Juja Dobrachkous on the girls in Bebia, À Mon Seul Désir: “Most of the actors were non-professional actors and I wanted this absolutely natural effect.”
Juja Dobrachkous’ debut feature Bebia, À Mon Seul Désir, produced with Olga Dykhovichnaya, and shot by Veronica Solovyeva in black and white, joins Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta and Jonas Bak’s Wood And Water as the third highlight of the 50th anniversary edition of New Directors/New Films that confronts a child’s relationship to a looming-large mother. Iva Radivojevic’s not-to-be-missed Aleph is the other early highlight.
Juja Dobrachkous: “I kind of enforced my structure with the Greek classical structure, which just enriches and makes it fun to write and shoot it.”
Told in two time strands, we see little Ariadna (Anushka Andronikashvili) interact with her surroundings and observe the strained dynamics at home. When 17-year-old Ariadna (Anastasia Davidson), now a model in London, arrives back home for the funeral of her grandmother (Guliko Gurgenidze), she is not only greeted by her chain-smoking, drinking, angry and confused mother (Anastasia Chanturaia), but also by a task only she can fulfil.
The Bebia of the title, Ariadna’s grandmother, shares with the classic folktale figure Baba Yaga the inscrutability - neither fully monster, nor benevolent helper, she resides in the in-between of childhood emotions. Here her name is Medea, as many of the characters are symbolically tied to Greek mythology. Four little girls dressed in school uniform with big white sailor collars, their white crocheted knee socks at half-mast from all the running by the brook and the aqueduct, cajole us into this enchanted tale of family relations and ancient rituals in the stark, beautiful landscape of Georgia.
True to her name, Ariadna has to connect a string from the hospital where Medea died to her body displayed in the house and where mourners wail, so that the soul can find rest and won’t be lost. Over hills, through brooks, and across train tracks she walks with rolls of thread, accompanied by a local young man called Temo (short for Theseus, played by Alexander Glurjidze), who knows that “the performance of any rite is not an immersion in the past, it is a necessary act to change your own future.” Mothers and grandmothers are a thread of this year’s ND/NF.
Juja Dobrachkous on finding Anushka Andronikashvili, the young Ariadna: “We shot about 52 different girls in a very special environment. We had a hidden camera and I just wanted to know how natural the girls were, how their natural reaction is.”
From London, Juja Dobrachkous joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Bebia, À Mon Seul Désir.
Anne-Katrin Titze: How is London? How are you?
Juja Dobrachkous: London now is much better because they opened the stores and restaurants are now open, outside terraces are open, and London immediately becomes very alive and very vital. It’s much better than before. Before it was too quiet for London.
AKT: We’re still going through a lot of changes. Your film, right from the start with the little girls and the way they are interacting is really wonderful. I love how you shot the details, the white knee socks, the crocheted ones with the little hole pattern, I don’t even know what they’re called. I had those when I was little. The details are great to set the tone. Can you talk a bit about the work with the girls?
JD: Yes, because first my audition in Georgia was specifically for the girls. For the main character, the small girl Ariadna. Because it’s my first film and I’m not educated from film school, I’m an artist and a writer, everything was new for me. I did a good preparation specifically for the girls, we shot about 52 different girls in a very special environment. I had an apartment and one room was specially for technical things, for the monitors and microphones.
The girls had about thirty minutes in a waiting room and each of them believed they were waiting for the audition, but it was already the audition because we had a hidden camera and I just wanted to know how natural the girls were, how their natural reaction is. For example, I played different kinds of music. They didn’t know I was watching them, I filmed them. I had some specific noise and how they would react to the noise. And finally I found my Ariadna.
The 17-year-old Ariadna (Anastasia Davidson)
All the details, you just asked me, it’s very interesting, because specifically the scene where the girls are all on the fence, on the gate, I remember we started to shoot and I saw all their socks, let’s call them long socks - there is another name for that but I don’t remember it - and their shoes on my monitor. Suddenly, I see that everything looks new, brand-new. It was the second day of shooting outside. I stopped all the filming. All the parents all the people available, who were free, started to …
AKT: … dirty up the shoes and the socks?
JD: Yes, to make them look as if they had worn them for at least some time. It was many many things like this when I looked in my monitor and saw something was wrong. I didn’t know what but something is wrong. And then I went, oh my god, somebody help! For example, somebody help my character with the hair design. I need to stop and ask her to run around [Juja makes a gesture of messing up the hair]. For me most important to have a documentary effect.
