An interview with Arch Khetagouri on Heritage

Richard Raskin

I understand that the film is based on the personal experience of someone you know. Can you tell about the real events that were the basis for your story and whether you changed them at all in the film because of the needs of the narrative?

The important event that lead me to make this film was the beginning of the civil war in AbkhaziŽ.

I was there on vacation together with my best friend in the summer of 1992. The political situation there was very tense at that time, but everybody was hoping for a peaceful solution. For some reason we had to return to the capital on the next morning. On the way to Tbilisi I heard on the radio that the war had started in AbkhaziŽ. The place where I'd been the last day was now surrounded by soldiers and many people had been killed. I had a strong feeling of sorrow at that time and it remained a long time in my head. Besides that I've heard many war stories from close friends who were involved in the war. So the film is based not on one story but more on that feeling I had at that time. Most of the story is invented, but the experiences are real.

One of the first things we learn about the main character is that he is a real smoker. We see him smoking as he drives his car. The ashtray is overflowing with cigarettes. And he has his next cigarette tucked behind his ear, ready to be smoked without his even having to pull it out from a pack in his pocket. Was this something you deliberately did to characterize him in a particular manner?

The Georgians smoke too much. They smoke a lot if everything is alright, but they smoke even more if they have problems. The actor who plays the main role in the film is a real smoker too. So the cigarettes helped him to recall certain emotions. I brought real Georgian cigarettes for him from Georgia. The specific taste of those cigarettes helped him a lot in his acting.

You certainly cast perfect actors for the two main roles in the film. Can you tell me anything about them? And their performances were superb - never overplayed, never theatrical or overly sentimental. Can you tell me anything about the way you directed them?

I saw Irakli a few years ago at the premiere of a Georgian film. I liked his expression very much. And when he told me that he was an actor I knew already then that I was going to work with him at some future time. After one year I started to write the scenario of Heritage and I had him in my head while I was writing.

Irakli is a really good actor. He had played in many theater pieces in Georgia. Our cooperation was really interesting and I've learned many things from him. Each evening after the shoot, we rehearsed the scenes for the next day. He is a method actor and it was really important to him to have good reasons for every movement and for finding the right emotions. We prepared the mise en scŤne in this way and his acting was really natural. Because Irakli is used to play in the theatre, sometimes he was very close to acting theatrically, so I had to pay attention to that. It was really important for this film to act in a minimalistic way, to show the inner emotions with more tension. We trust each other and that's why it worked out. Besides that he himself had experienced the civil war and this helped him in his acting as well.

For his child, it was the first film performance. He took it really seriously. Because of that I was to obliged to work with him as I would work with a professional actor. So I was very lucky with the actors.

You used music very sparingly in the film and weren't afraid to have relatively long stretches of the soundtrack with very little sound. Can you comment on this restraint in your use of music?

When I was developing the scenario I knew already then that I would use a minimum of music. If there is no dialog in the film you're obliged to use more sound. But in this case I even reduced the amount of sound and therefore the film became more intimate. The silence creates unconscious tension and arouses certain feelings in the viewer.

You also worked very deliberately with certain sounds - magnifying for example the sound of the rifle butt striking the father's head, and of the ball bounced by the soldier in the house. And when near the end of the film, the boy gets out of the car and closes the car door, there is no appreciable sound of the car door closing. Would you tell a little about your use of these procedures as ways of enhancing the storytelling?

I worked very closely with my sound designer and we managed to transform some of the storytelling through sound. He understood my intentions very well and also brought his own ideas to the film. The ball bouncing is the good example of our understanding. Concerning the soundless closing of the car door, this was the exact opposite of what we had done with sound in the previous scenes.

The ball of course is given a central role to play in the story and enables the main character to perform a meaningful symbolic gesture at the end of the film, when the man returns the ball to the child he once was and from whom the ball had been taken. Was this part of any of the stories you had heard about the civil war or did you invent this part of the scenario?

No, that was really invented.

If I'm not mistaken, the boy is shot in the hand by one of the soldiers who fires from the window of the family home. You never show a scar on the hand of the main character. Had you considered this possibility and rejected it - perhaps because it seemed unnecessary or inappropriate?

Yes, you see the scar on his hand when he is searching for a radio channel. But if you miss it you won't lose track of the story and that's what counts.

Did you know from the start that the film would be called Heritage? And although I can guess what resonances the title have for you, could you describe them for me?

We had trouble finding a title for almost a whole year. I just didn't know what to call the film. We even hung a small blackboard in the production office and everybody from the crew could propose a title and write it on the board, but that didn't help either. Than I thought again about what the story was and "heir" was the name that came into my head. Later on it became "heritage" which I think fits the film very well. The main character is somehow the heir of the past he had experienced and the ball symbolizes it as well, I think.

Though I never look for Freudian symbolism in films, I couldn't help wondering whether the main character's journey through the tunnel and emergence from the tunnel entrance wasn't a kind of symbolic rebirth. Does this interpretation strike you as far-fetched?

I didn't think about Freudian symbolism when I wrote or made this film, but I'm glad that people see the journey of the man as a rebirth. We talked about this during script development and if you remember the journey ends indeed with a woman's scream and then we see the flashlights from outside the tunnel.

Is there any advice you might give to student filmmakers about to make their own first short films?

I think it is always important to think seriously about what a story makes you feel when you're going to film. As a director you have to bring every small detail to life. I like films in which these small details guide the story and touch the viewer's feelings. But I'd rather call this a proposal to the students than a piece of advice.

8 December 2004

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