1961-1970DramaEldar ShengelaiaGeorgiaRomanceTamaz Meliava

Tamaz Meliava & Eldar Shengelaia – Tetri karavani AKA The White Caravan (1963)

It was always likely that Eldar Shengelaia would end up in film. His father Nikoloz was one of the early pioneers of Georgian cinema, his mother Nato an acclaimed actor. Younger brother Giorgi was an accomplished director in his own right, noted for his 1969 biopic on the Georgian primitivist artist Pirosmani. Both Shengelaia brothers won admission to the VGIK film school in Moscow, the USSR’s most prestigious, graduating a few years apart, and Eldar’s first directorial efforts were produced while working at Mosfilm in the late fifties – The Legend of the Frozen Heart (1957) and A Snowy Tale (1959).

However, unlike certain of their compatriots – Mikhail Kalatozov, Georgi Daneliya, Marlen Khutsiev – the Shengelaias had no intention of decamping permanently to the Russian-language cinema of the Union’s heartlands. The Shengelaia brothers were committed to filming Georgian life and culture. Giorgi pursued this mission from his very first short, a drama based around ancient Georgian religious rituals. Likewise, Eldar’s first mature film, made after he had moved back from Moscow to Tbilisi’s Georgia-Film studio: 1963’s The White Caravan.

The film follows a group of highland shepherds as they move their herds from the Caucasian peaks down to winter pastures by the Caspian Sea, in present-day Dagestan – an arduous back-and-forth traipse that keeps the men away from their wives and children for nine months of the year. Each shepherd makes his own peace with this lifestyle, apart from Gela, eldest son of the Martia, the group’s formidable leader. Discontent with his lot, Gela falls in love with Maria, a local girl who works the Caspian fisheries. At the same time, his head is turned by the fast fun and brisk pace of a nearby city. Both his eventual engagement to Maria and his relationship with his father and comrades are ultimately undone, with tragic consequences, by the young man’s inability to let go of the idea that he must cut all ties to move to the city, there to truly “live life” for the first time.

Eldar’s decision at this pivotal moment in his career to turn to the humble labourers and remote locales of Georgia/the Caucasus was in keeping with a broader trend in the nation’s cinema. The Shengelaia brothers were part of a pan-Soviet filmmaking cohort that came of age post-war and, crucially, post-Stalinism, reinvigorating Soviet cinema in a series of localised “new waves”. The Georgian incarnation of this phenomenon, powered by the likes of Tengiz Abuladze, Otar Iosseliani, and the Shengelaias, soon became known for its poetic visual imagination and its incorporation of Georgian folklore and traditional art as a means of establishing national cinematic identity within the Soviet canon for the first time.

On this front, Shengelaia certainly delivers: from the polyphonic folk singing heard over the opening credits and then later performed onscreen, to the brief but intimate portrait of village life that opens the film and the breathtaking framing of the Caucasus mountains as the shepherds begin their journey. Shengelaia’s camerawork is nimble and freewheeling throughout, craning, panning, and dollying through his makeshift homesteads and rural landscapes. One could certainly make the case that the film functions as a classic tale of urban degradation versus rural harmony, with Gela’s downfall a cautionary tale about the risks involved in turning one’s back on traditional ways of life.

What Shengelaia does with The White Caravan, though, is more ambiguous and emotionally insightful. From the off, we are made aware that “country” and “city” are not really so distinct after all: the shepherds walk down immaculate, tarmacked mountain roads and listen to Mussorgsky on the radio; the countryside is dotted with oil refineries and factories. The city that Gela visits is pointedly never named, the specificities of urban life elided. What Gela rejects is the inflexibility of a life mapped out for him – the road he walks up and down again year on year – rather than shepherding per se. The climatic storm that brings the narrative to a brutal end reflects this heaving sense of frustration, afflicting all characters equally. The White Caravan might be a Georgian story, Shengelaia’s first, but it is also a universal one.

Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, 1964.

3.52GB | 1h 33m | 1920×1080 | mkv



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