It Happened One Night: Alexandre Koberidze on What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

By Jordan Cronk

Just past the midpoint of Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? the narrative pauses for a five-minute montage of children playing European football on the blacktop of a fenced-in basketball court. Accompanied by Gianna Nannini’s 1990 FIFA World Cup anthem “Un’estate italiana,” the scene, which plays out entirely in slow motion, is at once part and parcel of this highly musical film’s many interludes and the most conspicuous of its untold number of narrative culs de sac. Breaking from the film’s tragicomic romance story to focus on the exuberant faces and energetic movements of real-life kids who otherwise have no bearing on the plot, it announces the conclusion to the first part of a film that, up to this point, had betrayed no signs of being bifurcated.

Here, in a single scene, we have the entire M.O. of the Georgian-born Koberidze, whose freewheeling approach to storytelling has, over the last half-decade, produced a small but invigorating body of work that makes the majority of what passes for adventurous modern-day narrative cinema look positively pedestrian by comparison. World-premiering in this year’s Berlinale Competition, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? follows Koberidze’s FIDMarseille-winning first feature, Let the Summer Never Come Again (2017), and like its 202-minute predecessor, the new film—running a relatively trim 150 minutes—is unafraid to stretch its legs and follow narrative avenues most movies would abandon in the script stage. Sharing with Koberidze’s earlier work a sense of the fanciful and fantastic, Sky expands on a number of themes and motifs that the Sony Ericsson-shot Summer carried in its roughhewn images as if in chrysalis. Shot on a combination of 16mm and high-definition digital, Sky will open even upon those familiar with Summer like an infant’s first glimpse of the natural world—imagine Brakhage’s age-old maxim about an eye unruled by manmade laws of perspective, only applied in narrative terms and with a comparably childlike sense of all that cinema is “allowed” to do.

Sky thumbs its nose at the notion of plot synopsis. Its would-be story—about a pair of would-be lovers named Giorgi and Lisa who, after a meet-cute in the film’s opening moments, are cursed by the evil eye to remain anonymous to one another after they wake up looking like completely different people—spills out in all directions after this inciting incident. Unknowingly circling each other as they continually return to a café where they agreed to meet, the new Giorgi and Lisa—never to be recognized, never to be reunited—proceed to go about their lives as the world moves on without their former selves. Structured as a series of diversions and flights of fancy, the narrative orbits this main storyline with the curiosity of a spectator looking on from the sidelines—and indeed, the film is narrated by an omniscient storyteller who adds context to Koberidze’s frequently dialogue-free scenes while ironically commenting on the action. (“They spent every day together, waiting for each other,” the voice says of the star-crossed couple at one point.)

Mirroring Koberidze and cinematographer Faraz Fesharaki’s frequent coupling of close-ups and wide shots, Sky is both forensically detailed and quietly observed. No sooner do Giorgi and Lisa (played in pre-curse form by Oliko Barbakadze and Giorgi Ambroladze, and for the remainder of the film by Ani Karseladze and Summer’s Giorgi Bochorishvili) stumble upon each other in a daytime scene framed entirely from the knees down, than their fates are foretold in an evening sequence, shot from high above, in which Lisa arrives at a literal crossroads where a quartet of unlikely “friends”—a seedling, a surveillance camera, a rain gutter, and the wind—speak to her of the impending transformation. In a film composed of equal parts whimsy and wonder, this is but the first of many magical moments that, within this world of seemingly endless possibility, register as completely logical, even natural.

Set in Kutaisi against the backdrop of a fictional World Cup, Sky is a film as enamoured of football as it is of romance, viewing one as perhaps not terribly dissimilar than the other. While Giorgi is a football player and Lisa a pharmacist, the latter’s life can’t help but intersect with the sport after she takes a job at the café where the two had planned their rendezvous. (As part of the curse, each has also lost their respective talents.) An outdoor eatery that transforms into a neighbourhood sports bar whenever a big game is televised, it’s a spot that attracts spectators of all kinds, including the local canine community. (In one of the film’s most pleasingly quirky asides, the narrator offers an overview of the two most popular cafés in the city to watch matches, and explains why a pair of dog pals each has a preference for one over the other.) Only in the context of such fandom could forgoing a game to spend an evening with a potential love interest be depicted as the most romantic of gestures; it’s only appropriate that the film pause halfway through for a rapt depiction of the next generation of football enthusiasts.

