Seeing the old Svan traditions in a fascinating and incredibly moving film Dede, filmed in a remote mountainous region of Svaneti, made me realise how little we know of this popular tourism destination in Georgia, and how this makes the relationship between the “hosts and the guests” pretty fragile.
Some of the traditions are now gone, some have been modified. As I watched, I wondered whether any of these changes have happened because of tourism? And whether seeing the film would discourage or encourage tourist to travel there?
Interestingly, during a Q&As session after the film one of the main actors said: “a lot has changed in Svaneti. We are open to tourists now, please come and visit”. As if he had to reassure the audience that the people have moved on, the place is fairer now and women are more equal. That they are not forced to marry or forced to abandon their bellowed children for men they don’t want to be with.
Svaneti in Dede
I saw ‘Dede’ last week as part of the incredible Georgian Film Festival in London, with half of the films showing directed by women (as opposed to 3 out of 21 in Cannes this week). Dede has won many awards, including the Grand Prix at Cannes 2017, Winner of the UNESCO award at the Asia Pacific Screen awards 2017, Winner of Audience award at the Montpelier Mediterranean Film Festival and Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2017.
Dede was filmed in Svaneti, a remote region in northwest of Georgia I have written about a few times before. Sometimes referred to as “the Switzerland of the Caucasus”, with its alpine valleys, glaciers and nearly 5,000m-high snow-capped peaks, Svaneti is stunningly beautiful and it is one of the most popular hiking destination in Georgia. It is also fascinating from the cultural angle – the ethnic Svans have their own unique language, architecture, cuisine, culture, religious beliefs and traditions. And these old traditions are being “examined” in Dede.
The film starts with a scene of two men coming back home from a war, but as one of the critics said, the film details a “war is fought not between nations or political ideologies, but between women and men, and its frontline is a battle between tradition and progress”.
It shows traditions of the high mountainous villages that have remained the same for centuries: there is arranged marriage, bride kidnapping, the need to get father’s or grandfather’s permission to marry. There is “curing” very sick children by shaking an alive chicken around them. So much seems so unfair, hurtful and distressing, particularly when it comes to a mother being forced to leave her child when a man from a different village decides (on his own) that they are engaged.
Not a postcard picture
I have been to Svaneti several times in the last 17 years. I still know very little of the region and the local people who live there, despite having a few local friends. But as I was watching Dede, I wondered what others in the audience (who have unlikely been to Svaneti) have thought of it. I also wondered whether seeing the film would discourage or encourage tourist to travel there?
In addition to the sometimes-heavy-to-take-in traditions and superstitions, there are no beautiful shots of the grand mountains under a clear blue sky, like one would normally see on the images from Svaneti. The sky in the film is mostly grey, with heavy clouds hanging over the villages. The heavy snow makes it hard to move around. It is cold, grey, miserable. The décor of the houses and the poverty shown around them is not likely to appeal to the taste of most Western tourists.
But it is a wonderful, fascinating, strange, and still very unknown place that has been become very popular with tourists in the last few years.
Impacts of tourism
Tourists keep coming for Svaneti’s incredible nature and its uniqueness (the Svan defensive towers against the high peaks of the Greater Caucasus easily gives that fairy-tale feeling). Ushguli where the main woman character from Dede is from (so is the film 32-year-old director, Mariam Khatchvani) is on everyone’s itinerary as “the highest inhabited village in Europe”.
Tourism has changed Svaneti in many ways and the economic, environmental and social impacts are clearly visible. I mentioned a few here, and I will be writing more about social impacts. The battle between tradition and progress exists, reflected in clothing, language, family relationships, architecture. The person who built this new concrete guesthouse between the towers defended it for “being modern, so this is progress”.
But I am not in a position to estimate how much, if any, impact tourism has had on changing the traditions shown in Dede. They result from a combination of many other factors. But it is fair to say that most tourists don’t realise how traditional Svaneti is and what hides behind the surface. Sometimes that ignorance or lack of understanding can be hurtful towards the local people, and makes the relationship between tourists and hosts pretty fragile. As mentioned earlier, Svaneti is a fascinating, strange, and still very unknown destination that requires a lot of responsibility from tourists and tourism planners to make it a great place to visit.