Letters to Max Review

This documentary is not your usual talking heads doc, for a start Eric Baudelaire references the esoteric and surrealist nineteenth century play Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry in the press notes (look it up). And secondly it is one of those rare beasts, an essay film (think Chris Marker’s Sans Soliel (1983)). But then the French born and American raised filmmaker has never been one to make a conventional film, and it is good to see experimentation in a – I hesitate to say – genre (?) that too often sticks to conventional filmmaking techniques in the name of authenticity.

This film concerning letters Baudelaire sent to old friend Maxim Gvinjia, Abkhazia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Max’s recorded responses, also continues Baudelaire’s philosophical preoccupations with the political versus the personal, time and memory, and the costs of nationalism/idealism explored in previous documentaries The Ugly One (2013) and The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu and 27 Without Images (2012). As well as exploring the tension of ambivalence, steadfastly refusing to give the audience any sense of resolution or definitive answers, but instead powerfully leaving the audience to come up with their own conclusions.

Baudelaire also leaves the narration as he has done formerly to the protagonist of the film, leaving his contribution to words on the screen and images filmed in  Abkhazia after the correspondence ended – some footage appearing like grainy archive footage or Maxim’s own home movies so you question even then whether it is Baudelaire’s work. Max’s responses then really shape and structure the film making the film feel like intimate recollections that we are voyeuristically overhearing.

The absurdist nature of the film and hence the Jarry reference concerns the little known (I confess my ignorance) Abkhazia’s fragile sense of statehood, it is stuck in a limbo of non-recognition by the world, only recognised by a handful countries such as Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and one of the world’s smallest countries Nauru (nope, hadn’t heard of it either). It is also met with hostility by Western powers such as the US, who as Maxim recalls blocked their use of US dollars during an unplanned stopover in Cuba en route to a state visit to the aforementioned South American countries.

It is therefore miraculous that Baudelaire’s letters even reach Maxim, and as the press notes say Baudelaire was initially taken aback expecting to have his initial letter returned marked ‘destination unknown’. Baudelaire ruefully imagining the confusion of the French postal staff as they were suddenly faced with a political conundrum.

From this unusual premise comes some considered probing from Baudelaire as to what it means to live in a country that only exists for the most part as Maxim says in the “collective imagination” of its people. And what it means for Maxim as someone whose job it was to promote the idea of their statehood despite this. And so we get a picture of the idealistic and imaginative Maxim tirelessly writing correspondence to various embassies stating their case. We also see his real joy in any success, with footage of him punching the air jubilantly as he witnesses on TV the unexpected Russian announcement of recognition, as well as the joy of the country as we see scenes of the Abkhaz people dancing and singing in the streets waving their flag.

The film also doesn’t shy away from the human cost to statehood asking whether statehood means “exclusion or inclusion”, and he has Maxim recount his memories of the 1992-3 civil war which left many of his friends and family dead. Probably one of the most interesting parts of the film as Maxim recalls how immune he became to death, surviving the war, whilst also telling a harrowing anecdotes of murder and of how he had to wait to bury his dead father. But he also realises how easy war is compared to normal life where you have defined “goals” and are only living in the present, whereas the aftermath of war can be much more difficult,  dealing with the fallout and neglected buildings. To emphasise the point Baudelaire’s camera lingers on the ghostly shattered bullet-ridden abandoned buildings with all the wires pulled out by people as Maxim recalls “desperately feeding off their own country”.

There is also the uneasy question of the ethnic cleansing of Georgians, leaving many dead or displaced in Georgia proper. Maxim probably represents many Abkhaz people’s views when he says that it was a great tragedy but necessary as they would’ve only caused more war. The abandoned homes of Georgians meanwhile are poignantly filmed by Baudelaire, provoking the viewer to debate the ethics of this viewpoint coming as it does from a very likable and eloquent man.

There are humorous points too as Maxim recounts anecdotes such as his pilot father’s seduction of his mother, whilst not traditionally kidnapping her (a scarily misogynistic practice in that region as demonstrated by Borat) almost doing so by, he speculates, luring her into his plane to show her “how it works”.

The film does drag in places and maybe could’ve been slightly shorter, but it is nonetheless an interesting, creative and thought-provoking work which has you thinking about the many circumstances we take for granted for granted long after the credits roll.

Check ICO’s website for screenings.

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