In the hands of a lesser talent, the deployment of such brash storytelling devices could fall embarrassingly flat. One could easily imagine, for example, the film’s boldest gambit—the pivotal moment when Lisa falls asleep knowing she’ll wake up looking like a different person, which Koberidze frames with a countdown clock and onscreen instructions for the viewer to close their eyes in synchronicity with our protagonist—pushing the narrative’s participatory dimension past the productive and toward the overly precious. (See Xavier Dolan’s still-mortifying fourth wall-breaking aspect-ratio shift in 2014’s Mommy.) Instead, Koberidze establishes the fairy-tale element of the film straightaway: in the wake of a vaguely mystical keyboard overture, Giorgi and Lisa run into each other in the film’s opening moments not once, not twice, but three times. Here as throughout, serendipity and destiny are rendered two sides of the same coin, inextricable bedfellows that reward faith and perseverance in the face of an unruly universe. “Chances are trustworthy,” Lisa says to Giorgi just hours before the curse takes hold, a phrase as applicable to the hapless romantic as it is to the jaded cinephile who believes cinema has lost its ability to surprise and transform. Koberidze, for his part, has lost none of this faith, and as Sky proves time and again, its potential to be restored is often just a scene away.

Cinema Scope: One of the things that immediately stood out to me about the film is how it cross-references so many art forms and popular traditions without losing its cinematic essence. Is cinema your first love?

Alexandre Koberidze: I would say football.

Scope: Can’t say I’m surprised. Were you good?

Koberidze: Not professional, but I played all my life with friends. When I compare the passion I have for football to the passion I have for cinema or other things, I’d definitely say my passion for football is greater. But somehow my life went in a way that I never tried to play football professionally. I played rugby more seriously, but not football. It’s a bit of a pity because football is something that I can give myself to completely and feel happy about it. Unfortunately that wasn’t in the cards. So cinema is my second love, I guess—if I’m making a hierarchy.

During the research for this film we actually went to some football stadiums. When they were showing us around this one stadium, they took us through the big tunnel that opens up onto the field. It was really overwhelming to me. While on the one hand I know that I’ll never walk through one of these tunnels into a stadium full of people, on the other I realize that I can play with these kinds of fantasies in my films. Maybe someday we can make a film about football and we’ll have enough money to fill a stadium.

Scope: So when did you discover cinema?

Koberidze: Much later. In Georgia you have to go into the military if you’re not studying something by the time you’re 17. I had no real interests at that time, so I just started studying economics, because it was the easiest thing I could think of and there were no big exams. Those two years were strange because I was a student but I wasn’t really invested, mainly because there was high mathematics involved and I didn’t care for that. So I had a lot of free time; that’s when I began to watch more films.

One incident stands out: I came home one day and my mom told me she had seen a film by Guy Ritchie called Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). She told me she liked it and her opinions have always been really important to me, so I watched it and it was the first time in my life when I realized that if this is good, than I can make something good too. It was like a switch went off in my mind. I wasn’t very impressed with the film, so I figured it couldn’t be too hard to make something like this. While watching it I was able to clearly see the form and how it was done. That’s when I began to think about making cinema, and soon after that I made my first short film with a friend.

Scope: I can’t think of many recent films as fascinated by storytelling as this one—except, of course, your previous feature. Where do these stories originate? Are they as much a product of imagination and intuition as they seem to be, or do you draw from personal experience?

Koberidze: I would say it’s a mix. I’m always thinking about stories I want to tell. I write down small plot ideas in a notebook and I often connect them with things that are occurring around me. I really like to write. I’d say that editing and writing are the two parts of filmmaking that I enjoy the most. When I know that I might have the opportunity to begin making something, I might take some small or simple story idea and start to write around it and allow it to grow. In recent years I’ve been gathering many stories for movies I’d like to shoot. Writing and gathering ideas come much faster than the rhythm in which I make films. If I make one film in two years, I will have probably gathered ten ideas over that time for other films I want to make.

Scope: Your films have the feel of folk tales. Is there a strong tradition of folklore in Georgia?

