Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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RATI ONELI: CITY OF THE SUN/ბერლინი) (2017) - SFIFF მზის ქალაქი


A fading mining town in Georgia poetically examined

Oneli lived in New York for years, then came here to Georgia, made this cool, elegiac documentary, and has remained. The city of Chiatura once was a major supplier of the world's manganese; no more. It is a big empty shell. The film moves around with a cool eye following a few people. Much distinctive use is made by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan of middle-distance and long-distance shots, and editing where camera position changes but continuity of sound and dialogue is never lost. This craftsmanship belies an editing style that shifts subjects with ironic randomness.

What do they do in the mine? How many buildings are empty, abandoned? men are still working in the mine. From a toast declared, they are still dying there. One miner performs in a local amateur theater. A music teacher, frustrated with his ten or twelve year old boys, performs songs for adults, and the rest of his time tears up a building to get the metal wiring that he sells to support himself. A phone call shows it keeps getting stolen. Two girls train as distance runners for the Olympics. They are promising athletes, but money needs to be raised to feed them: they are getting only one meal a day.

The camera observes these things, and dreary celebrations in partly abandoned buildings, with a distant, patient eye.

In one particularly fine shot the camera is twenty or thirty feet away from a large square window. Inside we see young girls at a party, dancing back and forth, perfectly framed. Sometimes the camera, still, simply observes a landscape, an overgrown mine hillside, or a crossroads in a sudden heavy rain. Or people traveling on what seems rickety public transport. It follows the music teacher to a former "Ministry of Communications" that is now just a shabby hall, where men and women, dressed up a bit, or the women anyway, joke, eat, drink and dance and get drunk, while he sings for them a song of his own composition, which they ignore. They say loud goodnights outside, and inside, the musician sits at the big table and consumes their leftovers. You can't make things like this up, and normally, you can't capture them on film.

See the discussion in [url=""]Cinevue[/url], and a live interview with Oneli (not as revealing as it might have been) in [url=""]Fred[/url]. This film may feel stingy or disjointed to the casual viewer, but it contains the fruits of extraordinary patience and a distinctive vision. A dreamlike adventure in a nowhere wonderland of bygone mysteries. Stay around for the men drinking in an abandoned mine place by the golden light of an open fire toward the end clinking glasses to a "Grey world, grey century, grey town. Amen."

The title comes from an early utopian work by the Italian Dominican philosopher Tommaso Campanella, written in Italian in 1602, shortly after Campanella's imprisonment for heresy and sedition "A Poetical Dialogue between a Grandmaster of the Knights Hospitallers and a Genoese Sea-Captain, his guest." The closing end-quote it provides to the film is "They are rich because they want nothing, poor because they possess nothing, and consequently they are not slaves to circumstances, but circumstances serve them."

City of the Sun/მზის ქალაქი (Mzis kalaki), 104 mins., debuted at the Berlinale, and was shown in six other festivals, including the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. There, it received Special Jury Mention, McBaine Documentary Feature. The jury granted this mention to Oneli’s film 'for its stunning use of cinematography and sound design that immerses us in a place that is at once stark and stirring."


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