"What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?" director counters a curse using cinema as "modern magic"

"I had to find some magic that still exists," Aleksandre Koberidze tells Salon about his lyrical Georgian movie

Published November 12, 2021 5:30PM (EST)

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (MUBI)
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (MUBI)

"What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?" is a magical, realistic romance. Set in Kutaisi, Georgia, it has Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) meeting Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) outside a school. (The scene is cleverly framed; only the couple's legs and feet are shown). The pair later encounter each other on the street at night and arrange to meet at a café the following evening. However, a curse falls upon the would-be lovers, and they wake up as different people, (Ani Karseladze and Giorgi Bochorishvili). As such, they may never be able to find each other again. It is an enchantment right out of Shakespeare. Or Claude Lelouche. Or even Alan Rudolph's "Made in Heaven." And it is charming.

Writer/director Aleksandre Koberidze is examining chance as well as everyday life in the town of Kutaisi, as long observational scenes of ordinary people flesh out the storyline of will Lisa and Giorgi break the curse and end up together? This unhurried film features many lovely shots that use color, light, and texture, from a slow-motion sequence of kids playing soccer, to montages of people sitting on benches, to many scenes featuring the town's dogs, who choose which bar to watch the World Cup.

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Koberidze also includes a voiceover narration that describes how once cursed, Lisa, a pharmacist, and Giorgi, a soccer player, lose their knowledge and talents and end up working for the owner (Vakhtang Panchulidze) of the café where they were supposed to meet. A subplot has two filmmakers, (played by Koberidze's parents) seeking couples for a project, and, of course, they chance upon Lisa and Giorgi. Will they break the spell? One has to see "What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?" to find out.

Koberidze spoke with Salon about his spellbinding romance.

One of the things I admired about your film is how often you tell by not showing. Some scenes feel right out of a silent movie — characters are talking, and while viewers don't hear the conversations, they can understand what is being discussed. How did you conceive of this story and the way to tell the story?

One of the reasons for me to make genre-like films is to understand how to tell these stories, and how I can communicate what I want to say about the subject. I don't have film theory to know how things should be done; it's more like I discover something every day I am writing, shooting, and editing. I do have knowledge of filmmaking, but, for me, this kind of [organic] approach works best. Through this way of working we can take this form, which is a more personal way to tell the story. It's a portrayal of people making this film, and what we were thinking.

Did you have any specific Influences or inspiration?

One director I watched was Nanni Moretti. His film, "Caro Diary," was about a city and how different you can make a film like that — the disappearing border between fiction and documentary. How he builds his image, works with actors, and uses a narrator. I had a narrator in every film I've made, even before I watched Nanni, but after seeing his films, it was my wish to narrate the film myself. This time I dared, even though I am far from his quality.

Can you talk about the filmmaking subplot, which features prominently in "What Do We See When We Look at the Sky"?

When I was writing, I was deciding how to [beat] this curse, and is there a way for the characters to find each other? Or are they completely helpless? There are not too many solutions for this problem. If I wake up tomorrow in a different body, I wouldn't know what to do, who to call, or what to Google. I had different ideas about this kind of magic, so I had to find some magic that still exists in this world and that everyone is familiar with. And cinema is one of the few things that has that power. I thought cinema can be seen as a kind of modern magic, and the idea was to have one magical thing against another magical thing.

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We often imagine what life might be like to be someone else. I like that Lisa and Giorgi don't try to figure out how to break the curse, but instead, just go on living, making the best of their new situation but still try to find the one they love. Can you talk about that decision?

The characters of the film spend time when we don't see them. It was important that there are scenes that [do not feature] them or where we don't know what they are doing. It is important that they seem to be OK about their situation; it's not the biggest part of their lives when we see them, which is why they are off-screen at times. It was not a statement. These are characters who, when they are outside, among people, don't create a huge drama of their private problems in a world where we have much bigger problems than not being about to find someone you love. I think, in many films, private problems are made too big when they are shown to other people, and privacy is a big issue of our time and it was important to give this privacy to the characters and to have characters who keep things private and are not interested in sharing their private lives with people they don't know, [including] people who watch the film. 