Koberidze: I don’t know exactly how it happened, but all the films I’ve made to this point are fairy tales. One of the things that I think brought me to this form and that is related to the presence of a narrator in many of the films is my grandma, who used to read to me in my childhood. She still read to me at ages when you should be reading on your own. So I started reading literature late, because I was used to her reading to me. In addition to the narrators, I think this probably relates to the fairy-tale quality of the films as well.

At some point a few years ago I was thinking about the kind of films I wanted to make and the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be, and this fairy-tale element was something I realized I wanted to explore—at least until I decide I want to do something else. Until then, I want to make a few films where some kind of magic transpires.  

Scope: You mention trying to figure out the kind of films you wanted to make. I assume this was during your time at the DFFB in Berlin? Can you tell me how your practice and approach were encouraged while you were studying there? All your shorts have elements that you use in your features—voiceover, constricted framings, hints of magical realism—but at the same time they’re all pretty different from one another, at least stylistically.

Koberidze: It was very important. It’s kind of scary to think about how things like this can impact your life—like, would I make the same films or would I be the same person if I didn’t go to this school? I think I wouldn’t. The people I met there influenced me as a person and also the films that I make. Especially my first few years there—after that the school changed a bit. I studied there for 12 years, so there were very different stages. But I wasn’t studying all of these 12 years: after a few years you start to make films and you don’t go to classes anymore. I had good luck with regard to when I arrived. During this time there was this generation of really good teachers. Marin Martschewski, for example, really imparted a certain taste in film to me and the other people in his class—something I feel I share with the other students from that time. And those students were important: we helped each other, as often just watching what they did gave me an understanding of how cinema works. 

The other big thing was the Arsenal cinema, which is free for students. They always have very interesting programming. During my 12 years I spent many evenings there. It was the best education one could have.

Scope: While watching the new film I kept trying to place the meaning of the quotes that open each chapter in relation to the greater story, but every time I thought I had them pegged their meaning eluded me more. Let’s start with Reso Cheishvili, an author and screenwriter who wrote the Georgian film The Blue Mountains (1983). I see he died in 2015. Did you know him?

Koberidze: I didn’t. But besides the fact that he wrote some important scripts for Georgian films, he’s a writer that described in a very interesting way the city of Kutaisi. There are other poets and writers who wrote about the city, but Cheishvili wrote about it in the most modern way, and in a manner closest to cinema. The influence of his literature is in other parts of the film as well, but I felt this quote had something to do with the film because it’s about this guy who sees something and has some kind of harsh reaction to it, but you can’t see any expression on his face. I thought this could be a good introduction to the film, because a lot of strange things happen to our characters but for some reason, they don’t have much of a reaction—like, why don’t you panic when you wake up as a different person? I think the quote gives the impression that our story will be a little like this as well, with characters who perhaps don’t show much of their feelings. 

Scope: And the second quote, from Levan Chelidze? I couldn’t find any information about him.

Koberidze: He’s a screenwriter and writer who wrote scripts for a few famous films. He’s also my grandfather. I was reading his novels and there’s one where he also mentions Kutaisi, but in this strange way where he describes his character Gioconda selling herbs in a local market. It’s a short story; one of the characters is a poet whose work revolves around the fact that he doesn’t live in Kutaisi. This struck me as somehow connected to the film, though obviously most people who see the film won’t make the connection—but I like it.

Scope: The film does play like a love letter to Kutaisi. What does the city mean to you?

Koberidze: If you look at a map, Kutaisi is in the heart of the country. If you go from where I live in Tbilisi to the sea, you have to cross Kutaisi. For most of my life I’ve just been crossing through Kutaisi in a car—maybe eating there, but generally just passing through. That’s my only personal connection to the city.

On the other hand, my great-great-great-grandfather and his family lived there. They made wine and had a big house. But I only know this as a story, and the story also says that when the communists took over, they demolished the house and used the land to make a football field, which is kind of an ironic connection.

But Kutaisi is not only the heart of the country geographically, but also culturally and politically: many important people who have decided the fate of the country have come from there. In the ’90s, when times were hard, Kutaisi was a kind of cultural centre—electronic and hip-hop music started there before moving to the capital. And at the beginning of the century big art movements were starting there. So even if you’ve never been to Kutaisi, there’s a feeling that you know the city.

