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What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Alexandre Koberidze, 2021)

Time moves differently in Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, one of the most singular, peculiar, and lovely films at this year’s New York Film Festival. It’s not only because, with a run time of two and a half hours, there’s a lot of time for things to move differently. It’s also because this crooked modern folktale seems to resonate through several timeframes at once, combining once-upon-a-time dreaminess with classic cinema techniques to tell of things that happened long ago, things that are happening right now, and things that have not yet, and maybe cannot ever, come to pass.

These unusual rhythms seem to spring directly from the location. Rooted so deeply in the town of Kutaisi, Georgia (one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world) that it feels like it grew through the cracks in the pavement, the filmtells the story of Lisa and Giorgi, a couple who meet cute and arrange to go on a date, but who are cruelly cursed to wake up the following morning looking like other people, dashing any hopes of incipient romance. As the two are gradually drawn together—despite the intervention of the Evil Eye, which lurks somewhere among the town’s drainpipes and traffic cameras—the film circles out wider, so that by its end you feel like you’ve lived and loved in Kutaisi. The town’s bridges and parks, street dogs and soccer-mad kids, kebab shops and outdoor cafes become, through Koberidze’s eyes, uncanny, metaphysical spaces.

The dream would be to watch this extraordinary film in Kutaisi. But failing that, a screening at the Transilvania International Film Festival in Cluj, Romania (a comparative whippersnapper of a city at just 800 years of age), was the next best thing. It certainly provided an appropriately sunny and sedate backdrop for a delightfully leisurely interview with the director. The conversation kicked off—perversely, given the plethora of dogs, teenagers, trees, and children featured in the film—with a question about a seconds-long shot of a vanishing cat.

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? will open in theaters in New York on November 12.

Apologies if a lot of people have asked this already, but one of the main reasons I wanted to meet you is to ask: why does the cat disappear? 

Actually, you’re the first one who’s asked it, and it’s one of the biggest questions I would have! I thought nobody saw it, so I’m really happy to hear this. The cameraman and my brother—the composer of the film—we three know that it happens, and we laugh amongst the three of us.

It’s an in-joke? 

Which we always hope that someone notices.

So, is there a particular reason why the cat disappears?

It’s a black cat, so it’s a kind of symbol… But I have a different opinion about cats, I think they’re the most beautiful things. Still, of course, there is something strange about them. It’s strange when they’re looking at something and you don’t understand what. I’m convinced they have something to do with other worlds. As one wise guy said, they are kind of agents—they deliver information from elsewhere. I thought it was a good symbol, because this is a fairy tale.

Given you shot the film before the pandemic, but edited it during, I wonder are there other things in there that you didn’t expect when you were first putting the film together? 

The most interesting thing for me is to understand how the film came to have some hope in it. I wasn’t sure if that would happen because it wasn’t necessarily the feeling I had while doing it. You may shoot things which you think give some hope, but that don’t work in the end. In editing this film during the pandemic, I had the fear that would happen. But I think [hope] is there, and now I want to know where it came from.

[In Kutaisi] they want to build a water plant on the river, and there’s this movement [to stop it]. This movement brought hope—not just to me but to many other people there. It has big problems now but still, for me, it remains a source of hope that is connected with the movie—people doing impossible things.

Would you say the movie is an expression of how you see the world, or a kind of wishful thinking about how you wish the world could be? 

I think it’s both. I was writing [another] script before making this film, which had a very hopeless ending. At some point, I understood that hopelessness is something that everybody knows—it’s the most banal thing you can say. It’s easy. So I started to work and think in a different way. On one hand, a “happy ending” is also a banal thing. On the other hand, it is something original today, because it’s so unnatural. Somehow to make a happy ending in a sincere way became a challenge for me, and an interesting one, because I didn’t know how to achieve it.

I get the sense that it’s hopeful partly because it’s filled with things that you love—dogs, disappearing cats, football…

Football is a big passion of mine. I was five or six when the 1990 World Cup was on. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but I watched the last moments of the final game when Diego Maradona was crying. I was quite surprised because he seemed very cool. It was very strange for a 5-year-old boy who thinks crying is the worst thing you can do, especially in front of so many people and cameras. I had to ask my mom, “What is going on here?” And she explained who it was, that he was the best, and that he had lost.

It shocked me very much that you could be the best and still lose. This thing stayed with me. All my life I thought, “How can you be so passionate about something that you cry?” because the tears were real. But also, how can you be the best and still lose? I’ve followed this question all my life, and somehow it’s always been connected with football. I fell in love with football. I don’t believe it’s just a sport.

So when we were looking for locations for this film, we went to some really big stadiums and for the first time I went into the tunnel through which the football players go out onto the pitch. That moment was very sad for me because I understood that to go as a football player through this tunnel would be the life I would choose, but it didn’t happen.

There’s a transcendent scene in the middle of the film where you have kids playing football, with the 1990 World Cup theme blasting on the soundtrack, and then you go immediately into the film’s most serious moment, and the narrator talks about our age of atrocity. There’s a moment of triumph, but you undercut it.

Even before I started to write the script, I knew that [the serious stuff] was something I had to say. But when I started writing, I thought to put it in metaphors, to hide it behind stories, or scenes seen on TV. But really, I wanted to say it directly, express myself in the right sentences, if in the film there was a right time for it. And with this scene, as you say, it can be too much—too beautiful, too colorful. You get this emotion and sometimes it’s good to cut it.

