This film is a joy to watch. Perhaps it helps if you’ve ever tried to grow your own maize crop, but the festival wins (Karlovy Vary and many others) and glowing reviews suggest that it’s not just me who was entranced by Corn Island. I’ll be surprised (and upset) if this isn’t picked up for distribution in the UK and many other territories.
The film’s narrative covers a summer growing season. Every spring the river Enguri washes fertile alluvial soil down from the Caucasus Mountains and deposits it further downstream creating temporary ‘islands’ when the river flow slows. These islands are sometimes large enough to attract peasant farmers to grow a crop – in the knowledge that when the heavy rains return, the islands will probably disappear. Into this dangerous environment comes an old farmer and his young teenage granddaughter who together methodically build a hut and then plant a maize crop. Unfortunately, the Enguri also forms the boundary between Georgia and the breakaway ‘autonomous region/republic’ of Abkhazia (one of four disputed territories in the region). The island is therefore on the front line in a dispute that has rumbled on since Georgia itself became independent of the former Soviet Union. Consequently, the old man and the girl feel under surveillance from passing motor boats of soldiers from each side of the dispute (plus soldiers on the shore).
The film works brilliantly because it has the strengths of simplicity. Some of the reviews refer to ‘minimalism’ but I think that isn’t appropriate as the film is overwhelming in the riches of pure cinema. The cinematography (Hungarian veteran Elemér Ragályi) is breathtaking, whether it is the broad sweep of landscape of the hills and the river valley, the close-ups of the two characters building, fishing and sowing or the changing play of natural light on water and vegetation. Just as impressive is the sound design. I confess that I didn’t notice the music (which I think comes mainly at the end of the film) but I was aware that there is virtually no dialogue apart from the exchanges between the old man and the passing soldiers. The man and the girl don’t need to speak, they just get on with their work.
There isn’t a great deal of plot and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that a wounded soldier turns up on the island at one point. I mention this because it refers to a particular sub-genre of the ‘home front’ war picture in which wounded soldiers appeal to the goodwill of the peasants – and in doing so put their hosts at risk from ‘the enemy’. This then links to a second genre which is the ‘coming of age’ film. The girl arrives on her grandfather’s boat at the beginning of the film with a doll. The same doll makes an appearance at the end of the film, but the girl has by then already shown the signs of puberty, both physically and emotionally. Grandfather has to protect the girl as well as the crop. And this, in turn, leads us back towards the theme of fertility and the battle with nature to get the crop in before the rains arrive. When the rains come it means scenes that rival the best of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky.
The performances are excellent, especially by Mariam Buturishvili, the first-timer who plays the girl against the veteran Turkish actor İlyas Salman as the grandfather. The production overall must have been an amazing experience. Writer-director George Ovashvili chose to shoot on 35mm because that is what he was most comfortable with. Initially he hoped to find a ‘real’ island as a location. In the end he decided to build an island in an artificial lake (which would also, presumably, be away from the actual frontline of a smouldering boundary dispute). In an interview Ovashvili explained that the crew actually planted and re-planted different maize crops as needed by the script – the film was shot in April-May and December so it couldn’t be ‘natural’. The results are amazingly good. An initial report suggested that the shoot cost just €1.4 million, but that extra funding was being sought for post-production. The production also involved cast and crew from 13 countries speaking 13 languages (a whole bunch of translators is listed in the credits). Ovashvili in the interview says:
I think the diversity of the crew has strengthened the universal theme of the film.
I’d have to agree. This is the Georgian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015. I don’t suppose it will win and it’s a shame if most Academy voters will see in on a TV set. This is one film that you want to see on the biggest screen possible (in beautiful 35mm ‘Scope). Please, UK distributors, get this into cinemas!
The trailer from the Karlovy Vary Festival: