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13 Tzameti’ director talks about film at ND

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Director Gela Babluani, already one of the most celebrated new filmmakers in the world, came to Notre Dame last weekend to screen his first film, 2005’s “13 Tzameti.” The film has been a major critical success on the film festival circuit, winning the “Best First Feature” at the Venice Film Festival and the “Grand Jury Prize” at the Sundance Film Festival. The director, who speaks four languages (Georgian, French, Russian and English) recently moved to New York and is working on an American remake of “Tzameti.”

Babluani was born in Georgia while the country was still under Soviet regime, but does most of his film work in Paris. The film industry runs in the Babluani family. Gela’s brother Georges is the star of “13 Tzameti” and his father Temur was also a noted filmmaker, though the elder Babluani gave it up in 1992.

“My father is my best friend,” Babluani said. “He finished with the cinema in ’92. It wasn’t a good experience because he had so many problems. When he decided to stop, it didn’t motivate me because we had a lot of problems. It felt like we had all problems all the time. So when I decided I wanted to make films, he was sad.”

Babluani thus had little interest in making films when he was growing up, which allowed him to watch movies “without pretensions.”

“I didn’t look at [the cinema] for the technical aspects or anything,” Babluani said. His father’s influence was strong, but the appeal of filmmaking was stronger, and Babluani’s decision to make movies grew out of his love and admiration for the cinema.

Both Gela and Temur recently collaborated on a project called “L’Heritage” (“The Legacy”), which they co-wrote and co-directed. It is the first film Gela made in his homeland of Georgia.

“13 Tzameti” has a unique look because it was shot in black-and-white CinemaScope (widescreen). Babluani said this was a conscious decision, noting that, “With black-and-white, you’re more focused on features, on mise-en-scene.”

The film is unique for its story and themes, which hearken back to French independent cinema, especially the French New Wave (a revolutionary film movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s). The linchpin of the movement was writer/director Jean-Luc Godard, whose influence has not been lost on filmmakers today.

“Everyone in French independent cinema tries to imitate Godard,” Babluani said. “But they try to imitate him from an intellectual standpoint, not a visual standpoint.”

This Godardian influence is evident through “13 Tzameti,” especially in Babluani’s visual style, which is at once traditional and progressive. He uses subtle moving camera and cinematic techniques like freeze-frames effectively, though the film is deeply grounded in reality. This grounding demonstrates strains of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, especially in its usage of non-actors in key roles and its realistic depictions of events. Yet Babluani noted that “13 Tzameti” is a complete work of fiction with few, if any, ties to real-life events.

“I try not to make movies about things that have really happened,” Babluani said. “I wanted to make a movie about what’s happening today in the world, but I didn’t want to do a real story. If we do that, we find excuses for people, we depict good people and bad people and I really didn’t want to make a movie about good and bad.”

This mentality is reflected throughout “13 Tzameti.” None of the characters are depicted as outright villains, and even the protagonist is shown as a conflicted and morally problematic character.

Babluani’s brother is the star of the film, and Gela noted that he chose Georges for very specific reasons. Georges’ performance has also been well-received, leading to a Cesar (a European equivalent of the Academy Awards) nomination for “Most Promising Actor” (meilleur espoir masculine).

“I wanted the lead character to be really different from the others, and Georges has an innocence, especially his face,” Babluani said. “But there’s a violence about him as well. You believe that he’s capable of violence, which is what makes the story believable.”

That violence is key to the film’s plot, though Babluani is quick to point out that he approaches violence in a different way than most, preferring a non-explicit style.

“If you want to see blood, you can turn on any channel on TV,” Babluani said. “It doesn’t shock anyone anymore and I wanted the violence [in ’13 Tzameti’] to be psychological. There’s only one special effect, which is very brief … I wanted it to be closer to reality.”

“13 Tzameti” is being remade in America with Babluani at the helm. No actors are set in place yet, but the film will carry many of the same themes and will focus around similar set-pieces – for instance, the game will remain the focal point of the plot. Yet the director stressed that he is not interested in “remaking ‘Tzameti’ shot-for-shot.”

Whatever the case, “13 Tzameti” put Babluani on the proverbial map, and will certainly lead to larger endeavors. The director adamantly insists that he prefers smaller projects with smaller budgets, but his enthusiasm and talent are undeniable. After starting small, only bigger and better things lie in wait for this talented upcoming director.