Traditions Film Project

Wanted: Traditions, Dead or Alive

This documentary video tells the story of the six families in Adishi, a remote village in the mountainous Svaneti region of Georgia, as they struggle to overcome the harsh winters and the area’s lack of economic opportunity. While showing the town’s setting near 15,000-foot peaks in the Caucasus Mountains, as well as the abandoned nearby towns, a narrator provides some background about the town. Then the film tells the story of each of the six families left in Adishi. The suspense builds as the audience guesses who will be the next family to leave. The film ends by returning to the family most likely to stay the longest.

One audience consists of people living in remote mountain ranges around the world. Another audience consists of travelers who like to learn about other cultures, in particular, cultures that have remained relatively unchanged by globalization. People interested in tourism will also enjoy this film.

In this video, people from each family will tell the story of their families.

Background

Six families remain. Adishi’s other 50 families have moved away, and four nearby villages have already been abandoned and now lie in ruins. People leave the Greater Caucasus Mountains because of harsh winters. The snow may reach 16 feet. Horses, goats, and sheep must live inside buildings, and transportation becomes almost impossible. Electrical service often fails. If repairs are needed, Adishi villagers must walk through deep snow to the closest village 9 kilometers away. People also leave because of natural disasters such as avalanches. In 1987, avalanches destroyed several homes in the area and killed seventy, mostly school children. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union resettled some 2,500 families, including almost all the families in Adishi, to valleys of eastern Georgia. Economic hardships also drive villagers away. People in Adishi only earn money from agriculture and a trickle of tourists. Families leave, and they don’t return.

Other than buying a snowplow, improving the electrical service, and insulating homes, no one can do much to make the six-month winters more tolerable. Nor can people change the landscape in order to prevent natural disasters. The best hope for economic growth may be to expand tourism, especially eco-tourism.

Ecotourism is responsible travel that respects the environment and improves the conditions of local communities. It’s a broad term that comprises various activities – from sports (rafting) to culture (studying the traditions of Svaneti’s towers). According to Wato Asatashvili, Deputy Chairman of the Department for Tourism and Resorts, ecotourism can change people’s lives and make living in mountain areas sustainable. He said that house renting, guide services and horse riding are revitalizing local economies.

It helps that UNESCO designated the Upper Svaneti region of the Caucasus as a World Heritage site. UNESCO bestowed this honor because the area has exceptional mountain scenery and it has preserved to a remarkable degree its medieval-type villages and tower-houses. “The characteristic landscape of Upper Svaneti is formed by small villages, dominated by their church towers and situated on the mountain slopes, with a natural environment of gorges and alpine valleys and a backdrop of snow-covered mountains.” The wealth of monumental and minor art (metal work, manuscript illustrations, textiles and embroidery, wood-carving, icon painting, ancient forms of musical and oral folklore, vernacular architecture) are of paramount importance for the study of Georgia and the Caucasus. The monumental mural painting of Svaneti is of great importance in the study of the origins and development of Georgian and eastern Christian art.”

People in Adishi, however, are skeptical that tourism will save them. They believe they have neither the skills nor money to market the attractions of their village. In fact, no one advertises because villagers want to avoid the tax collector. Mountain villagers also lack a suitable infrastructure for tourism. They claim that government has not made a sufficient investment and they lack the necessary community income. As a result, too few tourists visit and they stay too short a period of time.

Indeed, money is a problem. According to the director of Caucasus Travel, Tabagari, “The lack of development in ecotourism has only one reason, money. Not enough time, energy and financial resources for marketing have been spent on sponsoring Georgia internationally as a perfect destination for ecotourism.”

Another explanation for the lack of economic development may be Svaneti’s traditional social structure, which rests on the nucleus family and to a lesser extent on kinship and neighborhood. People prefer to interact with family members or neighbors than to join an administrative “community.” For instance, neighbors rent a car together to sell their cheese, or a relative stays with the cattle on the highland summer pastures for milk production. People are skeptical of economic cooperation, and they fear taking risks with their limited economic reserves, so they seldom participate in community-based projects. In general, people dream of being provided with services as during the Soviet period when remote regions were favored.

Although Adishi is obviously dying, it has assets, such as cultural traditions, which make a revival possible. Due to its isolation, it has been little influenced by the outer world and most of the traditions and customs are preserved as they were, say, a century ago. For example, the Swans speak a prehistoric Georgian dialect and jealously guard their innumerable old churches, frescoes, and icons. Old-fashioned conservative customs and methods of farming activity, land cultivation, harvesting and cattle breeding, as well as everyday life, marriage and mourning traditions remain unchanged up to present. Relics of animistic beliefs and their material attributes, which have been maintained in Svaneti, are quite impressive.

Adishi maintains traditions for the dead as well as the living. For example, villagers continue to invite the dead home for a week-long spirit holiday in January. Villagers go to the cemetery together and invite their deceased loved ones into their homes, in order to ensure that the past is not forgotten. They believe that each year the spirits gather in a secluded place near the church or in the nearby woods to decide which villagers will die in the upcoming year. To avoid being the ones “chosen,” villagers try to be nice to the spirits. Families slaughter a pig for the occasion. Not to do so is considered a sin, so they feast with the dead. On the seventh day, spirits return to the cemetery and villagers raise a last toast to them.

