A Film a Week - City of the Sun / Mzis qalaqi

Rati Oneli’s debut feature City of the Sun (premiered last year in Berlin) is beautiful and disturbing study on the dualities of creation and destruction, civilization and decadence, material and spiritual (well, cultural, but does not matter). It is a lyrical, reflexive documentary structured and filmed almost like a fiction feature. The film is set in the central Georgian mining town of Chiatura whose mines once provided 50% of the world’s manganese production, but now looks almost deserted and left to the human negligence and ravaging elements.

It would be easy to imagine City of the Sun as piece of the so-called “ruin porn” cinema, but it just is not that because it is about its people, still alive and kicking with their spirits high up, at least as much it is about the mines, schools, theatres and cultural houses that have seen better days in the Soviet times of rapid industrialization. Zurab is a music teacher handling both children and senior citizens ensembles and choirs while supporting himself by tearing defunct concrete buildings apart so he could sell scrap metal. Archil is a miner whose passion is theatre where he moonlights as an actor. Sisters Miriam and Irina are both promising athletes, long-distance runners with realistic prospects for Olympic level of competition only if they could have a healthier nutrition, since they live on one soup-kitchen meal per day.

Imagine their environments, empty and crumbling places like mines, common rooms in public buildings, construction sites, stadium, city streets, empty roads and the elaborate system of cable cars connecting mines to the town. They do not exist just on their own, but also in the context of nature surrounding them: hills and woods impressive in their beauty and strong enough to swallow the town if it loses more population. Imagine them living their lives, working, drinking, messing around, dealing with everyday problems.

Oneli opted for a well-employed stylistic choices, like longer (but not too long) takes of medium to long-distance shots of his subjects in real-life situations accompanied with folk music they sometimes perform as well as original score. So kudos also for the cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan and the sound designer Andrey Dergachev known for his work on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films. Not to forget also the editor Ramiro Suárez. Another strong point is Oneli’s approach blurring the lines between the documentary and fiction filmmaking, using a script of sorts he outlined with one of the film’s producers Dea Kulumbegashvili and filming his subjects rather than interviewing them. Nevertheless, the dialogue is never lost, and the things we see and hear from them serve as pretty much the only comment.

Oneli’s only comment can be seen on the final title card, offering a quote from Italian Dominican monk, philosopher and theologist Tomaso Campanella form whose utopian work Oneli borrowed the title for his film. “They are rich because they want nothing, poor because they possess nothing, and consequently they are not slaves to circumstances, but circumstance serve them.” That one sentence found its place as the bottom line of the film, just where it belongs.

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