Thirty years later, the Georgian Orthodox Church and its leader, Ilia II, stand as among the most popular institutions and prominent public figures in a nation of 3.7 million inhabitants, 83% of whom are Orthodox Christians. However, the church has also recently faced growing criticism due to its staunchly conservative stance on LGBT rights, its ties with Russia and the anti-Western rhetoric emanating from some of its leadership.
Bishop Isaiah’s festival offers another, lesser-known social, educational and cultural association with the church.
The entire community contributes to the success of the festival. Local women cook traditional Georgian food. Families host foreign guests in their homes. Teachers from the art school help with logistics, and former students come to lend a hand or showcase their artistic work. Giorgi Magradze, a talented oboe player, returns home every year from Germany to perform a concert during the festival.
The 11th edition of the festival — it took a break during the COVID-19 pandemic — was a special one for the bishop: He was seated in the front row for a rough cut of his own documentary about the 2008 war. It began with the sound of bombs falling and images of destruction in the village, including scenes from the burned bishop’s residence, followed by interiews with the town’s inhabitants reacting to the conflict and the occupation of their village by Russian troops, in raw, black-and-white footage.
Rather than conveying pessimism and darkness, the film captures a sense of resilience and even humor, portraying the absurdity of war. At one point it shows a hastily organized wedding ceremony in the church for an elderly couple.
The bulk of the festival’s programming, however, consists of art-house short animation movies that would not likely make it to TV or mainstream theaters. A notable aspect of the event is its noncompetitive nature. “We want to make artists feel the meaning of this place,” said Eter Glurjidze, 25, one of the organizers who grew up in the village and attended the art school. The filmmakers, she said, “are much more at ease when they come here. We want to promote cultural dialogue over competitiveness.”
This article originally appeared here.