A forgotten Caucasian geopolitical fracture line

CONFLICT / A slow-burn lesson in the human casualties of failed politics on the disputed Georgian-Abkhazian border.
Director: Maradia Tsaava
Producer: Edith Farine
Country: Georgia, France

You may never have heard of Abkhazia. Georgia may be a somewhat remote Caucasian country that is hard to place. But for those living on the disputed border of a breakaway region recognised by few countries other than its patron, Russia, a bitter war of the early 1990s had left wounds that remain open to this day.

The Enguri Dam, where construction work began on the 271-metre mega-sluice in 1961, but electricity was not generated before 1978, straddles the border between Georgia and Abkhazia.

It is a strategic asset that is one of the only working connections between troubled neighbours. 15km below the dam, a hydroelectric facility turns the vast tunnelled water flows into up to one million kilowatts per hour of electricity. The delicate issue is that the source of that electricity – a vast flooded valley that contains, deep within its blue waters, the remains of villages and meadows – is inside Georgia. And the generating station is in Abkhazia.

The Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-93, which cost the lives of around 9,000 people on both sides, was a bitter, little-reported sideshow to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was overshadowed by the contemporaneous Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994) between Armenia and Azerbaijan. /p>

Water Has No Borders, a film by Maradia Tsaava


This background makes Tsaava’s documentary an important historical witness. But it does not necessarily make for scintillating viewing.

This is a slow-burn story that begins like a TV news reportage, segues into the director’s car breaking down as she drives away from the dam, and evolves into a frustrated and rather static view of the dam since the director and her crew are never granted permission for the 15km bus journey dam workers make every day down the gorges to Abkhazia.

Their repeated efforts to cross the border – being ordered off the bus each time – make the point about the difficulties between the two territories, but struggle to hold the dipping middle of this film that stretches a simple story across nearly 90 minutes.

Some footage is shot on foot, where the director (who appears in much of the film, again in a TV reportage style) walks 20 metres onto a bridge over the dividing river between Georgia and Abkhazia.

Somewhere between her initial reportage shots, Tsaava finds her style. The film becomes a balance between arty shots of the gigantic dam construction, close-ups of some of the characters that run the dam (including the ebullient dam manager), and brief forays into the lives of the Georgian and Russian-speaking employees – who have family on both sides of the divide – and majestic views of the forested hills.

It is a strategic asset that is one of the only working connections between troubled neighbours.

Familiar landscapes

For those who know the region, the landscape is very familiar. I once hired a car and driver while at the Sochi Kinotavr Film Festival – an annual showcase of Russian film – to drive to Sokhumi, the Black Sea coast capital of Abkhazia.

The dusty road from Sochi brought us early in the morning to a border post, where a captain in the Abkhazian border force insisted that I could not pass as I lacked a visa. “Where do I get a visa?” I asked. “In Sokhumi,” was the laconic reply. Catch 22. Eventually, it was agreed I should wait for the major to arrive. He was an older, more mature and intellectual man. An Anglophone and expert on Shakespeare, we soon agreed – on a word of honour and a handshake – that I could go to Sokhumi for the day, provided I returned by midnight.

I honoured the agreement, and the doughty old Lada and Sochi driver took a colleague and me along crumbling mountain roads past Lake Ritsa and the monastery of Novy Afon to Sokhumi, where burned-out and deserted villas and apartment blocks once occupied by Georgians were ubiquitous companions on our journey.

The landscape on the Georgian side of the border, as seen in Tsaava’s film, is little different.

Water Has No Borders, a film by Maradia Tsaava
Water Has No Borders, a film by Maradia Tsaava

Lessons lost

Water knows no borders. The fact that the Georgians and Abkhazians can still cooperate in using the dam to generate electricity for mutual benefit seems to be a lesson lost today on Russia’s mad monk dictator, Putin as he pursues a war of greed and aggression in Ukraine today, seeking to steal Ukrainian nuclear electric power generating capabilities, alongside wholescale destruction of a country condescendingly known in Russia as a “little brother” nation.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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