Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Toronto True Crime ’18: Hostages

It was a story Eduard Shevardnadze did not want re-visited. However, a play based on the controversial 1983 attempted Aeroflot hijacking became an underground hit in 2001, despite apparent attempts to censor it. Decades later, questions remain regarding the precipitous use of force and just who was really responsible for most of the casualties. However, there is no question the resulting trial was little more than an old school Communist show trial. The notorious crime and its punishment are coolly and dispassionately dramatized in Rezo Gigineishvili’s Hostages (trailer here), which screens as the closing film of the 2018 Toronto True Crime Film Festival.

Most of the twentysomething hijackers were either artists or physicians, who enjoyed some privileges as children of what we might ironically call Soviet Georgia’s middle class. In fact, Gega Kobakhidze, the real-life hijacker on whom the character of Nino is based, had just been cast in Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, which was banned for three years until it was finally granted a release as part off the Glasnost liberalization. Obviously, his part was recast.

The idea was not well thought out. The seven friends hoped to hijack an Aeroflot puddle-jumper bound from Tblisi to the nearby resort city of Batumi, so they could divert it to Turkey (imagine a time when Turkey was considered an environment of freedom). Using Nico and his fiancée Anna’s wedding party as cover, the co-conspirators were not closely screened before boarding. However, after that point, everything that could go wrong would go wrong.

Rather surprisingly, Gigineishvili & Lasha Bugadze’s screenplay downplays many of the contested issues swirling around the incident. Most of the casualties are depicted as inadvertent collateral damage occurring during the actual hijacking attempt, but many Georgians still have questions. However, there is a white-haired, very Shevardnadze-looking figure who cuts off all attempts at communication before they even start, sending in the Soviet stormtroopers instead. In any event, the faithful representation of the show trial is unambiguously damning.

Yet, nobody can accuse Gigineishvili of waving a bloody shirt. His film is clearly intended to appeal to the head with its rational dissection of this compounded national tragedy rather than the heart. Frankly, this is an unusually aloof and emotionally detached film that offers up practically no insights into the characters’ inner thoughts and driving ambitions. Still, Tinatin Dalakishvili manages to express Anna’s foreboding and remorse with quiet but devastating effectiveness. Iliko Sukhishvili is also quite memorable as Father Daniil (based on Father Theodore Chikhladze), the Orthodox priest who was conveniently associated with the hijackers, which conveniently allowed the Soviets to sweep him up as well.

Given the Soviets’ subsequent legal railroading and judicial homicides, Hostages takes a lot of chances by re-opening old, unhealed wounds in such a legalistic manner. Arguably, the Socialist regime gets the most even-handed treatment it could hope for, but its oppressive nature and downright petty nastiness still come through loud and clear. It is an imperfect film, but also a fascinating viewing experience. It also represents a rather adventurous selection for the Toronto True Crime fest, expanding their scope well beyond serial killers and stalkers. Recommended as an intriguing period production and a portrait of injustice, Hostages screens this Saturday (6/9), during the Toronto True Crime Film Festival.