Always within her

Elene Naveriani on the recognition of beauty and Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry

by Jennie Kermode

Elene Naveriani in Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry
Elene Naveriani in Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry

An unforgettable film about an extraordinary woman who gradually comes to see beyond the bounds of her very ordinary Georgian village life, Elene Naveriani’s Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry has been flying around the festival circuit and has just alighted at Belfast. With a stunning central performance by Eka Chavleishvili as shopkeeper Etero, it focuses on an unexpected middle aged romance, but the heroine’s journey takes her far beyond that on a voyage of self discovery. When Elene and I met up ahead of the festival, she explained how the story got a grip on her and how she felt compelled to bring that character to the screen.

“In 2020 there was the release of the new feminist novel by Tamta Melashvili, the writer. I was in Georgia. I was visiting the family, and I bought it because it's something that I always do. She's a very interesting author. I didn't have a time to read in Georgia. When I was going back to Switzerland, I read it in a plane, and when it landed I was like, ‘God, that really has to become a film.’ I wrote to her, and I wrote to the producer, and I told them that I just wanted to do this.

“I think what really inspired me was her character – a character that I felt was missing on the screen and also in a literature and in theatre: everywhere. And I know so many people like her. I know a lot of people who are maybe not doing exactly the same things, but they live the same kind of life. And also I could identify with it myself. So I thought that this is really extremely interesting and a very important story to tell. It's not my story. It's a story of everybody, basically, I would say. It's not only a story for women, it's a story really for everybody.”

The first time we see Etero naked, it's a very plain shot, not very flattering. But as we watch her over time, she seems to become more beautiful in the way that she's photographed. I tell Elene that it reminded me of the process of falling in love, which makes the object of one’s desire, however ordinary to begin with, reveal more and more beauty.

Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry
Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

“It's absolutely that,” she says. “And I think it's also a body that you have in real life. In reality, we're not seeing it as a beautiful body. I think it takes time to understand that it is beautiful. There were these two dimensions in the film, how it's pictured and how it's filmed, and what kind of sense to build and also how it's lit, to really bring this radiance and this beauty that is there. It's not only additional things that make it beautiful, but it is beautiful.

“A part of it was also to look at something that we are not used to. We are not seeing it as something valid and something that can be beautiful or can be. It also has its very powerful right of existence.”

As she goes through the film, Etero is also changing the way that she relates to the world and the way she feels about herself.

“Yeah, absolutely. She's changing herself, of course, and she's looking things differently. I would say that's what we see and that's what the fragments of her life suggest. But what is interesting in her, and how I directed this character, it was more that she always had this. She always knew all this. Everything was inside of her, but she never dared to do it. And I think this changes it somehow. It becomes more conscious, what she does. I think she has been doing this all the time. Confronting others, talking to others.

“I think she kind of gains more strength and power. She understands the power of herself and she can be someone who could make a change. And I would say what we observe, she always had, but she's kind of unfolding and she also kind of rationalises throughout the film. The last scene is clearly very rational, for me. That's when she says ‘Okay, I'm ready for a fight.’ That's how I see it.”

The people around her see a change as well, I observe. The women in the village seem surprised that she's starting to stand up for herself a little bit. They’re really horrible to her, to agree almost absurd enough to become comedy.

“I think that they are very horrible but if you look at it, they can also be forgiven very easily,” Elene says. “I think it's an environment that made them be like that, but I never thought they really mean it. They are not mean. It's a way for them to cope with their tragedy. Basically their dramas, what they go through in their life, I think how they talk to her somehow reflects envy. They just really want to be like her. They always come closer to her. Her presence somehow gives this good feeling. It's really good to be next to her.

“They learned a very different way of communicating with each other and they are toxic, but they don't know how to do it otherwise. But I would say also, for me, it's reality. In general we do treat each other this way. Maybe not it's not so exaggerated, but somehow that's the relation towards the humans today. I really see that it's very broken.”

Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry
Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry

Etero has an interesting relationship with the younger woman in her village – one which seems much more connected. It seems easier for her to be around them. Is that a reflection of the way society is changing?

