Top image: Still, When The Earth Seems To Be Light (2015) dir. Salome Machaidze, Tamuna Karumidze and David Meskhi
By now, it’s no secret that soviet skate culture has become somewhat of a growing fashion trend (look no further than Gosha for confirmation). But in their new film When The Earth Seems To Be Light, rather than dwell on fashion and fads, documentarians Salome Machaidze, David Meskhi, and Tamuna Karumidze construct a sensitive and touching portrayal of youth in Georgia’s hidden skating community. What unfolds is not just ideas specific to these boys, but universal themes and meditations that we can all reflect on, and use as a lens to view our society.
Ahead of the film’s screening at House of Vans, in collaboration with Calvert 22 Foundation’s Museum of Skateboarding exhibition, we spoke to the documentary’s three Georgian directors to find out the creative process behind the film.
Joey Levenson: Who are the kids you feature in the film, and how did you come across them?
Tamuna Karumidze: It all started with David Meskhi’s photographs. He started photographing the boys years ago, as they were much younger. This was during the period that Georgia was still recovering from the ruins of wars and the Soviet Union was falling apart. So, these boys were as if they were from a different reality, in the streets of Tbilisi, and David’s photographs were transporting this beautiful spirit of freedom and carelessness. So they became an inspiration for the movie.
Salome Machaidze: For me, they are the most interesting young people in Georgia, because they are so different from all the other crowds on so many levels and it’s them who somehow make this place different. I know them mostly through my husband [co-director] David Meskhi, he’s been working with these young guys in Georgia, photographing their lifestyle and most importantly he was the first Georgian photographer who started to take pictures of skaters and of youth in general. Like Tamuna said, in 2000, my home country was still in ruins. At that time, society was depressed and tragically sad. On the backdrop of all this David suddenly discovered three kids with skateboards and it was so exciting to him that he started to photograph them. Together, they all somehow started a new culture in Georgia. Some years later he was preparing the art show with the photographs of the second generation of skaters. When I saw those images hanging on the wall in his studio, I realised that it was quite absurd and surreal how the spirit and outfits of the boys didn’t really belong together in the situations, where they were skating and hanging out. I realised if I could possibly describe this strangeness that I saw in these images, I could tell the conflicting story of the real Georgia. That’s how I started thinking about them, as the protagonists, and about this movie too…
JL: So growing up in Georgia yourself, what kind of youth culture did you find yourself involved in? Or did you rather abstain from subcultures?
David Meskhi: If you’re talking about the same age as our protagonists are living in, back in the mid ’90s I was playing in a post-punk band called “Plaqsa” which was quite successful in Georgia, until sadly all the members of the band departed from Tbilisi in different directions. In general, I always abstain from mainstream and favour subcultures.
“Georgian youth in the ’90s was very influenced by films like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in America’. Dressed in black and carrying guns around.”
TK: I was a teenager in the ’90s too. It was a very dark period, a period of gangsters. We could watch people with Kalashnikovs on the street and no electricity and lack of food. Georgian youth was very influenced by films like The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America. Dressed in black and carrying guns around. That was the biggest subculture at that time.
JL: Is there a sense of escapism and freedom in the way these kids are using urban spaces in Tbilisi?
TK: Of course they are transforming the meaning of architecture, but the escape for me is in that one moment of leaving everything behind you whilst standing on the board and the moment of flying up in the air. It’s like a real life situation, when you can just escape for an instance and that moment becomes so precious. This is the moment when the earth seems to be light.
SM: I do not know how conscious these young souls and minds are about it, but definitely it’s their process. We basically confronted them with an idea that they might be attempting to build their own space — a country within a country, so to say. It’s almost like science-fiction, like a second space, a parallel universe to this world. I believe this escapism is the most beautiful thing, because it’s so poetic and pure.
JL: And David, people often divorce film and photography from one another, but I was wondering if your extensive background in photography influenced the way you approached this documentary?
DM: Our movie was my first experience in film, so photography was my only approach and influence from the moment we started. It was only after I was already involved in the directing and doing additional camerawork that I started to notice a technical difference, which is huge. How you compose a frame and how you develop dramaturgy with a moving image, differs enormously from photography, where you have one point of culmination for everything.
JL: What do you think makes skating similar to art and music as creative pursuits?
DM: I think it is the quality of skateboarding to endlessly invent something, to give some boost to life.
TK: It is art to me. It’s not at all sports. That’s how I see it. And making it a sport, as is a tendency today, is destroying it. Luckily Tbilisi is still like America in the seventies. It’s still a state of mind and a lifestyle, a process and not a competition.
