when earth seems to be light: inside the post-soviet skate scene in georgia
A new documentary traces a gang of skaters on the streets of Tbilisi, where modernity clashes violently with post-Soviet ruins.
Hardly any subculture has evolved to be as universal as skateboarding. Regardless of the year, altitude, or political regime, you find skaters everywhere, with their boards, bruises, and free spirits in tact. A new documentary When Earth Seems to Be Light captures the emerging skate scene in contemporary Georgia. Co-directed by Salome Machaidze, Tamuna Karumidze, and David Meskhi, the documentary traces the gang of young skaters on the streets of Tbilisi where the modernity and the ruins of the Soviet past violently clash. The sunshine in Georgia is just as bright as California, but the political situation is more problematic: as skaters practice their kick flips the streets are filled with protesters taking on the church and conservative government.
The film has already won the Best First Appearance at IDFA festival in Amsterdam, and is being shown at documentary film festivals in Istanbul, Bergamo, Stockholm, Brussels and Sofia. It proves once again that there's more to skateboarding than just teenage pastime -- it's about gaining and fighting for freedom.
How did the idea of the film emerge?
Salome: We got to know the skaters because David was photographing them. He's been doing it for many years and then he brought the photographs of them skating in an abandoned hippodrome back from Georgia. The photos were all over the wall at our place, I looked at them and realized that we should make a film.
What was it like working with the skater gang?
Salome: When I arrived in Georgia to talk to these guys before we started filming I found them totally different to how I imagined. I thought they would be real punks, because in my childhood, skate kids used to be like that. It's totally another generation. There is less of this rebellious punk attitude now, they were chill, smart, very articulate.
David: In the film you see how they get closer to each other. They got really united and we captured this as well.
How strict were you about the documentary nature of the film? Were you giving the guys any directions or just observed?
Tamuna: We were putting them in the location and then observing what would happen. We didn't tell them what to do, these parts were very documentary. In general it's a mixture of our ideas and their actions, I guess.
You've got French actor and musician Lucas Ionesco in the film who mainly got famous after appearing in Larry Clark's The Smell of Us. How did he end up hanging out with the guys in Georgia?
Tamuna: We knew him before, he's an interesting guy. We were planning to have him in the movie then just before we started the documentary he ended up in that Larry Clark film. Then something happened on the film shoot, he left and came directly to us. For him it was an escape. It's just like in the film: he just appears and starts skating with the guys, discovers the country while feeling quite lost.
The dynamics between Lukas and the Georgian guys is very interesting. Lukas mentions the feeling of freedom a lot. It's something I heard from so many different people -- this feeling of freedom people from the West find in post-Soviet countries.
Tamuna: There is a controversy because all the boys here think that the actual freedom is there where he comes from -- in Paris, in Europe. Everybody says they want to leave, go to Paris. And he says he came here because it's better than Paris, because here everyone is free.
Salome: For him it was really strange because Georgia is a really corrupt place. He sees the billboard with the president and some of us can say, oh, we know him. He couldn't understand why we know everyone. For him it seemed like there was not as much structure as in the West.
Tamuna: The lack of structure gives you a lot of space, at least at first.
David: But there are other struggles here.
Clearly skaters exist everywhere in the world. What makes these guys different?
Salome: My feeling was, in today's Georgia it's like it was in America in the 60s -- skating is something completely underground.
Tamuna: In the West everyone's got a skateboard, so it's a very mass thing. Here, you're very unique through it. You put together 20 boys, and they have a feeling of being something, a scene.
Do you think your film would contribute to evolving skate scene -- and youth culture in general -- in Georgia?
David: Literally all the skaters of Tbilisi are in this film. But it's true, there are more emerging now.
Salome: What I liked after the shooting is that they have become stronger and more independent in their decision that they are a subculture. Through this movie they understood it's not just about long hair, it's about their message as well, and they influence others more. It's important to have more youth like this in Georgia.
Text Anastasiia Fedorova
Photography courtesy David Meskhi