What makes a country a country? Here’s a hard question to answer, as most of us come from nations that have been so for hundreds of years. But for Maxim Gvinjia, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia, this question is the thing. His friend, artist filmmaker Eric Baudelaire, sent him letters for 74 consecutive days, to an address unrecognized by the majority of the sovereign nations, but somehow, the letters reached Max. Max’s answers to them make Letters to Max.
Not many people have heard of Abkhazia, a separatist region in Georgia, struggling for independence and recognition since the war they won against Georgia in 1992-3. In 2008, Russia was the first country to recognise Abkhazia as an independent nation (leading most of the Western countries to consider Abkhazia to be a Russian-occupied Georgian territory…). Baudelaire was there in 2000, and many things seem to have changed since then. Or so says Max’s voice.
This essay/documentary film feeds from the letters sent, Max’s voice answering them (apparently correspondence only works one way in the Republic of Abkhazia), and footage captured by Baudelaire after the correspondence ended. Time is thus a very flexible concept, as we hear the voices of the past and watch the images of the present. How much can we believe what we are watching, as it is, for the most of it, a reconstruction of real events? Baudelaire uses and abuses this device for maximum effect, making us at the same time believe and doubt everything we hear and see.
Slow moving, having only Max’s heavy accent as company, Baudelaire does not settle for asking only the simple, happy questions. In the last part of the film, the questions become stronger, more practical, less metaphysical. Is it fair to tell a story only having the voice of one of the sides? What about the innocent Georgians that were expelled from Abkhazia, that was also their home? What about Russia? Max doesn’t always answer, but when he does, you feel you’re hearing a human being rather than a politician – after all, even if Abkhazia is imaginary, the friendship between the two men is everything but.
With its artisan feel (shaky handheld, no technical fireworks), Letters to Max is faker than your normal documentary, and yet it feels truer. It’s difficult to imagine a better way to portray the story of a country that doesn’t exist, but which is there nonetheless. The ruins of its war remain for everyone to see, like an historical ghost. Stuck in time and space, it is worth a watch in an era when values like nation and patriotism are making a strong come back.
Letters to Max will be released in the UK on 2nd October 2015