“Yeah. It's just really something where I see the little hopes, and I see that even though it's really harsh and the kind of changes are not maybe very obvious in certain societies, let's say in Georgia for example. But there you see in the generations that it's very hopeful and there is a big difference. I think that her relationship with the younger generation is also that for them she's an example. I think she sees herself in them as well.

“With this blue haired girl, I think she loves her freedom, she loves that she's kind. She’s not taking the rules that are given. She has never done this before. Etero was not able to do it by herself, but she sees that someone else is doing it more rationally and consciously, and that's also what's going on between them.”

Although Etero hasn’t experienced love until late in life, she then has a lot of the experiences of relationships that people have when they're younger. There’s a wonderful scene in which she and her man are driving through the countryside and it seems conventionally romantic, but then, when she's looking out of the window, the trees move out of the way and you can suddenly see a much wider world – as if the world is opening up to her mentally as well.

“Absolutely, of course. It's like opening up, and I think that she's also someone that opens up for others. She's very inviting somehow and I think it's also in the world, towards her. Somehow that's what she always wanted. I don't mean like being with a man. It's not this, but I don't know, it's feeling that ‘I feel good and I'm welcomed in this world and I'm here, and I have just been accepted or I accepted myself the way I am, even though I’m doing something that I’m not supposed to be doing.”

The scene is also, she says, about Etero’s close relationship with nature and the natural world.

We talk abut Eka, whom Elene worked with previously on her 2021 film Wet Sand.

“I wrote this for her and I think that was why the screenwriting went quite quickly,” Elene says. “Usually it takes a long time to write and to make things more solid. As I knew that she was the one who was going to perform, it helped a lot, because anything I was writing was already very visual for me. She was already in there and I could hear her. I could feel her, I knew her body and I could really see what she would do and how she would do it. That really helped me to make it very nuanced while writing. Also for working with her and also for the shooting.”

It's an amazing performance, and doing that kind of work usually takes time. It takes having a certain emotional space to feel able to do all that, to feel safe. How did Elene create that for Eka?

Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry
Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry

“At the very beginning I was talking to her a lot about the character and who she was and what she was doing. And at some point, I was giving her more exercises to observe in her everyday life, not as a character but as herself, just to observe the details of what she was doing every day and just to pay attention to this routine that she was going through as a person. Because this experience of being so attentive would really help afterwards for the acting.

“I think it is very interesting in actors, and why I like to work with actors, that sometimes I think that they don't need to really understand everything, to rationalise everything. They just need to listen and feel what is the essence and what is the core, what they have to transmit. She has this and that's why she's amazing and why she was the right choice for the film. She's a very good listener. Afterwards – it's very interesting – if you ask her how she did it, she would never be able to explain that. It's very intuitive. The character also has this intuition. There is something that Etero cannot rationalise herself, but she has it.

“I think also as an actress, she's also this type that...” She pauses. “It’s very mathematically calculated, what you tell her, and she does it. You don't describe what it’s about, which is very contrary with the men. The guy that I worked with, you need to really explain everything. Not physically, but more ‘Okay, this is why why he's doing this and why he has to do that.’ Everything has to be verbalised. And with her, I didn't need to do this. You just give a very precise movement, you just drop the emotion and she does it.”

Eka works primarily in theatre, she explains, so sometimes she would have to advise her to make her movements and expressions smaller and subtler for the camera.

“She can be very expressive. She also has a physicality that takes up a lot of space. Something that is very small, even with her face, tiny stuff would become exaggerated. It was very interesting that she's really balancing all this. And she's very sincere. That really helps a lot.”

Both Eka and the world through which she moves are rendered in blackberry colours.

“I constructed everything around her and around what she feels when she's alone,” Elene says. “I wanted something very expressionist, something that that the outside world marks itself in. It isn’t only something that she lives in. The outside world takes part in it. I wanted everything around her to participate. It's not just décor. They are not just walls. They are not just streets or passes.

“All this geography, the roads and the colours, it's part of her. It's part of her expression and it's part of her identity. The river and the blackbird and the blackberries, of course, and everything plays a role. The rain is part of her story and it's part of her everyday life. I think that when we worked on the set design, that was the main stuff. What I was communicating to the set designer was that they are characters. They cannot be just a place that you put actors in. They also have to be speaking.”

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