Bidzina Ivanishvili, the 66-year-old billionaire who was once the prime minister of Georgia, today has a number of eccentric hobbies: The oligarch maintains a private zoo, residents of which include penguins and lemurs. He collects art, and has snapped up paintings by the likes of Monet and Picasso, in a collection with an estimated value of $1 billion. He has also built his own arboretum: Shekvetili Dendrological Park offers 60 hectares of old-growth cedar, eucalyptus, and cypress that Ivanishvili had brought to the arboretum, which is open to the public.
A recent documentary follows the trek of these massive trees as they are uprooted and transported across Georgia and replanted in the private seaside park. But most Georgians may never see it on the big screen.
Salome Jashi’s 90-minute film “Taming the Garden” premiered across Europe last spring, and has finally come home to Tbilisi. But after the film’s premiere last week, the Georgian Film Academy abruptly canceled all other screenings of the film.
In a late message to the film’s creator, the Academy said the film would “divide public opinion.” Jashi said she took this as a clear message that Ivanishvili did not want the film distributed in Georgia. It was a shock, she said, even after spending four years documenting the absurd extremes Ivanishvili will go to satisfy his wishes.
Having made his money in Russia in the 1990s in extractive industries, banking and real estate, Ivanishvili today is the country’s richest man and the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party. His fortune — an estimated $5.77 billion — is about a third of Georgia’s GDP. In 2021 Ivanishvili announced he was leaving politics and returning to a private life, but his opponents say he is still exerting his power over the country from behind the scenes.
While several cafes and non-profits have offered to host showings of “Taming the Garden,” no major cinema will take Jashi’s documentary, which is set to premiere in U.S. theaters this summer. The censored screenings come amid a tumultuous political moment in Georgia, where 20% of national territory is occupied by Russia. In 2008, Georgia fought its own war with its northern neighbor. The war in Ukraine has put Georgians on high alert, as Georgian authorities have opposed sanctioning Russia and Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party has gone so far as to sue the country’s president Salome Zourabichvili for speaking out in support of Ukraine. The war also has become a stress test for the government’s commitment to EU integration. Opposition politicians and protestors at the country’s frequent anti-government rallies have long said that this commitment is only skin-deep.
Katia Patin spoke to Salome Jashi about her film in a conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with the film getting pulled from screens last week on April 28. Can you explain what happened and why it’s a big deal?
The film started its life in Sundance, then the Berlinale, it was nominated for the European Film Awards, which are like the European Oscars, it was released in Germany, Switzerland, U.K. and it will go to the United States. However in Georgia, it cannot go to the cinemas. There is no cinema that can show the film.
The president of the Georgian Film Academy academy decided that the film is too political and should not be shown. And by “too political,” he said, this is a film that “divides people according to their political beliefs.” This has never happened in independent Georgia, never.
What did their decision and their explanation tell you about Georgia in 2022?
I think this confirms how the system works. The system works according to subordination and subordinates who try to guess what their superior might think. In this case the superior of the Film Academy is the Minister of Culture. Her superior is either the prime minister or Bidzina [Ivanishvili] himself.
This is the system that has been created under the rule of Ivanishvili. This is the system of self-censorship, trying not to upset the boss, not to have political or business trouble.
Our country has the ambition to become part of the EU. It is something very, very important to me and the people around me. But certain parts of the government — the Ministry of Culture — do not comply with EU values. Openly we are going towards the EU but clearly what the government is doing, it complies more towards Russia. It is a tightening of screws and the marginalization of free institutions and free expression.
Ivanishvili is absent from the film — his name is only mentioned a few times — but by following his project the viewer gets to know him in a way. Did making the film change how you think about him?
I was much more critical of him before. It doesn’t mean that I’m not critical now. But I realized what I learned through making the film is that it’s not only him. Power is not taken by one person. It’s a whole system. There are other people involved in it starting from his personal assistant and ending with a person in the village. It’s not just him to blame, it’s also each and every one of us.
I think this is what changed in my relationship with him. Of course when someone has a lot of money and power he can control much more but it is up to each one of us to resist it.
That sounds especially relevant to many of the conversations happening now around a collective guilt that many ordinary Russians bear for the war in Ukraine.
It’s not just about guilt. In the case of Russians it is important to understand this collective guilt because something bad has already happened. I think it’s more correct for us to talk about responsibility, being responsible to freedom and to independence.
During filming I observed that there are individuals who are responsible to people in power but ultimately every person is responsible to be free and independent. Here in Georgia it is a problem. People are afraid not to lose their job, their reputation. We know where this will go, this will go towards Russian authoritarian rule. And then we will complain that we live in an authoritarian country but in fact we contributed to it ourselves.
Bidzina’s park was covered extensively by Georgian and international media. However you chose a different, very specific style for your film and this story. What were you hoping to accomplish?
Information is one thing and it’s less of what I’m interested in. I’m interested in creating an inner experience, a space where this story can be experienced and a person can make their own conclusions. We did not want to offer consultations. That’s what TV does, at least in Georgia. And to create not just an experience for the brain but for the heart. This sensual experience is important because some things are not concrete but very abstract. They cannot be named or identified. They can only be felt.
I think the film does not show one dimension of what happened. The film shows multiple opinions, it shows people who praise him and people who are upset about what is happening. It is open to interception. I thought that he would like the film.
There’s very little dialogue in your film. Instead you take the viewer through long shots of how the trees are uprooted, the way the trees move when they’re floating across the sea, the sound of branches breaking as a tree rides on a truck. Why did you choose a more abstract approach to tell this story?
I tried to give symbolic meaning and metaphorical meaning to things. I tried to present the tree, which is the main protagonist, as not just a tree, but as something else. Same with Ivanishvili, he’s not just Ivanishvili but rather he represents a man, an “X” man with power. I wanted to show this local story to a wider audience and have them relate to it.
The feedback I get is that the film creates a kind of fairytale where Ivanishvili is a mythical figure. He does not belong here and now.
I had this fear that we were depicting a certain thing happening in time. And I had this fear that after a couple years it won’t be relevant. But I think this film is still very relevant. One because Ivanishvili is still — unofficially — in power. And second, because his rule is becoming more powerful. The political institutions that they supervise are becoming more controlling of the country and of people and the media. It’s all more obvious now. People see it more obviously now.