Thursday, October 02, 2014

NYFF ’14: Letters to Max

It is a would-be separatist state, born out of ethnic cleansing. At least, that is OSCE’s judgment and the UN somewhat mutedly concurs. Tellingly, only human rights-challenged Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as well as foreign aid-seeking Nauru officially recognize the Georgian breakaway territory. Yet, somehow Parisian-based American expat filmmaker Eric Baudelaire struck up a correspondence with former Abkhazian foreign minister Maxim Gvinjia, using their exchanges as the structure of his docu-essay Letters to Max (trailer here), which screens as a Projections selection at the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Frankly, Abkhazia does not even meet the dubious separatist standard asserted by the majority Russians in Ukrainian Crimea. Before the 1992-1993 separatist war, Abkhazia’s population was roughly fifty percent ethnic Georgian and only one quarter ethnic Abkhazian. Of course, that would change drastically. Eventually, Baudelaire will ask Gvinjia tough questions about the expulsion of Georgians, but he starts with a full hour of softballs.

It is clear why Gvinjia was relatively successful in politics. He is a natural story teller, blessed with a reassuring voice. According to the film’s meta-conceit, Baudelaire sent Gvinjia a letter, just to see whether it would reach him. In turn, Gvinjia responded with the first of the audio tapes heard throughout the film, which Baudelaire later married up with appropriate travelogue video of Abkhazia.

We hear a bit about Gvinjia’s war experiences and his nostalgia for the old Soviet Union, somewhat more about his family life, and revisit the watershed day Russia formally announced their recognition of Abkhazia. He also recounts the first official Abkhazian state visit to Nicaragua and Venezuela. Honestly, it is nice to know, as late as 2008, there was still a bureaucrat in the State Department with enough gumption to freeze Abkhazia’s funds in the U.S. after they spent a daylong stopover in Cuba.

In all fairness, Baudelaire deserves credit for seriously raising human rights issues in the last fifteen minutes. He does not merely ask a one-off question about the forced expulsion of Georgians just so he can say he did it. He has real follow-ups as well. He even challenges the appropriateness of the lack of Georgian voices counterbalancing Gvinjia, but he picks the darnedest time to raise doubts about his fundamental concept. Arguably, these exchanges should have come up front, to provide context for everything that would follow. Even so, Baudelaire never really delves into graphic reports of ethnic cleansing massacres.

All this probably makes Letters sound far more provocative and extreme than it really is. It shares no kinship with Triumph of the Will. However, it certainly offers a dubious political entity an opportunity to try to score propaganda points. Highly problematic, Letters to Max is not recommended when it screens this Saturday (10/4) at the Beale, as part of this year’s NYFF.