The rugged, mountainous, old-timey beauty of the Georgian countryside is excellently evoked in Waltz, a highly innovative music video created for the popular Georgian band Mgzavrebi. For Lado Kvataniya (a welcome regular on DN’s pages) known for the Russian-language thriller The Execution as well as working with Husky in Russia and Kanye West and Cardi B in the USA, this film was an opportunity to get back to his Georgian roots. Mixing different film stocks as well as shooting in both colour and black and white, moving between the countryside and the city, Waltz is a gorgeous evocation of starting a new family while honouring one’s roots. With intuitive editing and some incredible footage – including the rendering of a baby being born! – it is a deeply emotional music video that betrays a strong willingness to push the music video form forward. We caught up with Kvataniya for a conversation about mixing different media, shooting with limited film stock and creating the film as a healing process for a cast and crew deeply affected by the war in Ukraine.
As someone growing up in Moscow, tell me about your connection with Georgia and having Georgian heritage. How did you relate to the song and its emotions?
My father is Georgian and my mother is from Ukraine. I spent my childhood in a Georgian village, influenced by specific contexts and traditions. Until age six, I lived with my family in Georgia, speaking only Georgian. Due to the Georgian-Abkhazian war in early 1993, I urgently moved to Russia. Over time, I lost my native language, having settled in a Russian-speaking environment. It was important for me to journey into the past to understand my identity and to have an internal talk with my departed loved ones. I wanted to imagine how and where relatives who are no longer around live, to see them and know they are good now.
It is a kaleidoscope of my mind, fragments of the warmest memories from childhood in Georgia: our hazel tree groves; a pond where we fished that never seemed empty; an old aluminium wash-basin in the yard, filled with ice water in the morning. It is a time for me that is safe and happy. From such precious fragments, a feeling of inner warmth is formed, which is always by your side when you turn to these memories.
I wanted to imagine how and where relatives who are no longer around live, to see them and know they are good now.
Tell me about how you got in contact with Mgzavrebi and decided to collaborate together. Can you tell me a little bit about what the lyrics focus on?
I am an ethnic Georgian so I have always wanted to collaborate with Georgian artists. Three years ago, Gigi Dedalamazishvil, the band leader of Mgzavrebi, wrote me an offer to work together. We met in person in January 2022 in Tbilisi at a private screening of my film The Execution. Gigi sent me Waltz. After listening to the track, but not knowing the meaning of the lyrics in Georgian, I wrote a script that completely coincides with the song’s message. It’s about Gigi’s first sense of loss. He tried to express the feelings he encountered at 16 and 17 when his grandmother died. It’s a song about losing a loved one, a quiet dance with oneself, or, more accurately, a kindred, departed soul. Although the key in the music is the lullaby motif that Gigi’s grandmother sang to him as a child, I believe it works universally with any listener or native speaker of any language.
What was the difficulty of location scouting? I imagine there are some locations in Georgia that make for difficult logistical shoots!
The documentary block was filmed in the mountain villages of Racha and Bakhmaro. The colour block was filmed in Tbilisi.
A year ago, on January 27, 2022, Gigi and I went location scouting for the first time in Bakhmaro. It is a mountainous village about five hours’ drive from Tbilisi. We began to climb the mountains when the snowfall started. Despite difficulties, we reached the village. We managed to see houses covered with snow up to the roofs but realised we had found the place. Meanwhile, a terrible snowstorm began, and we were lucky not to get stuck in the mountains for a couple of weeks without any food or means of communication. We were lucky just to get back safe and sound. Precisely nine months later, on October 27, 2022, we wound up filming the birth of a child. So, while in January, Gigi and I picked mountain locations, the future protagonist of our story was conceived somewhere in Tbilisi.
Footage in the mountain villages was collected with a minimum output per day. We were limited to three cans of film for this part and I did not have the opportunity to shoot several takes, so before hitting record, I had to make a quick but balanced decision about whether to shoot this shot or not. There was also a time limit: the onset of seasonal cold was expected from day to day, and the villagers had to leave their houses for several months and go down to the area below, where they usually spend the winter. Therefore, thirty minutes of this material is precious. It’s a miracle that we managed to fix this fragile timelessness.
We were lucky not to get stuck in the mountains for a couple of weeks without any food or means of communication.
We came to Racha to visit the relatives of one of the Mgzavrebi musicians. We came to work and to remain as inconspicuous as possible but we were greeted as dear guests. We moved from scene to scene, from house to house, in each of which a laid table was waiting. There is no such option in Georgia to refuse an invitation. After each footage of relatives, children, and neighbours, we had to drink a little with the hosts, the toasts turned into songs, and conversations, then new dishes appeared…
We did not give up and continued to move around the village, slowly filming! I discovered a scene in the editing process – a portrait of a woman with a dog. I was surprised and laughed because I didn’t remember how I shot this footage at all – the day turned out to be so overflowing.