That part of the narration is potentially quite disruptive to people’s uncomplicated enjoyment—suddenly, amid all this joy and magic, an intense moment of what the Germans call Weltschmerz. Then you say “enough about that” and get back to the story.

In my everyday life, I have these moments of being very worried about the world—it can happen any time, in a bus, or while I’m waiting for someone, or talking with someone. But then the someone you’re waiting for comes and you go for a beer. There’s this feeling of having such thoughts yet still following the script of everyday life without doing anything about them. [Putting this in the film] was kind of, for me, being an activist. I don’t know what else to do.

Those moments are like little eruptions of guilt in the middle of one’s ordinary day, and I think it works here because it’s surrounded by so much innocence. Even the format of the film seems wilfully anti-sophisticated; you use early cinema techniques of iris-out, odd framing, not to mention the beautiful warm-grained texture of 16mm film. Tell me a little bit about developing that style.  

One of the thoughts which led to the film’s form came when we were looking for places to shoot. We went to this music school, to some concerts where kids were playing. It felt like something from a silent film. At this moment I had actually forgotten that I originally wanted to make a silent film, but in this music school it came back to me. It put many things in place… it gave logic to the whole thing. I remembered: I am making a silent film, where there happen to be some voices.

Then while making the film, in hard moments, when I asked myself, “How do I solve this problem? How do I shoot it?,” I always remembered, “Okay. This is a silent film. There are many ways I can handle the story.” The other thing was a deal we made with the cameraman. We said, “This is a game”—a pretty expensive one [laughs] that takes a lot of energy. But still, let’s keep in mind that we’re playing, and to sometimes get joyful. When what we’re doing is very stressful or we’re arguing with each other, at some point one of us remembers “Hey, we’re just playing. Let’s find a playful solution for this big problem.”

As it goes on, it’s like you’re whipping more life into it. And even though you’re progressing the story of Lisa and Giorgi, often you spend time on the faces of characters whose names we don’t know and who have nothing to do with the plot. It strikes me as a very democratic way of shooting. 

For me, to make a film is to film the things that interest me—not necessarily just a story. I really like to go out sometimes and make pictures and watch what’s going on. I think there are enough fairy tales and secrets in the things which you can see everywhere, that’s what interests me. At the same time, I don’t want to get too far from the tradition of filmmaking, where we have a story, a beginning, an end, and characters.

I understand that this is not the only way of making cinema; we know many films with no stories and they are beautiful, but for now I want to follow this tradition of filmmaking. I read a very good quote by Yuri Norstein, a very famous Russian animator. He made the short films Tale of Tales and Hedgehog in a Fog, and in his book he writes: “The simpler the story, the more time you have for the film.”

We had this feeling that someone has created this world, and every creature and every thing is very precious to them. And so, though we followed the script, and there are characters in the film who get more time than the others, our camera films everyone the same way.

How did you conceive of the personality of the storyteller? 

In my previous films, when I was writing the narrator, I had the feeling that it was me, but I never managed to actually voice it myself. I was never satisfied with how I’d done it, and then the text changes because it’s not me actually speaking. But here, I felt I had to try it. Sometimes it’s really me, when I talk about my personal thoughts, but sometimes there’s a storyteller who speaks about the story, the characters, the city. But I used my voice, to keep it very personal.

Would you say this is your most personal film as a result?

No, what I find interesting about this film is that it wasn’t only me making it. Other people had a big impact on it, like my brother with the music. And the camerawork is different than if I had done it alone. It’s a film made by many people, a collaboration. The film I made before [2017’s Let the Summer Never Come Again] is more personal. I did everything: I wrote it, I was the cameraman… It was almost too personal.

How did you cast the dogs? 

It was something offered by the city, the dogs just coming and hanging around with us and going in the picture. We just didn’t stop them. There was only one moment where we saw a dog doing something and tried to make him repeat it… but Kutaisi is full of dogs. If you go out at night for a walk, you’ll end up with 20 dogs following you home.

Which reminds me, I think I mistakenly wrote in my review that it’s a love letter to a hometown, because it felt like you were talking about your hometown. But you’re not from Kutaisi.

Kutaisi is a kind of hometown for every Georgian, even if you don’t live there. My mom’s grandfather lived there in a big house and made sparkling wine. There’s a story told in my family that when Stalin was still a terrorist he was running from the police and they gave him shelter in this house. Then the Communists came and took everything from them, but still none of the relatives or family went to the gulag, which should have been the case because they were capitalists. They were owners of a big factory, yet somehow they survived. Everybody wonders if somehow [Stalin] remembered them. Anyway, there was this big house, and where this house was there’s now… a big football stadium.

There you go!

They destroyed the house but better a stadium than something else! Many important cultural figures came from Kutaisi. They went to Tbilisi but they are from Kutaisi—figures from important movements in poetry, music, even hip-hop in the ’90s.

It’s partly why Kutaisi became for us a place of hope. And why I am looking forward to seeing it play outside a festival—the film deals with everyday life, so it would be good to see it in a “normal” setting. On the other hand, it makes me anxious because there’s a lot of responsibility. The film is long. When you multiply two and a half hours with the number of people seeing it… that’s so many hours!

I don’t think you should worry. Time moves differently in What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Jessica Kiang is a freelance film critic with regular bylines at Variety, The Playlist, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Sight & Sound.