Legacy of secrets and lies
04.11.2004 By PETER CALDER
The setting of Julie Bertuccelli's first feature film had a certain inevitability about it. The 35-year-old French writer and director of television documentaries had developed a strong relationship with the countries of the former Soviet Union, travelling widely there and learning to speak Russian. And it was the southwestern-most republic of Georgia, on the Black Sea, that she liked the most.
It was also the place that best suited the story she wanted to tell. Since Otar Left is a film about many things but running through it is a thematic thread of exile and longing. The director says Georgians have always looked to France as a cultural touchstone: historically, Georgian aristocracy spoke French and aspired to the sophistication France embodied; now the citizens of the economically beleaguered country long to flee there as refugees.
That cultural uncertainty is the undercurrent of Otar's deceptively simple storyline which features three generations of women in a rundown apartment in Tbilisi. The title character and man of the house - the son, brother and uncle, respectively, to the three women - is a doctor, oddjobbing illegally on building sites in Paris and sustaining, with the younger women's assistance, his mother's illusion that he's struck it rich. When news arrives that Otar has been killed, the pretences move to a different level.
The film, which Bertuccelli co-wrote, is based on the experience of a friend of hers who disguised her uncle's death from his sister, her mother. The film-maker's documentary credits were all what might be called urban ethnography - one examined the workforce at the department store Galeries Lafayette, another watched judges learning their craft - but she knew at once that this story had to be done as a dramatic feature.
"I couldn't make a documentary about it because it is too intimate and my documentaries are not about people's private lives," she says. "In any case, I just wanted to take the story as a starting point and put a lot of myself in there.
"There were a lot of things that I wanted to consider with this film, ideas about exile and immigration and the end of communism and my relationship with my own mother. It was a story with a lot of power for me and I found it very exciting so I used the story I had been told just as a pretext - but everything that happens I invented."
Setting the film in a country of the former USSR was important "because that place was based on such a lot of political lies and so the family lie that the women were telling was an echo of the bigger lie".
But there was a more personal connection as well. When Bertuccelli was young, her widowed maternal grandmother remarried, to a Russian, a high-born man with connections to the novelist Vladimir Nabokov.
Bertuccelli remembers being enchanted by the new family member. "I imagined myself as a Russian princess. I enjoyed the fantasy of it all. I learned to speak Russian and everything like this."
This harmless snobbery is a strong thread in Otar - the grandmother, a devoted Stalinist who speaks fluent French, sees herself as a cut above her compatriots on two counts - and it's touching to see the tenderness with which Bertuccelli lampoons her. But the director's childhood experience gives added pungency to the deliberate fictions that sustain the story.
"I don't judge whether the lying that the women do is good or not," says Bertuccelli. "I just see how they use lies to change their own lives. Yes, lying can be an act of love. But it's also a way of manipulation. The characters use lies to get control of the situation.
"But it is in the end a story of how we need to have fantasies and dreams. Everybody needs to have hope and part of that is how we live by proxy, through our dreams."
*Who: Julie Bertuccelli, director, Since Otar Left
*Where and when: Academy Theatre, opens today