Adishi also has historic homes. A Svani house is one of the main components of a building complex for housing large families (up to a hundred members). The stone building has two stories. In long cold winters a family lives with their animals in one large room with a central open fireplace because the snow outside is too deep for the animals. Stalls for cows and sheep line the walls, and a family sleeps above these for warmth. There are chests, a bench and one boxy armchair for the patriarch. The furniture’s wood is carved with geometric patterns, especially a spiral motif (symbolizing ‘mother earth’) similar to that on Georgian coins. From the ceiling hangs a metal pan on which pine kindling once lent light and fragrance. A hearth in the center of a big room serves as the heater and kitchen stove.

Attached to the house, but accessible often only to those who know the secret passage is a tower. Svani means “tower architecture.” Most towers are 60 to 100 feet tall and date back to the period between 9th and 12th century. They provided protection against aggressors—usually neighbors. Villagers used to hurl rocks, oil, and insults from the highest. Local disputes were sometimes solved by murder, and then revenged with more murders. Such inhuman methods of resolving a problem consequently caused the annihilation of hundreds of people. During such feuds, families protected themselves living in towers for several years. Towers also protected families and their livestock from avalanches and they sheltered the most valuable possessions of every family, such as copies of holy scriptures, religious icons and relics.

Adishi also hosts 7 medieval churches. The Svaneti region is rich in worship monuments of the pre-Christian epoch, including pagan praying houses. Christianity arrived before the 9th century and got hopelessly mixed up with ancient animist rites. Most of the religious monuments were built in X-XV centuries and are decorated with the wall paintings of Christian events, the faces of historical people, and battle scenes.

Some of Adishi’s traditions are still living. For example, village elders still play a central role in day-to-day life. In Adishi, 84-year-old Bauchi Qaldani is in his fifth decade as a mediator and matchmaker. Qaldani used to travel about 10 days each month to other hamlets in Svaneti to help settle disputes or to negotiate marriage proposals. Poor health forced him to retire several years ago from elder councils, but people still seek him out for advice.

Adishi also maintains traditional gender roles. In other words, women do most of the work. Most household and educational work, responsibilities for dairy cows and milk processing, work in the fields and gardens, and often also employment, rest with the women. Only labor that requires long absence from the house and heavy physical force are reserved for men, such as scything, plowing, and felling of trees. Some agricultural labor is done together, such as harvesting potatoes and the collecting of hay.

The “head of the family” is male, even if he is not the oldest living person of the family. But everyone is aware of the expression—“Or so he thinks”—which means that the official representation of men as the heads of families is not always consistent with actual power relations within the households and families.

Svan culture survives most wonderfully in its local polyphonic folk songs and in a perkhuli, a dance where everyone joins hands and forms a circle. The songs are mainly dedicated to the national heroes, the fights against the conquerors, the religious holidays, the famous kings (e.g. Queen Tamar), the goddess of Hunting Dali etc. There are also humorous songs and odes to nature and gods. Many songs have been created even before the Christian times and therefore include heathen elements. In fact, the most complex form of Georgian polyphonic singing occurs in Svaneti.

Traditional culture also thrives in other ways. For example, Svan men proudly wear their warm hats, and traditional folk sports are still maintained—archery, wrestling, stone lifting, horseracing “Pulishi” and others.

Treatment

We will film the six families in all four seasons, for at least a week in each season.

The film begins in the fall. From a hill, we’ll show the size of a small village. Then we’ll show one family’s home/farm. We’ll show each of the family members going about their work and chores. We’ll show the family when it takes part in a traditional cultural activity. We’ll show it interacting with some neighbors and use this interaction to introduce another family. We’ll show families preparing for the upcoming winter months. We’ll also show archival images/video of Svaneti towns in the past, and we will interview experts about the defense towers.

During the winter period we’ll show piles of snow and a helicopter delivering necessary food and other goods. We’ll show families struggling to do work and chores that had been easier in the autumn months. We’ll show individuals as small figures set against monochrome-colored mountains covered with haze. We’ll show what families do in the evenings. Viewers may wonder why the family puts up with such difficult conditions. Our winter visit in Adishi will coincide with the “celebration of the dead.” We’ll show all the rituals and listen to the stories surrounding this event.

In the spring period, we’ll show how the lives of the Svaneti families improve. We’ll show the mountains with bright blue sky and wild flowers. We’ll show more interaction with neighbors. We’ll show a family visiting a church.

During the summer season we’ll show families from Adishi going to the village of Kala for the religious festival (July 29) of the pagan deity St. Kvirike, who is the protector of fertility. This festival, which dates from Roman times, is also for the “gathering of the clans” and features lots of singing and sacrifices of bulls and goats. We’ll also time our summer visit so that one Adishi family hosts some tourists. We’ll interview the tourists as well as the host family.

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