is a would-be separatist state, born out of ethnic cleansing. At least, that is
OSCE’s judgment and the UN somewhat mutedly concurs. Tellingly, only human
rights-challenged Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as well as foreign
aid-seeking Nauru officially recognize the Georgian breakaway territory. Yet,
somehow Parisian-based American expat filmmaker Eric Baudelaire struck up a
correspondence with former Abkhazian foreign minister Maxim Gvinjia, using
their exchanges as the structure of his docu-essay Letters to Max (trailer here), which screens as a Projections selection
at the 52nd New York Film Festival.
Abkhazia does not even meet the dubious separatist standard asserted by the
majority Russians in Ukrainian Crimea. Before the 1992-1993 separatist war,
Abkhazia’s population was roughly fifty percent ethnic Georgian and only one
quarter ethnic Abkhazian. Of course, that would change drastically. Eventually,
Baudelaire will ask Gvinjia tough questions about the expulsion of Georgians,
but he starts with a full hour of softballs.
is clear why Gvinjia was relatively successful in politics. He is a natural
story teller, blessed with a reassuring voice. According to the film’s
meta-conceit, Baudelaire sent Gvinjia a letter, just to see whether it would
reach him. In turn, Gvinjia responded with the first of the audio tapes heard throughout
the film, which Baudelaire later married up with appropriate travelogue video
hear a bit about Gvinjia’s war experiences and his nostalgia for the old Soviet
Union, somewhat more about his family life, and revisit the watershed day
Russia formally announced their recognition of Abkhazia. He also recounts the
first official Abkhazian state visit to Nicaragua and Venezuela. Honestly, it
is nice to know, as late as 2008, there was still a bureaucrat in the State
Department with enough gumption to freeze Abkhazia’s funds in the U.S. after
they spent a daylong stopover in Cuba.
all fairness, Baudelaire deserves credit for seriously raising human rights
issues in the last fifteen minutes. He does not merely ask a one-off question
about the forced expulsion of Georgians just so he can say he did it. He has
real follow-ups as well. He even challenges the appropriateness of the lack of
Georgian voices counterbalancing Gvinjia, but he picks the darnedest time to
raise doubts about his fundamental concept. Arguably, these exchanges should
have come up front, to provide context for everything that would follow. Even
so, Baudelaire never really delves into graphic reports of ethnic cleansing
All this probably makes Letters sound far more provocative and extreme than it really is.
It shares no kinship with Triumph of the
Will. However, it certainly offers a dubious political entity an
opportunity to try to score propaganda points. Highly problematic, Letters to Max is not recommended when
it screens this Saturday (10/4) at the Beale, as part of this year’s NYFF.
Labels: Abkhazia, Documentary, NYFF '14