The decision to make a film there was just a why-not-let’s-try-it kind of thing, because I really didn’t know what was going on there nowadays. So I ended up spending a year there with my cinematographer and producer, but after just a few weeks we knew it was the right decision, because the city has a lot to offer—visually, of course, but also the people and the emotions you encounter there are diverse. Right now there are protests going on over the building of a water plant near Kutaisi, and the people who are fighting it have mobilized the entire country. The protest is huge now. It’s the first time in my life when there’s been a protest I can participate in without any doubts. The fight concerns the river that we feature in the film, and because of this I think the decision to shoot there wasn’t false. Something special is going on there, really.

Scope: The love story in Sky feels like something of the inverse of Summer. In Summer, the viewer never really sees the two main characters express their love, even though we’re told that they’re falling in love. Whereas in Sky, we see that the two main characters are falling in love, but they’re unable to express it to one another. Also, Summer depicts a queer relationship, whereas Sky features a straight relationship. Do you think of the two stories as being related? 

Koberidze: One of the goals when I set out to make this film was to put quite a distance between it and my last film, because after I finished Summer I felt a sense of comfort, like I knew what I was doing; there was pleasure and ease to making the film. This time I wanted to make something where I didn’t feel as sure. So that’s why I decided to work with a professional camera and with a bigger crew, and I thought I wouldn’t use voiceover or go out into the city too much and instead concentrate on a single place, on the story, and on the characters.

But at some point I realized I couldn’t fight certain things. Pretty soon I saw that elements of the film were going in the same direction as the prior film. So that became a big question: do I make rules for myself so as not to repeat myself, or do I follow…let’s say my heart, and do things as they come to me? I decided to follow my feelings, and yes, some things ended up echoing what I’ve already done—it’s obvious. So while there are things that are quite different in this film, it’s not quite as much as I planned. Now I’m thinking of another film where I do make these rules so as not to go in this direction. It could get boring if I continue in this way, and sometimes it’s good to create challenges for yourself and get out of your comfort zone. One of the things that has interested me over the years is hybrid cinema, where you have actors and a story but a good portion of the film is a documentary, basically putting actors into real spaces and situations. In Summer we did more things like this than we did in Sky, because I was working by myself and with a small camera, though there are still elements of this in the new film. But for the next film I’m thinking of getting rid of it and making something entirely fictional. Maybe it’s not right to fight against your will. But it sounds challenging, and I enjoy that.

Scope: Your films aren’t very dependent on traditional dialogue, though there’s plenty conveyed through voiceover and text and wordless scenes. What do the films look like on the page?

Koberidze: We had a pretty precise script, which, you’re right, sometimes doesn’t look like a normal script because there isn’t much dialogue. It’s more like descriptions of what happens: who is doing what, et cetera. I try to write what the characters are thinking, maybe even feeling.  I think when you read the scripts it gives you some feeling of what’s going on, even though, as we were saying with the Cheishvili quote, you don’t end up seeing much of these feelings expressed on screen. I think these feelings come from experiencing the whole film, not individual moments.

For this film I did try to write longer dialogues, but as I went I kept rewriting them and giving more space to the storyteller. Maybe next time I’ll do it—it’s a big fight within me. I really like films with dialogue, but I’ve never really done it. Maybe if I don’t do it soon it’ll be too late…

Scope: How does that work as it relates to the actors? Since they don’t have much dialogue to study, do you spend time discussing the characters with them beforehand? 

Koberidze: There aren’t many professional actors in the film, so I don’t think they’re aware that this is not normal. With Giorgi, who plays the main male character—he was in the previous film as well—I don’t have much of a problem with him because we’re good friends, as we grew up together. We share a similar taste in film, as well as in other life things. So we understand each other. But yes, sometimes I feel like maybe he should talk more in the films, but I think it’s interesting for him to act with few tools. Also, he’s in a popular TV series out here where he talks all the time, as a character that’s pretty different from him in real life, so it’s probably like vacation for him to be in my films.

For nonprofessionals I think this kind of filmmaking is almost best for them, because most of the problems you’d have with a nonprofessional is when they’d have to recite a long dialogue. So I think they’re happy not having to speak. For me it’s the same thing: when I act I kind of like not having much text. I’ve never had a problem where someone wants to talk more in one of my films. 