Most of the actors were non-professional actors and I wanted this absolutely natural effect. We didn’t have any makeup or I tried to ask everyone to do their hair themselves, mostly without even a mirror. No one read the script, because I didn’t want them to pretend or imagine what they would do in a situation. I wanted everything that happened to happen here and now and I needed to record it.
Wake meal for Medea, Ariadna’s grandmother in Bebia, À Mon Seul Désir
AKT: That really comes across, and especially with the children. It is so annoying in movies when you see these child actors do things a child normally wouldn’t do. The girls in your film would interact the way they do. Your hidden camera worked perfectly. Along with all this naturalism, your film is shot in black and white, which gives it a timeless quality. And also you took the names from Greek mythology. Ariadna has been named as if she knew that her fate at some point contained the obligation for her to fulfil this very interesting ritual. Did you start out with these three pillars to tell the story?
JD: Yes, I’m glad that you noticed that. Mostly all the main characters are standing strongly on Greek mythology. It’s Ariadna, because it’s a girl with a thread. The thread which you need to get you away from the labyrinth of life. The young man who was kind of supporting her on this trip, his name was Temo, which is kind of Theseus. And even when Temo told her the story of his two fathers, in the Greek legend Theseus has two fathers and both of them were biological fathers of that character. I loved it and all the characters, even the brother of Medea, the old man with the white beard and moustache, he was Dedalus.
JD: Even his crazy kind of son was Icarus.
AKT: Okay! I didn’t catch that!
Juja Dobrachkous: “It’s Ariadna (Anastasia Davidson), because it’s a girl with a thread. The thread which you need to get you away from the labyrinth of life.”
JD: You can find everyone, everyone is there.
AKT: Of course, calling the grandmother Medea, that says it all. You have the love-hate relationship right there in the name.
JD: Exactly, and even the mother of Ariadna. When we finally understand that she has Alzheimer or dementia or some kind of psychological difficulties. Pasiphaë, I took this character from Ariadna’s mom, and how we all know the Greek myth, she went crazy in the end. Actually, I believe when I knew what kind of story I was looking for, I held my structure. I kind of enforced my structure with the Greek classical structure, which just enriches and makes it fun to write and shoot it. I’m very pleased when people recognize it. Not everyone recognises it.
AKT: It functions on both levels. The first sentence when Ariadna arrives back home, “What the hell” is the first thing her mother says to her. It is such a harsh welcome, so bitter and painful to watch. And from the daughter’s reaction we know that this is how the family “worked.” It explains everything, the Greek myth in a present-day situation.
JD: I believe my film, our film because a big team worked with me, our film is not for everyone. For my people, my viewers, I don’t think I need to chew everything. For a film like this you need to work yourself a little bit to understand. To revise at some time, to even see it for the second time. I don’t like when somebody gives me everything which is ready to swallow. That is boring and not interesting. I try to have different levels and meanings. For me it’s like a kind of game.
Juja Dobrachkous on Temo (Alexander Glurjidze) joining Ariadna (Anastasia Davidson): “The young man who was kind of supporting her on this trip, his name was Temo, which is kind of Theseus.”
AKT: Thank you so much, you made a beautiful film!
JD: Thank you, bye-bye.
Coming up - Juja Dobrachkous on the mourners, Georgian traditions, Dedalus, Icarus, rules of the game, choir practice, and what to do with personal belongings.
Bebia, À Mon Seul Désir screens on Tuesday, May 4 at 7:00pm; Thursday, May 11 at 3:30pm inside the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. There will be a pre-recorded post-screening Q&A.
The 2021 feature committee comprises Florence Almozini (Co-Chair, FLC), La Frances Hui (Co-Chair, MoMA), Rajendra Roy (MoMA), Josh Siegel (MoMA), Dan Sullivan (FLC), and Tyler Wilson (FLC), and the shorts were programmed by Brittany Shaw (MoMA) and Madeline Whittle (FLC).
New Directors/New Films at 50: A Retrospective is running free virtually through April 28.
The 50th anniversary edition of New Directors/New Films runs from April 28 through May 8 with the in-person screenings at Lincoln Center extended to May 13.