Is the film an allegory?

For me, first there is an idea, which is just an idea, and then it becomes: what does it mean, and how can I understand this loss? I have my personal ideas about the meaning, but it is better to leave it open. If I say what I think it will narrow the view. It is like the title of the film, which is more open and not focused on one thing. 

Your film is certainly leisurely, with long sequences that capture the rhythms of everyday life unfolding. Can you describe your intent of these episodes and how they inform the central narrative? 

Making this film, I tried to understand filmmaking, but it was also a way to understand my surroundings, and where I live, and how the world works. It's very different if you just go outside and look around or if [as a director] you look into this monitor which gives tension to normal moments. The time goes in different ways because 40 people are behind you, waiting for you to say "cut." For people who watch it in the cinema, time goes by differently there too. It is a concentrated way of looking, so it becomes a way of showing a place and how you can look at it or what I see when I look at it. For this kind of effort to understand the world, you need this time because things are not always controlled. We tried not to block our set to see and understand what can happen in the frame. 

Can you talk about your observations on human nature that are expressed in the film? 

One thing is that both characters have some kind of trust that at some point, things will happen the way they should. You can watch TV and know things don't always happen the way they should. It's not that I want to tell someone that they should be calm, and everything will be fine. But in this film, the characters have faith and somehow fulfill their expectations. It's more than reality, it's a fairy tale world, so we can work with narratives that are not directly part of our everyday life. But deep in my heart, I want to trust. I have a feeling that things that happen around us make some sense. At the same time you might say that is silly and senseless because of what is happening around us, but still . . .

Your film looks gorgeous. Can you describe how you designed the film visually and used the town and its townspeople as characters in the story? 

I spent quite a lot of time in Kutaisi, and we knew we didn't want to make a big thing out of the art direction, or build decorations and paint walls. We tried to find places outside and inside that were there and important for the story. Every day, the city is alive and changing. It's an old town, but there are many young people. It is generally quite a poor place, but people manage to live with dignity and not be completely broke. It was very interesting, and it took us time to find places that would transport the mood of our story and our feelings. We created the café, which doesn't exist, but when we looked for a place where we could have the café, it was important to have it in a place that is open in every direction — to have a river on one side a bridge in another, and in a small park to involve the place in our narrative. It was way to have people come alive in the space. When we storyboarded, we used images. So it was very precise work, but we tried to keep it open. 

Franklin Foer wrote the book "How Soccer Explains the World," and your film certainly shows how the sport is so ingrained in life In Kutaisi. Are you a fan, and what did you want to show with the emphasis on this sport?

I'm a fan, yes. I am a disappointed football player. I never became what I really wanted to be, a pro athlete. I sometimes play it with my friends, but it's not the game I dream of, in a big stadium with 100,000 fans cheering. I watch the Georgian national team and when Barcelona plays — especially since Messi is there. I watch him a lot. From his first game, I was following him and his ups and downs. It is interesting because he's not a normal human being. He is special and represents a lot, and you can learn from him how to handle time, difficulties, losing and winning. But also, it was very interesting to film people watching football because that is where you see big emotions. The main characters in the film don't have many big emotional moments, so you see the emotions of the kids in the slow-motion sequence, where you see great happiness or anger, which is not connected to a big drama, but this game which is not important in general, but in the moment is the most important thing. 

Your film deals with chance and a curse. What accounts for your cockeyed optimism? Do you believe in such superstitions?  

Yes, sometimes I am superstitious, but not too much. I just do the same things my mom does. [Laughs] I have a feeling that she knows why not to put a bag [a backpack, or a purse] on a table, or put a knife in someone's hand. Making this film, I was thinking a lot about things like this. There are three directions. There are moments where I have to make a decision. On the other hand, I see there are coincidences; things happen, and they change your life. I also sometimes think that there is some kind of — let's call it destiny, a bigger narrative which is also there. These three things do not work against each other. There is one big narrative, and in this big story you still can make decisions and sometimes things will happen that are not planned by you or by someone who makes the "big story."

"What We See When We Look at the Sky" is in theaters on Friday, Nov. 12. Watch the trailer below via YouTube.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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