Scope: Both of your features are quite long. How much footage are you shooting on average, and as far as editing, how do you arrive at each film’s final form?

Koberidze: It was very different for each film. For Summer, I was shooting by myself with a phone camera and shooting for more than a year—with breaks, of course, but basically shooting all the time. So it was a lot of material. But the editing wasn’t too hard, because it was good material—or at least I liked it. Which is one reason the film came out to be three-and-a-half hours, because I liked so much of the material. But it was a long process of playing with all of it, a very creative process of, on the one hand, following your plan and, on the other, finding solutions for things that don’t work. And that’s where the fun begins. That’s one of the things I learned editing Summer: it’s better for the film if you don’t shoot everything as originally planned, because then you have to find solutions while editing, and these solutions force you to be creative.

So while shooting Sky I was OK with making small mistakes—not all the time, but maybe not shooting a scene that would help during the editing, or sometimes placing something in a scene that would cause problems during the editing. The shooting for the film was very planned out, but if you follow the plan too precisely then anyone can edit it. I try to use editing to generate as much fun and creativity as possible. It helps in this regard to shoot material that’s unscripted. For this film we shot the city documentary-style during the World Cup for two weeks almost a year before the actual shoot. So it was material not directly related to the story—it was more just footage of things happening in the town. Then it becomes a process and a challenge to integrate things or feelings from this footage into the film so they become part of it, and vice versa. 

Scope: Can you talk a little bit about establishing trust with the audience? You use a lot of different devices in your storytelling. Were there certain devices, such as the countdown clock and text instructing the viewer to close their eyes, that you thought might take the audience too far out of the viewing experience?

Koberidze: When I watch Hollywood films, I sometimes feel like the filmmakers think they’re smarter than the audience. In my case it’s the other way around: I feel like the people watching my films are smarter than me. So I try to meet them as best I can—at the highest level.

There are a few people I always think of when I’m writing a film—not in a manner of how we’d speak to one another, but more trying to watch or shoot or write with their eyes. It’s strange, but it’s a few friends, my teacher, my brother—I think, “What would they say, would they like it?” It’s not even if I realize that they wouldn’t like something then I don’t do it, but more just a way to generate a feeling that I can carry with me while making the film.

Scope: You’ve moved from high-definition digital with your shorts, to shooting Summer on a cellphone camera, to now filming Sky both digitally and on 16mm. How do you decide what format best fits the stories you’re trying to tell?

Koberidze: What I don’t want to have is a standard, like saying 4K is the best for everything. When I start to write or think about a film, I start to think about what format would be best. Or sometimes it’s the other way around: for Summer, from the beginning I knew I wanted to shoot with this particular phone, so I started to think about what kind of story would be good for this format—what kind of images or what kind of story can relate to this aesthetic. For this film, the first 21 minutes, before the curse takes hold, is shot on film, and the rest is digital. I thought it would be interesting to try to shoot how “they” shoot—“they” being the big productions. It’s something my soul is kind of against, but it’s still interesting to me to challenge myself in this way, to shoot on 4K, a format which, at least when beginning to shoot, I don’t like, and then somehow afterwards to work on the material and make something that I do like. I feel that 35mm is the ideal format. From there I would take the material in a different direction, but this would ideally be the norm. Nowadays, the Alexa and the RED are the norm. Format is probably the biggest question filmmakers have to ask themselves, because cinema is a visual medium, and the camera decides how the film looks. 

Scope: Much like in Summer, a lot of the film plays out in either close-ups or long shots. How did you come to this visual language?

Koberidze: In a way I think you can see this film as a silent film, from its aesthetics to how it moves to the use of music. Many silent films were built this same way, where wide shots are used almost like theatre, with things going on in the distance. But then things are contrasted, like in Eisenstein, with small details—almost like a phrase or a sentence. We tried to combine these two modes of early cinema, when images become sentences and follow each other, and when cinema is like filmed theatre. 

Scope: You mention the music, which, along with the sound and sound design, is credited to Giorgi Koberidze. Is he your brother?

