No one’s immune to the dream of global youth. The idea that the teenagers of tomorrow will be united by a shared culture – beyond politics, borders, race – is a powerfully seductive one. The new documentary When Earth Seems to Be Light explores notions of the local and global through one of the most pervasive of youth subcultures — skateboarding. A pair of Vans, an Iron Maiden T-shirt, a board and bright sunlight — California could easily pass as the setting for this film. Instead, it’s contemporary Georgia.
Co-directed by Salome Machaidze, Tamuna Karumidze and David Meskhi, the documentary follows a gang of young skaters in and around the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, in 2013. While wholly immersed in their pastime of skate tricks and bruises, the city was being shaken by demonstrations, as a result of Georgia’s conservative government colliding with the new liberal movement. The skaters exist in their own world. Skateboarding for them is a getaway to freedom, a chance to be truly different, and, unlike in the west, still truly underground. The film, however, is not just about skateboarding but also about the growing pains of the post-Soviet generation.
The Calvert Journal talked to the directors of When Earth Seems to Be Light about skateboarding in the ruins of the Soviet past.
How did you get to know the skaters and how did the idea for the film emerge?
David Meskhi: I was photographing the first generation of Georgian skaters, and I always had an eye on who was coming next. I noticed them when they were 13 or 14 years old, but in the film they are mostly between 15 and 17. At some point I came back to Berlin from Georgia and was preparing for an exhibition, and the photos were all over the walls in our place, and Salome had an idea of making it into a film.
Salome Machaidze: The photos were taken at this place which is the starting point of the film. It was weird and crazy because the kids looked like they were in LA, but I knew they weren't, and it felt like something was not adding up. I thought it would make a good film because these boys are going through something unique, a conflict of cultures. The skating scene is key to the documentary as it exposes the paradox of today’s Georgia. Numerous parallel worlds exist in Georgia simultaneously, without ever mixing with each other.
What is the location in the opening scene?
Tamuna Karumidze: It’s an unfinished hippodrome. They wanted to build it for the horse races and then the money ran out and they left it like this. It’s been there for years in the same condition. Actually it’s very symbolic of the whole country: things get started and then stay in this weird unfinished, transitional state. In the opening sequence of the film the guys are skating this abandoned concrete structure — I like the whole absurdity of it.
You mentioned that they look like they are in LA. The imagery in the film struck me as it looks both familiar and different at the same time. It’s a challenge to create something recognisable for the foreign viewer but also different. How did you approach this?
DM: When I first started photographing them I wanted, in a way, to create the same images as LA – but for Georgia — probably to some extent to convince myself that I wasn’t living in such a bad place, to show that these things exist in Georgia as well. The skaters quite often hated me because I was taking them from their usual spots to places where they couldn’t really skate — for the sake of this unique look.
SM: For me it was a real challenge. We filmed with a few street cameras operating at the same time: you have guys skating while other events in the city are all unfolding. The camera was capturing parallel worlds. For me the techniques are very important in this movie, not just the story. The structure allows us to juxtapose these worlds to convey the feeling of today’s Georgia.
Skaters exist everywhere in the world. What makes these guys different?
SM: My feeling is that Georgia today is like the US in the Sixties — skating is completely underground.
How strict were you about the documentary nature of the film? Did you interfere at all, give any directions?
TK: We didn't tell them what to do, just put them in the location, observing what would happen. These parts were totally documentary. But in general the film is not a classical documentary when you’re just following someone around, it’s a combination of our ideas and their actions.
The film has a political backdrop portraying the rise of conservative forces in Georgia. Is this what you feel about the country’s political situation?
TK: It’s hard to say. It’s so eclectic. On the one hand it’s getting conservative, on the other hand you turn around and you see completely the opposite. But the church is very influential at the moment. In the film we captured the Church attacking gay pride — it’s horrifying. The Church gives the feeling of stability, and people need stability and belonging. The Church is brainwashing the population so much that in the film you see them pick up stones and throw them at gay people.
SM: In Georgia there are so many gay people. You'll be surprised going out to Georgian clubs because they're like a gay paradise. The DJs playing there every night rival those in Berlin. Everyone has fun, more fun than anywhere in Europe. How all this can happen at the same time, for me, it’s like science fiction.
Not thinking about the future or a career is typical of skaters. Do you think it’s also typical for the new generation of Georgians?
SM: We had a famous French skater, Lukas Ionesco, in the film, and for him it was totally crazy that so many people just don’t have think about the future or their careers. Georgians don’t think about the future — or, don’t know how to think about the future — because everything is collapsing every day.
DM: In Europe, skaters are beginning to thinking more about their careers, getting sponsored by brands as soon as possible. Sponsorship opportunities just don’t exist, not yet, and this contributes to this great feeling of freedom.