Arriving in Amsterdam a couple of days earlier than planned to attend Docs for Sale, director Levan Koguashvili talks about how he chanced upon his protagonist while researching in a Georgian prison, and how making a feature-length documentary has "grounded" him after two award-winning fiction films.
"Around 2012, I wanted to shoot something about the situation in the jails in Georgia", the filmmaker says. "We knew there was really bad stuff happening. I was looking for material for a fiction film. The only way to get permission to film inside was through the churches in the jails, and Gogita was one of the guys coming to the church in the jail."
Koguashvili wasn't planning on making a documentary, but political developments forced his hand. "Then the government changed in Georgia – partly because of the situation with the jails, in fact. This was one of the reasons the government lost the elections. They showed such terrible footage on the news, I felt it was impossible to shoot something more dramatic than that reality."
"So I went off and made [feature film] Blind Dates. But I felt I had to finish this project I had started – even if the jail situation was no longer the subject. Then I remembered Gogita. I turned up and filmed his release, and his first day at home. I thought it had an interesting energy, but I still didn't know what to do with it. So I went away again to write my next feature script. When I went to see Gogita again, he told me, 'Hey, I met this girl on the internet. It might be serious.'"
"He showed me photos of Maka. 'She is nice,' he said, 'but a bit overweight.' I asked if he had shown the photos to his mother – he said, 'Not yet.' So I said, 'Let's go do that.' I set up the camera and he started showing the photos to his mother, and right away I knew I had this strange documentary movie. A tragi-comedy about the post-jail struggle and the search for love and happiness."
"I filmed the first actual meeting between Gogita and Maka. It's a love story and a jail movie; it shows the struggle to find your place after so many lost years, and then there's also the issue of does it matter she's overweight or not? It took on a different dimension."
"I became part of their relationship", the director recalls of his closeness to the film's protagonists. "Gogita's mother would often call me, asking me questions about Maka. I became part of their life. Gogita's mother still thinks if it wasn't for me and my film, they would not have got married!"
Reflecting on the differences between making fiction and documentary films, Koguashvili says: "I like the improvisational way of working on documentaries. You just arrive and try to capture something interesting. You make decisions very quickly about where to put the camera, how to capture the action in a cinematic way. Of course, it has its drawbacks too – sometimes you don't know when it's going to finish, you can't plan how long to shoot. It can drive you crazy. But it was great to make this documentary now because, despite the fact I love fiction and am maybe more of a fiction filmmaker, documentary has a truth, an energy that in some ways is unbeatable. It's important from time to time to get back to some kind of reality. It grounds you."