (Macquarie University)
In her debut feature documentary, Tinatin Gurchiani explores the Georgian landscape and the lives of its inhabitants through the dramatic device of casting. With the aim of investigating what it is like to grow up in the region, Gurchiani puts out a casting call for young adults aged 15 to 25, who believe their life stories are interesting for film. These audition scenes then merge with observational sequences of everyday situations in the lives of the individuals who responded to Gurchiani’s call.
The film’s initial starting point – lives that are interesting for film – feels uncomfortable in the audition context. Accounts of special skills and everyday practices worthy of being filmed are prompted by questions posed from behind the camera, as if the filmmaker was somehow in possession of prior knowledge as to what counts as interesting. The auditions come with a sense of having to prove one’s worthiness.
However, as the documentary progresses this premise becomes less prevalent. The auditions turn into instances of talking about injustices, obsessions, love and the future. The differences between the individuals become more pronounced and their life stories begin to take shape beyond the imperative of being exclusively interesting for film. Or, put differently, what is deemed interesting is now discovered in the everyday instead of preconceived notions of how one should be.
This change of impetus comes forth in the editing of the film. The beginning abides by a structure where observations of the everyday follow the audition scenes in the manner of verifying or visualizing what was delivered before. Further along, however, we are introduced to the everyday before the audition scenes. Here, the everyday is detached from a verifying function and it becomes expressive – and, indeed, interesting – in itself. Playing with a dog, running errands, spending time at a club, making a phone call and meeting a long-lost parent constitute a convoluted affective landscape of growing up in the former Soviet Republic. Because of this shift, the audition scenes start to feel less prescribed.
The textural nuances of the depicted scenery are also foregrounded by the multiple forms of travelling with which the documentary weaves together lives across Georgian cities, mountains and villages. The conjugation of auditions, everyday events and travel position Gurchiani’s film next to Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993) where she captures the beginnings of the post-Soviet transition period with a meticulous montage of stillness and movement. Akerman’s pacing captures the unpredictable momentum of the transition period, whereas the rhythm in Gurchiani’s film draws attention to the ways in which life is offered to the purview of film.
Thus, in a manner loosely reminiscent of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear works on the fine line between lives voluntarily lived for the camera and lives evaluated by the political and cultural apparatuses of which the camera is a part. This is what makes Gurchiani’s documentary simultaneously spellbinding and uncomfortable.
In the final scene of the film, a young man performs an intense monologue. Head tilted slightly forwards, he looks to the camera and states that life is a big play where instances of comedy dot the tragic period of suffering called life. As his solemn performance continues over still frames of the individuals we have encountered throughout the journey, the documentary asks the viewer to consider why some lives are deemed more worthy than others.