DISSENT: Since its May 2018 police raid, Bassiani, Tbilisi’s largest nightclub, has become a symbol of defiance in the face of social conservatism.
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 12, 2019

A documentary about clubbing in Georgia, Raving Riot, premiered to an entirely sold out, 1,500-seat auditorium of filmgoers at Beat Film Festival in Moscow this month. The vibrant flourishing of a young creative scene in the former Soviet nation’s capital, Tbilisi, has made the city in vogue around the world, and in spite of ongoing geopolitical tensions, Russia is no exception. But that’s not all that drew Muscovites to Raving Riot, the directing debut of Stepan Polivanov, produced by well-established independent Moscow collective Stereotactic. The film centres on the May 2018 police raids on Tbilisi’s biggest club, Bassiani, prompting thousands to protest in front of Georgia’s parliament, dancing in defiance to blasting techno music. This has parallels to an August 2017 raid on Rabitza, a DIY techno club in Moscow, where police also made heavy-handed arrests of partygoers and staff. But rather than sparking a response of collective resistance, Rabitza simply closed down — and Muscovites wanted to see what was so different in Georgia’s situation that made a public rave of resistance possible.

Evening abandon

Raving Riot unfolds over several chapters. The first ones set out the rise of clubbing culture in Georgia against the incongruous backdrop of a conservative, not highly urbanised society (footage of the countryside plays up the anomalous nature of techno, usually so connected with industry, thriving there). Much of the film was shot at night. A subset of the young generation have made the hours after sundown their playground of free expression and time to commune with one another («day is for people who are scared», says one clubber). Polivanov found many of his protagonists through Tinder, and his loosely impressionistic style, tagging along with groups of random friends through carparks and clubs, suits the feel of sprawling, hedonistic nights out. These scenes might be reminiscent of Michal Marczak’s fever-haze portrait of Warsaw youth All These Sleepless Nights — were it not for the politically charged intensity piercing through. «We are just so lost,» says one partygoer, escapism from the nihilism of social tensions an undercurrent that drives the abandon of evenings without defined beginning or end.

raving-riot-bassiani-documentaryThe film then focuses in on the May 12 raid and subsequent demonstrations, turning to archival footage to show the clash between authorities and clubbers as it played out, with the mood turning darker on the second day as far-right counter-protesters arrive threatening violence. While the film does an admirable job of setting up the milieu of the youth scene, the political context is thin (there is a sense the film was somewhat rushed and cursorily researched to get it out quickly), and those not already well-versed on the events may struggle to grasp the deeper roots of the confrontation. Moreover, what is left out or glanced over are the more incendiary and controversial aspects of the divide between conservative and progressive forces in Georgia, namely the Russian funding of far-right groups there (which, for a Russian production company, may have been too touchy to explore), the heavy influence of the Orthodox Church, and Bassiani’s connection to particular activist groups for drug decriminalisation (the White Noise movement, which battles Georgia’s draconian laws and sky-high incarceration rates for drug offences), and LGBTQ rights (the integral role of Bassiani as a safe space for minorities is sidelined). Stereotactic’s typical preference for the impressionistic over the drily journalistic has its strengths in creating stylish atmosphere, but when the political stakes are so high and the relation between the major players so complicated, the value that would be added by informing viewers with a more comprehensive understanding of the facts is not to be underestimated.

A subset of the young generation have made the hours after sundown their playground of free expression

Divided activism

What Raving Riot does especially well is end with an ambiguity that does justice to the mixed results of the demonstration. While the western press has tended to portray the very news-photogenic protest in front of parliament as an unmitigated victory for progressive values and a loud indicator that there is no going back from increased societal tolerance, the reality is that the aftermath saw the activist community bitterly divided. Negotiators from Bassiani and its community had succumbed to pressure from the government to send protestors home, having been told they would otherwise be responsible for any violence, and having been given assurances that their demands for drug reform would be addressed. The film shows archival footage of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia apologising to a crowd that cheered him and addresses the way in which activists came to realise that the state had been able to cynically play them. In one of the most memorable sequences of Raving Riot a youth expresses his disillusionment that the protest didn’t achieve anything at all. But, reliving the protest for the camera, he recalls throwing water over the hot, dancing crowd, and the joy of freedom and communion he felt — and we capture a sense that, despite its failure to overturn systematic oppression, the rave showed what was possible, even for a moment, and could be again.