Koberidze: Yes, my brother. He makes music and sometimes works on films as a sound designer, so in addition to composing the score we had him on set recording sound. Everything you hear in the film was in his hands. He’s not necessarily a professional sound designer, but that’s one of the things I like about his approach: it’s every basic. He probably spent three months relearning techniques, but still it’s not like he’s been doing sound design for ten years or something. That’s why the film’s sound has some simplicity—it’s not a very orchestrated sound design.

But he is a musician. We counted and I think his score accounts for 50 minutes of the film’s runtime. We spent a lot of time working on it. For me, it was an intense but interesting process; it was also a good excuse to spend time with him, because he’s usually doing other things but, now, we had to be together. It was the first time we’ve worked together on an original score. We watched a lot of Tom & Jerrycartoons, where the music is made to flow with the movements of the character—it’s written for those scenes and it follows the characters. So likeTom & Jerry, he often composed for the images. Although sometimes it would be the opposite, and I’d get a great piece from him and I’d have to re-edit a scene to the music. Or there would be times when I didn’t know how to edit a scene and I would be able to use his music to build it. For me, music is a tool to show rhythm, which of course you can also show through images, but not always. Music can be a tool to get one step closer to a certain rhythm for the film.

Scope: Did he also bring you the pop and classical songs we hear in the film?

Koberidze: There are two pop songs in the film, and both of them were written into the script. So I had those from the beginning, but the rest we did together. The two classical pieces, by Schubert and Debussy, came during our work on the film. At a certain point we were debating if he should write original music for these scenes, but the classical pieces turned out to fit perfectly.

Scope: For all the film’s levity and whimsicality, there’s an undercurrent of dread and anxiety coursing through the narrative. The brief passage about forest fires and the mistreatment of animals is pretty sobering.

Koberidze: These are issues that bother me very much and are things I want to talk about, but it’s sometimes hard to talk about these things in the kinds of films I make. Through the stories, I try to follow some hidden wishes or feelings but maybe, especially in this film, there’s too much sweetness or a dreamlike quality that distracts from the real world. Of course, it is a real world in the sense that we didn’t build things—everything you see in the film is there, but we also don’t show certain things. So it’s a fantastical reality, a kind of wish for the future and a fantasy about the past, but not the complete picture.

So while there were a few issues I knew I wanted to talk about, I knew I couldn’t give the whole film over to them. But I knew that somehow I needed to speak or express these few sentences. For me I feel better now that I’ve expressed them, but also for the film it breaks up the reverie and brings you out of this fantastic world, which you can then return to a short time later. Now when I think back it seems completely correct because, like I mentioned before, the protests: they are huge and deal with some of these same issues. So while some of the things the storyteller says in the film are pessimistic, I think what is happening in real life with these protests is optimistic. And in the end, I do think the film makes an optimistic gesture, though I’m not exactly sure where it came from. While making the film I wasn’t feeling very optimistic. But I think, if there is optimism, it’s because of where we shot it, and because these feelings were somehow already boiling within the community. 

Scope: It does have an optimistic ending, but just before that the narrator expresses skepticism about the value of storytelling, which otherwise the film seems to very much advocate for. I’m not sure if it’s a mistake to read the line near the end—“What should I say, that I have made films?”—in your voice, but it clearly feels like the film begins to question itself. 

Koberidze: It’s a big question. The film ends on a zoom of a mountain with the narrator asking himself what he will tell his kids when they ask him what he was doing when all these terrible things were happening in the world. The things I was saying about the protests are now directly related to this mountain: their fight started at the foot of this mountain. Now there’s a feeling in the country of, “Should I leave my job and participate in the fight, or is my job or my films more important than everything else?” I know people have stopped working to protect this mountain. Of course, after this issue is resolved there will be another issue to fight for. So that’s always the debate: should I spend my time making films or doing something more important? I don’t know the answer, because the people who do stand there and protest have their own professions. Nobody is born an activist: they decide to give themselves to the issue and abandon their everyday lives to give themselves to this other kind of work. I don’t want to generalize or speak negatively about filmmaking or art—it’s as important as anything else. It’s a personal thing to consider what you do as important. I don’t want Hong Sangsoo—or I wouldn’t want Robert Bresson—to stop making movies and start protesting. What they do is important. It’s given me so much. Cronk Jordan