Review: The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
Fiction means putting oneself in the middle of the world to tell a story. Documentary means going to the end of the world not to have to tell.
—Serge Daney, “In the midst of the end of the world,” Libération, June 1983
Undertaken as interviews for a prospective documentary, Tinatin Gurchiani’s The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear transports us, as privileged observers and fellow travelers, into the everyday lives of Georgians. The commingling of journalistic questioning and grand literary themes, along with the young age of most of the subjects, makes the movie a heady excavation of this former Soviet republic’s collective unconscious, born from poverty, hope undone by that poverty, and fickle happenstance. Tales of woe and imminent disaster are enriched by an abiding interest in the intermediary emotional states of these weary young seekers, an interest, it would seem, likely arising from Gurchiani’s training as a psychologist.
Her movie is rife with gem-like moments that register, surrounded by the otherwise mundane, as omens in the quiet of these barren settings. A young woman studying to be a scientist wants to “discover something new”; an old man sitting amid junk and staring into the middle distance begins to sing; a red curtain, yellow slide, and pale blue garage door sit in an otherwise preternaturally grey landscape; a 13-year-old boy counts on his fingers the days until his birthday, before asking, “What will change when I get one year older?”
Interspersing scenes of a car on deserted country roads, Gurchiani gives the impression that she is driving around searching for stories in whatever pockets of life catch her fancy. But because we never see who is in the car or behind the wheel, the journey accrues a mysterious, even magical quality. By contrast, the interview rooms—cracked brown-green and blue walls, marked with holes and water spots—are so grounded in filthy reality that they feel like a natural habitat, for the interviewees’ split-open psyches. Through these rooms, Gurchiani creates portals to the worlds where her subjects live.
Everyone in the film speaks softly and appears grateful to survive, only ever hopeful that they might one day hold a shred of what they dream, if only for a moment. When the experiences they recall are tragic, as they are in nearly every case, there is a nostalgia for childhood, a time of ease if not always peace. It's striking then to see the youngest of these interviewees, the 13-year-old whose favorite fairytale is Red Riding Hood, hum with excitement at the promises tomorrow will bring.
There are places that Gurchiani cannot access fully: the hospital where a little boy's father is having surgery, the prison where a convict’s brother will be for another 17 years. Here the subjects' dreams (which Gurchiani focuses on more than anything else in their lives, save the past) and the reality of their circumstances cancel each other out. What’s left for us is the insistent humanity of the subject’s experiences.
Gurchiani’s regard for psychology is more Old World than New Age. In her persistent etching of the imaginary upon reality, one recalls how Freud was tantalized by myth and fancifully called On Dreams “my botanical journal.” And even Gurchiani’s adults need their fairytales: the movie ends with a young woman—whose favorite story is Cinderella—meeting her mother for the first time in 15 years. In this scene of pained near-reconciliation, fantasy and reality come to blows for one final time, leaving a heroine who might soon be ready to take center stage and assume her fated role.
The perseverance required for living like this can be daunting, and any act of kindness (writing letters to a prisoner, forgiving a parent) can be heartwrenching. Gurchiani’s documentary-like object offers a vision of empathy through imagination, and it’s a testament to her success that it’s possible to perceive a future in which these youngsters might achieve as much. For all the talk of filial responsibility there is the sense that the people in Machine are very much alone, with only their hope and their wiles to keep them going. As the little boy who loves Red Riding Hood tells the puppy in his arms: “You have to be wicked.” Sometimes you have to close your eyes, and make everything disappear.