New East Digital Archive

Interweaving fact and fiction, an experimental film uses AI to reimagine Abkhazia’s past

Premiered worldwide at the BFI London Film Festival 2021, Kamila Kuc’s What We Shared recounts the memories of Abkhazia’s past through an experimental lens that blends dreams, archival footage, and personal testimonies.

28 October 2021

“Once upon a time in the land of Abkhazia…” writer-director Kamila Kuc’s film begins. The dreamy opening precedes a thorough exploration of the turbulent history of a territory on the Black Sea. Composed of visual re-imaginings, in which dreams play an integral part, What We Shared negotiates seven core voices sharing testimonies of loss and instability in Abkhazia.

The project began at an artist residency programme with SKLAD Cultural Centre in Sukhumi, an independent organisation developing Abkhazia’s contemporary art scene. “I have been exploring the idea of an archive for quite some time. In this project, I wanted to engage in a reconceptualisation of what an archive is – its limitations, but also its possibilities,” Kuc tells The Calvert Journal. Archived history is complicated in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz State Archive was destroyed in the 1992-93 war with Georgia. Kuc’s film, in turn, is a restoration of Abkhazia’s late 20th-century history through dreams that embody a collective cultural heritage in this unique cinematic archive.

In What We Shared, Kuc interweaves performed and reenacted scenes to visualise the dreams of Abkhaz people, as well as Kuc’s own dreams interacting with intergenerational trauma that manifests via voice-over, though the narrator is introduced as unreliable. Far from wanting to recreate historical testimonies, she tries “not to focus on factual accuracy, but on an emotional one”. For instance, one subject recounts a dream of a fog-covered ocean clearing to reveal a burning sea. The following sequence sees footage of waves crashing onto the shore projected onto a screen, then the projector screen catches fire. The projected waves are engulfed by flames: a burning sea. Throughout What We Shared, visual incarnations of dreams offer a connection between people and place, generations, and different geographical zones, even if this connection is an imagined one.

Following the 1992 war, Abkhazia exists in a liminal space where cultural identity became ingrained in war-torn architecture, a physical reminder of Abkhazia’s divisive history. Kuc’s camera floats through buildings once populated, now overtaken by plants. The gaze of What We Shared lingers on overgrown greenery spilling out of windows, plaster peeling, and bricks crumbling beneath the weight of this land’s memories. In one scene, the City Council building falls to the ground (it’s unclear whether the visual is another dream or reality). Kuc notes the significance of such imagery: “It’s an important ruin in Abkhazia because for some people it marks Abkhazia’s victory over Georgia, whereas for others, it signifies Abkhazia’s dependence on Russia, and it is a painful reminder of the war trauma.” Facilitating indirect discussions of ongoing socio-political issues, What We Shared channels its complexly sensitive untangling through the lens of personal testimony – allowing for a more intimate look at the divisions in Abkhaz society.

The film also draws on Daur Zantaria’s poem A Tea of Raging Sins. Delivered by Manana Bigvava, the line “I wake up on a sofa, on the edge of the morning, and in the mirror of a trophy bathtub I have only half a face,” holds particular political importance. Kuc explains: “Trophy bathtub alludes to land and property grabbing which took place during and after the war, when 250,000 Georgian refugees had to leave the country – an issue that is still unresolved and is embodied in the film by the character of Tamar Ioseliani.”

This embedded nuance reaches even the film’s textured soundscape that mixes composed music from Timothy Nelson with traditional Abkhazian songs. The tracks sung in Abkhaz are a contrast with the Google Maps imagery that, as Kuc points out, “fails to distinguish Abkhazia from Georgia.” Pairing cultural identity with a visual that opposes this very identification becomes a microcosm for What We Shared explores, the conflict between personal and dominant structures, as identity is reconciled.

I wanted to creatively interpret dreams and memories that may not otherwise be perceived or even conceived. I wanted to show that the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian war is not a history but a contemporary reality, as the trauma caused by it passes onto their children and grandchildren.

Svetlana Boym’s writings on the former Soviet republics informed the method of “performative and experiential archiving” that Kuc has developed. Working with dreams that exist on the peripheries of reality to move towards the future while rebuilding the past, nostalgia innately arises. The frame of What We Shared is imbued with notions of ambiguous nostalgia: “According to Boym, one is nostalgic not for the past the way it was, but for the past the way it could have been: ‘It is this Past Perfect that one strives to realise in the future,’” says Kuc.

Throughout the film, visual nostalgia meets modern technology with the incorporation of AI. “These processed images allude to the fact that life in Abkhazia has never been what it seemed. Abkhazia might have been Soviet Florida, but things were not so peachy under the surface, as Stalinist purges were taking place simultaneously,” Kuc explains. Placing the psychedelic Deep Dream art style images beside untouched sequences results in a portrait of Abkhazia’s duality. “It’s about looking for new means of generating more contemporary perspectives on the past by displacing and destabilising some of the representations of that past and the narratives they generated,” Kuc adds.

Abkhazia continues to exist in its own refuted space where dreams harbour unknown futures and encased nostalgia while being one of the only ways to remember the past. Rebuilding an image of reality through collective memory rooted in the unconscious, after the credits of What We Shared, memories of golden baked khachapuri, a wild botanical garden, and the cherry bloom that blossomed in March live on.

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