The non-linear editing in the film continues the innovations with time that I saw in The Execution – a film I very much enjoyed when I caught it last year at Cluj-Napoca. What do you look for in editing a film? It seems that emotion is prioritised in the edit!
Editing is one of those tools that allows the viewer to focus on certain events in the story being told. It helps the dramatic solution that was thought up at the very beginning. The priority task of editing is to remove all unnecessary elements that interfere with the narrative and lead to an understanding of the episode, to some kind of emotional discovery. If you imagine a sine wave, ideally, the viewer’s emotions are in constant motion; up or down.
In The Execution I tried to ensure that the viewer put the story together like a puzzle and acted as an investigator who independently solves the crime. In Waltz, a different principle is parallel editing. It allows you to reflect the concept of the simultaneous existence of two parallel worlds – the living and the other side. In the end, they converge. For me, editing is not only a tool that can enhance emotions – it forms a rhythm and focuses the viewer on certain accents.
I’d love to also know about the challenges in the final edit. How much footage was there to trim down into this short runtime?
Due to the project’s modest budget, we initially had a clear limit – 15 cans of film for the entire movie. We divided the filming period into two blocks. A black and white documentary block filmed in mountain villages was limited to three cans of film. The main acting colour block was filmed in Tbilisi and was limited to 10-12 cans.
With documentary footage, there is no opportunity to engage in staging or adjusting objects in the frame. Every time we had to try to set the camera so that the characters did not particularly notice what we were filming while having time to launch it at the right time. There are slightly more staged shots in this block when I openly ask people to stand in front of the camera and do a simple routine action. But while they were getting ready – fixing their clothes and hair, taking poses – I managed to shoot a unique living facture that we needed. Of the thirty minutes I got in the mountains, I selected five-seven minutes for editing.
I constantly asked myself what was important and necessary, and what could be discarded without losing the story details.
We had 10-12 cans of film left for the acting block. But even when working with actors, I did not have the opportunity to shoot many takes, one to three takes at most. When working with film, this limitation is very disciplined; it forces you to formulate what you want to get. The only scene with a large timing and lots of takes is the first opening scene, a one-shot. Due to budget constraints, I constantly asked myself what was important and necessary, and what could be discarded without losing the story details. I love this format constraint because it allows you to constantly be focused on the meanings that you want to express in a particular scene.
The song is broken up by these two scenes at the start and in the middle. How do you make sure you develop the right rhythm that suits the feeling of the song?
The father’s line was not originally in the script. While filming, the old dream of working with the great Georgian actor Vakhtang Kikabidze did not leave me. He was an idol – a cult actor for the entire Soviet Union. It was a great honour for me that he accepted our invitation to take part in our project. I abandoned the idea of integrating it into one of the existing episodes and wrote the scene with the father especially for him.
But severe illness still did not allow Vakhtang to participate in the filming, and unfortunately, he recently died. Then honoured artist of Georgia Dato Dvalishvili came to help us to play the father in Waltz. Later I found out that in his youth, Dato starred in Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, a significant movie for me which we reference in our film – the protagonist looks at a photo of his mother sitting on that very staircase.
It seemed to me that the father’s character would help me answer some important questions in the story. Based on this scene, we can imagine the relationship between the hero and his father and fantasise about how they will develop in the future, and how each person experiences losing a loved one. There were many attempts to write this episode. I went wrong when a huge amount of explanatory text appeared in the scene. I left the minimum number of replicas and invited the artists to play on set in an improvisational format to let them inhabit the dialog.
When I wrote the father’s episode, I thought about how I could interrupt the musical composition. During editing, I paused the track at different parts, trying to figure out the best moment to allow the story to reach a climax. Not everyone in Mgzavrebi reacted positively to pausing the song. The first scene without music also required certain discussions. There were suggestions to completely remove this scene or leave it only in the director’s cut. We held a focus group, which showed that this decision led the viewer to the emotional climax we wanted to get through and enriched the storyline with important details and wasn’t just an extravagant fantasy of the director. It was a pretty tough moment. In the end, the final cut proved that the scene was working and the musicians did not interfere but supported such an artistic decision.
I’d love to learn more about the mixture of styles here. Tell me which camera was used to create this lovely film grain, as well as the mixture of lenses and cameras used. What was the challenge of shooting black and white ‘archival-looking’ footage?
