One of the year’s most magical cinematic experiences hails from Georgia. Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, which premiered at Berlinale earlier this year and opens in theaters this week via MUBI, is a delightful city symphony capturing summer in Kutaisi. Following a pharmacist named Lisa and a soccer player named Giorgi––along with many others who call the city home––we witness quite a unique take on a relationship story as life unfolds around them.
I spoke with Koberidze about inviting the audience into this fairy tale of a film, his time at German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB), the joy of Buster Keaton films, his favorite city symphonies, capturing soccer in cinema, canines, and more.
The Film Stage: At the New York Film Festival premiere you mentioned that every second of this film felt precious to you and you hope that’s conveyed to the audience—which I think certainly is. It’s not an easy feat for a two-and-a-half-hour film to convey that feeling. I’m curious if you could talk about your filmmaking philosophy when it comes to this idea and planning the structure for this film.
Alexandre Koberidze: I don’t think that I have a precise filmmaking philosophy or that there is a theory or there is a school of filmmaking that I follow. Back then you see the directors that came out of school and when they finished studying they somehow already knew what is filmmaking and how you are doing it and what means what. Like what does it mean when you make a dolly shot? I have a feeling at least in my case––and I see a lot around me––things are changing. For me, every film–-and this is my second feature––is a way of understanding what kind of films I want to make and how I should and can make films and tell these stories. I think at least now for me the film theory I am following is a theory of understanding and somehow finding my very own way.
The only thing I know is there are films in the past which I watched a lot and I like and I take a lot of things from them. But also not just films, but other art forms. On the other hand, I like to go out and look around at what is happening in the place that I live. I think the main thing is to be sincere and make things that you really like and also which the people you are working with, they like and somehow connect these things together. We had not so many rules on the set–only things which me and my cinematography [agreed on]. We said before we started to shoot, let’s not forget it’s a game. This film, this is not life. It’s kind of a game and, yes, we know it’s a very expensive game and it can be hard and it’s going against our nerves and it makes us tired, but let’s not forget it’s a game and it’s also about having fun.
The football / soccer scene, right before Part I ends, radiates with such joy. It’s better than any professional soccer scene I’ve seen captured on film. You’ve said before how soccer is your first passion. Can you talk about conceiving this scene and your shared passion for soccer and cinema?
It’s a good example of how to describe what I was saying before. On one hand, this song [Gianna Nannini & Edoardo Bennato’s “Un’estate italiana”] was following me from my childhood. This song was the national song of the soccer/football World Cup of 1990 in Italy. Somehow it becomes for me not only an anthem for this World Cup but for passion, for being very passionate for something––it doesn’t matter what. So for over 30 years, for me every time I was listening to this song, it meant to me passion. I really wanted to have this big passion in his film, so I thought, Okay, maybe this song is the best way to make this transition. Then this song has an official music video, which is also sometimes you have these big stars from the World Cup 1990 like [Diego] Maradona and others in a very passionate moment, sometimes screaming or falling––what you do when you play football. And also in slow motion. So the idea was to make this kind of video, but with kids from around the neighborhood. So to make these kids be like Maradona or other stars of this World Cup.
And then we were looking for the ending of the scene. The cinematographer of the film [Faraz Fesharaki] is from Iran so we watched this Iranian film which is not so popular outside of Iran. I had never heard about it, but inside the country it’s a very popular film. It’s called Uncle Moustache. In a scene we found the ending of our football sequence, when the ball is flying and all the kids are watching it. The end, when the ball falls into the river, the idea also came from the cinematographer when he referred to one of the short films made by Abbas Kiarostami. I think that’s more or less that’s how we work: the films we like and the emotions we want to transport are combined and it becomes one sequence.
Another standout sequence is where you asked the audience to close their eyes. It truly felt like something I hadn’t really scene in cinema before. It felt like an eye-opening experience to me. It’s just one part of the film where you’re inviting the audience in and they feel like they’re part of this story and the city you’re capturing. How did you first come up with this idea and how you’re not talking down to the audience during the movie, you’re inviting them in?
The idea was born during writing. I came to this point when I knew that now the magic has to happen. Of course, the question comes, what kind of form can I find to make it interesting. I know we didn’t want to use some special effects. We were more interested in making films which we more know from when cinema was born, from the beginning of the past century. Where it was not something so serious. It was serious, but it had some huge joy not only in watching it but in doing it. It definitely was a game. You watch a Buster Keaton film and it seems like it’s a big explosion of ideas and pure joy. Of course it was a huge amount of work. You know how much work was behind it, what he’s doing.