“It doesn’t matter if you are in Georgia or not, the young are bored… the adults are winning.”
JL: You mentioned 1970s America, and I’m wondering with regards to how this film interacts with Kirill Savchenkov and Museum of Skateboarding, do you think there is a difference in the skate scenes of the East and the West?
TK: It’s a film about kids in a post-soviet country. A country in a distracted condition, where one can be crashed by the power of church and politics. It’s about them being lost in a controversial reality, searching for non-existing spots of their freedom and romantic state of mind. These freedoms are present in the West — this is the difference.
SM: I am actually an artist coming predominantly from the art scene. Since I was a teenager, I’ve lived in Berlin. I don’t know about post-soviet culture as much as David does, but in my opinion one can’t put Russian space together with Georgian, because the soviet influences were quite different in countries of USSR. Georgia was always more western or west oriented in the USSR, so to say. The country was always more into Europe and USA and was a bit freer under Communist regime. These countries have not had everything in common, if you ask me. Although, if you generalise Eastern skateboarding, like Georgian and Russian or Post-Soviet, you can find the same kind of romanticism there, the same sadness, same melancholy, same love for some utopian fantasies, same hate of reality, not believing in the future or in society, in the adult world, in rules. These sentiments are the result of the Soviet regime, which manifested itself so clearly in the skaters. They share the same spirit as dreamers, not with sportsmen or Western skaters. Their outfit is like an artwork because it shows their rebellion against society. They are like heroes and you become a hero among them too, if you spend more and more time with them, and you start to dress yourself in their strange way. Post-soviet skateboarding is more about being free and being different from others, wanting to change the world around you. They are rebels and heroes and that makes them quite different from contemporary Western skaters, I think. Western young people are more integrated in society, I’d say.
“If you generalise Eastern skateboarding, like Georgian and Russian or Post-Soviet, you can find the same kind of romanticism there, the same sadness, same melancholy, same love for some utopian fantasies, same hate of reality, not believing in the future or in society, in the adult world, in rules.”
JL: It’s interesting you say that one “starts to dress yourself in this strange way”. Now, I think everyone is. Why do you think Soviet skate culture in particular has become a recent phenomenon in the fashion industry, giving way to designers such as Gosha Rubchinskiy or Demna Gvasalia?
SM: I think the post-Soviet world combines two cultures at once. Also the clash of these two cultures — like the old soviet and the later global Western culture, which have collided with each other and in turn nurtured a very interesting conflict. Of course, all this is very beautiful. These eclectic things make life more beautiful and more interesting at the same time. The people and the spirit of the skateboarders in these countries are like sculptures or monuments of these turbulent processes. Their outfits also tell a story — the story of clashes between cultures. I guess it is exactly that which influences and inspires Gosha and Demna. Thus, also gaining the thematic influence on fashion and on today’s world generally.
TK: Well, I think both of them are soviet kids and their background is the same as ours. Of course, Soviet Union also had a brilliant design for everything and it is very inspiring.
JL: And do you find there are still efforts to prohibit skating and youth culture today in Georgia?
SM: It’s not so directly prohibited, but I mean the grip of Soviet Union is not gone yet. Russia always wanted us — like in the past, to have us back under the same old Soviet regime. There is still a possibility that they will succeed on that, by the way. Lots of people in Georgia do not want free spirited and intellectually developed young folks because they are obviously difficult to control. There is somehow a hidden war between cultures in Georgia – between Asian, kind of Middle Eastern and Western cultures, which fight against each other. Skateboarding is definitely not welcomed by traditionalist retrogrades because it’s considered like a rebellion. It’s like the state of freedom, which they want to oppress. Besides, Skateboarding was always a symbol of USA in the Soviet Union. It’s not like skateboarding was not allowed in Georgia. Even in the ’70s, we had guys who skated. But they were not considered part of a subculture, but more as a bunch of crazy people, who loved America. They could always skate in Georgia anyways.
JL: So building on that, do you think the future looks promising for the youth of today, or is there still more work to be done?
TK: There is definitely a lot work to do. There is a huge gap between the generations. One of the reasons why we made this film is to make their world accessible for adults and to start a dialogue. There is currently no dialogue. Nobody talks to the kids. And it’s crucial that they do.
DM: It doesn’t matter if you are in Georgia or not, the young are bored… the adults are winning.
‘When Earth Seems to be Light’ will have its UK premiere on the 25th August as House of Vans London in collaboration with Calvert 22, as part of the foundation’s Power and Architecture programme. You can get your tickets here and here.