We had a specific task: to distinguish between two worlds visually. I also built the contrast between the two worlds on the technical features of the used cameras. We began shooting with a Scoopic, but it broke down quickly, so we continued with a Bolex from the 1960s, giving us the documentary effect we wanted. Thanks to flaws, some marriage of image and light, this camera creates a sense of chronicle. I wanted to achieve the impression that this picture was taken 100 years ago. As if this material was not filmed by us and not now like these are shots of old chronicles, which seemed to be found somewhere in the Georgian archive. Bolex is an old camera with certain bugs and difficulties. It was wound up manually using a rotating lever. You can only film for 30 seconds, then the shooting stops.
From the beginning, I was sure I wanted to shoot natural childbirth in a documentary way.
The modern storyline was filmed on Arriflex 416, which gives a completely different image – cleaner and smoother. There was also a technical problem – we used vintage optics for this camera, but it failed. It turned out that the wide lens was defective. We didn’t do a timely test and we were punished for the laziness that the film crew once showed. Part of the general footage was filmed a little bit blurred, un-sharply and some of the shots had to be re-shot but the retakes only improved our story. The visually contrasting junction of these frames reveals all the precious textures that Georgia is rich in.
We witness a child being born in the film! Is this genuine footage? What was the process like trying to film that?
From the beginning, I was sure I wanted to shoot natural childbirth in a documentary way. During the preparation period, we realised how difficult it is to plan such a shooting. The maternity hospital where they agreed to help us specialises in childbirth by caesarean delivery. This is elective surgery and its time is predicted.
I wanted to achieve the impression that this picture was taken 100 years ago.
There were three of us on the set in the labour ward: me, the Director of Photography Andrey Krauzov, and a camera mechanic. The morning before, we joked about which one of us would faint first but when the birth began, we were shocked by the process of the emergence of a new human being. We froze, speechless and breathless. The first movements of a person, a first glance, a cry – such a fragile miracle of human life. To see this miracle with your own eyes is priceless.
There’s an amazing sense of the generations being collapsed and no matter whether you live in the city or remote rural locations, that sense of family and heritage continues. Is this something that you can relate to?
This is the eternal theme of the conflict of generations and I am no exception. With the passing years, I began to feel that I was moving away from my culture, my past. It is essential to remember where you are from and who you are; honour your culture because it has shaped you as a person. You should not deny the positive features of progress; you need to keep up with it, especially if it offers humanistic ideas. For me it was important to return to my roots and remember who I am. Perhaps to resolve some issues related to childhood. And, of course, to confess my love to my grandparents; to give them the respect they deserve.
Waltz has overcome many obstacles. When the war began, everything became indifferent, including the project. Everything around and life itself lost its meaning. Meanings faded away. But over time, I realised that this work has an important mission – to remind us about the value of human life. It has become so important to realise that life is so fragile. You can’t know how your day will end – maybe it will be your last. And suddenly, I realised that most of all, I would like to imagine how our departed loved ones live, to see them. I wanted to imagine the place where they would now be – and feel that they were no worse than here, and maybe even better.
This work has become saving, therapeutic and healing for our team. It determined the meaning of our existence for a year. When death has become a part of your life, I would like to find a light in this darkness, salvation. It is easy to find yourself at the very bottom of this funnel of darkness. Therefore, the whole team set off on this wonderful journey and now, when it comes to an end, we miss each other, and this wonderful period. The reality is so arranged that each of us needs to continue to move on, but this wonderful production period will forever remain with us. Each of us left a piece of ourselves and even something more. Each of us danced the same waltz with our beloved departed ones.
Regardless of the spoken language, there is a film language that I have learned to speak all my life.
I have a rather gloomy, pessimistic view of the world. But this year, I denied myself that opportunity. It was essential for me to start with myself and change my view of the world, to find the light that we need today more than ever. When I watched Waltz as a spectator, I felt that an inexhaustible supply of light remained inside. I experienced a feeling of purification. I won’t lie, I cried. And I appreciate the fact that there is a similar response from the audience. Many comments and posts sincerely share personal family stories, memories, and feelings. We dedicated our film to our loved ones; the audience dedicates it to theirs. It is precious to me.
What are you working on next?
I am currently working on two feature length films. One is an international project and the second is Georgian. Regardless of the spoken language, there is a film language that I have learned to speak all my life. With this Georgian film, I literally learn to speak again.
If not now, I need to make a film in Georgian soon because Waltz is the first step towards meaning and the culture that touches and interests me. I took this step meaningfully but I need to move further to discover a more effective form for myself, to formulate for myself the space of a new film, to go into it and start to integrate and delve into the local context even more profoundly to find the same nuances that reveal the peculiarities of Georgian culture to the maximum. I want the audience to see and love Georgia the way I love it and its people. I learn anew and fall in love every day.