But you also see this playfulness. I was also imagining how people felt back then watching this. I thought it really must feel like being kids. We also know when cinema was starting people reacted very differently because it was something very new. They were not used to this screen and moving images. I just wanted to, again, get this communication with the audience where it becomes a game and where one can play and feel again like a kid on one hand. On the other hand, I think this closing of the eyes is also a statement about how magic happen or what should we see and what should be hidden, which is also kind of a subject in the film. And this is a very direct gesture for not wanting to see something and letting something happen by itself.
I’ve seen a lot of city symphonies, and something that people connect with is the seeing hustle and bustle of the city. I’m thinking of Berlin, Manhattan, Man with a Movie Camera, the Qatsi trilogy, etc. You’re expecting something very fast-paced, but this film really keys in on a relaxed nature. I’m curious about your favorite city symphonies and how the pacing and tone of this film reflect the city you are capturing.
My favorite film about a place is maybe the first part of Dear Diary from Nanni Moretti. On one hand, it depends on a place. Someone who is making a film like this, where are they at? Is it Berlin in the beginning of the past century, which was a crazy place? But also which kind of feeling you want to transport. If you think about Man with a Movie Camera or the Berlin film, where everybody had a feeling where things are now starting to happen. Electricity, mechanics, and a new century is coming and everything is moving so I think that is what the filmmakers wanted to transport through their films–not only positively, but as a fact sometimes that these machines are going crazy. I think that now we are in a different time. After 100 years, we know what all the things have brought to us. Everybody is tired. [Laughs] Also what I see is very different rhythm today than what Berlin had back then, the people have a different rhythm. Of course, in a film we make more out of it because we try to not follow every rhythm a city has, but the rhythm that is interesting to us.
This was a graduation project and DFFB (German Film and Television Academy Berlin). What did you learn most from your time there and what was the support like to get such an achievement off the ground?
I think DFFB is quite a unique place in the sense that I already had the possibility with my previous film to make a feature film which was not a graduation film. As an example, for the previous project, you don’t have money or technical equipment to make a feature film like this one is, but you have time which is a very important tool. You need it to make long films. You need time. This is one of the best things at DFFB, that you are granted this time. I was studying there for 12 years, which is very long, but not for DFFB students. Many students spend this many years. It means you have a possibility to make long-time projects, to try things out, to write as long as you need, to shoot as long as you need. So before starting this film I already had one feature film already done, which was very important for me. Then for this one, it was clear we need more money because my previous film I made with a small cellphone and more or less a one- or two-person team, so it was a very small production.
This one was different. We were shooting partly on 65mm film and partly on a ALEXA camera with lighting and all the things, so it needed a typical film team. At the DFFB, there is this program where three or four graduation films are granted to get some funding, so you have to apply for it and we were lucky to get it. Then in Georgia we also applied for some funding. In the end, if you compare it to some film projects, it’s not so much and some would say it’s nothing, but still we were able to pay everyone and we were eating normally. It was normal living, but of course, we were trying to cut everywhere where it was possible. On one hand, it was a student film. On the other hand, it was not. Because many of the people working on it were not students. In the end, it was normal shooting with a few students who tried to make a film. It’s also about having a big passion. For me, for the producer, for the cinematographer, it was more or less the first time working like this–on a big film with a crew, planning all of this, so we invested all of our time on this film for a few years. You also have to survive, but we were lucky in this period, we were able to give ourselves completely to this film.
At NYFF, one of the elements that delighted people most was the storyline of the dogs and how it weaves through. You give them a personality and a storyline. Do dogs hold a special place in this city?
There are many stray dogs generally in Georgia and in cities especially. In my previous film I filmed a lot of dogs in Tbilisi. So in this film I tried not to repeat myself. Most of the shots where they are there, it’s like this because it happened like this. We never said we don’t want them. We are not hunting them and it’s not our goal to have them, but of course we don’t forbid them to be there. There are one or two shots where we hang with them but it’s also because we are filming an image and they came in the image.
If you come to Kutaisi, you will see it’s full of dogs and on one hand it’s really sad because they have a hard life living outside but it can also be very beautiful. They are very lucky because they are in a neighborhood where people are watching after them and giving them food. Especially when you are new in the town, they want to know who you are, so they spend a lot of time with you. So with this big crew, depending on which part of the city we were in, they were with us. You see a few of them in front of the camera, but behind the camera there were many more.
With film festivals coming back this year and being able to have that communal experience, have there been any films you’ve been able to watch that you’ve enjoyed?
Of course. I haven’t seen much, I have to say, because you always come to festivals for a few days and there are things to do. One of the films that I think is one the most interesting films this year is called Bloodsuckers by Julian Radlmaier. I think this my year’s favorite. There are many films I haven’t seen yet, so I’m sure there are many, many good films, but if I had to say one, this one is my favorite.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? opens at NYC’s Film at Lincoln Center and Metrograph on Friday, November 12 and will expand.