Avtoportreti Zghvarze: A Film Essay on Memory, Hope and the Search for One’s Identity
By Ekaterina Grineva
Anna Dziapshipa lives and works as a filmmaker and visual artist in Georgia. She has a professional background in art history, film production, cultural management, experimental video and documentary film. Her work, which explores notions of physical boundaries, memory and identity, has been shown at international film festivals and art exhibitions. Dziapshipa is also actively involved in numerous initiatives that support documentary filmmakers in Georgia and the South Caucasus, where she amplifies the voices of women, rural communities, minority groups, and communities affected by conflict in the Caucasus.
Dziapshipa’s essay film Self-Portrait Along the Borderline (2023) was screened as part of the Georgian Film Series at the Ukrainian Film Festival (UFF) in Berlin. In the film, Dziapshipa uses her family archive to reconstruct an intimate portrait of her Georgian-Abkhazian family and to reflect on broader issues of identity and memory in the context of war. It is a personal, associative approach in which Dziapshipa processes and reflects on her own experiences as a child of Georgian and Abkhazian descent.
Combining archival and documentary footage Self-Portrait Along the Borderline incorporates a delicate research on the topic of identity. Half of Dziapshipa’s family is from Abkhazia, including her grandfather, a former footballer who played for Dinamo Tbilisi. The filmmaker montages footage of her grandfather’s sporting activities with historical film chronicles of Abkhazia. Dziapshipa’s grandfather built a house in Abkhazia, not far from the Georgian border, so that the family could spend the summer together. In the film the director remembers going to the house often, even at weekends. She remembers how her portrait was painted on the seafront and how the house was an important part of her children’s perception of space – safe and giving her the joy of being with the whole family. The theme of identity is revealed on both a narrative and visual level. We see photographs of Anna Dziapshipa as a school-aged girl, a teenager and an adult. They all form a visual series of self-portraits or photographs of Dziapshipa, which are rhythmically juxtaposed with shots of the house built on the border by her grandfather. This refers to the title of the film, which was inspired by Frida Kahlo’s painting Self-portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States (1932). Dziapshipa decided to use this motif in the title of the film after seeing this painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts during her residency in the US – as she said during the Q&A that followed the film.
A former and shorter version of the film is titled On Being Dziapshipa. Unlike this earlier, more personal title, Self-Portrait Along the Borderline deals with an identity that emerges under special conditions (such as her family’s vacation home) and is perceived as “unconventional”. Surnames in Georgia reflect both history and geography. Depending on your surname, people can discern your place of origin. That is why an “unconventional” surname seldom goes unnoticed. Dziapshipa’s Abkhazian surname, which she inherited from her (Abkhazian) grandfather, evokes various emotions in Georgia: for some, it conjures memories of the famous 1950s soccer player Niaz Dziapshipa, while for more people it invokes recollections of Abkhazia, the region that Georgia lost after a brutal conflict in the early 1990s.
During the Soviet era, Abkhazia, a mountainous region on the warm Black Sea, was a popular holiday destination for Soviet citizens. It was widely considered a tranquil paradise until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when escalating tensions gave way to a civil war that started in 1992. Through a portrait of personal traumatic memories, Dziapshipa explores the complexities of nationality and identity, which are intertwined with wider socio-historical conflicts of her country’s recent past. Thereby the film depicts the splendour of the former Soviet holiday paradise of Abkhazia as a reference to the broader cultural metaphor of paradise lost.
Strong metaphors are also used to discuss the themes of identity, memory and nation. One of these is the footage of spiders crawling through the picture, weaving their webs and making connections. A voice-over gives an encyclopaedic description of the activities, species and habits of these spiders. The narration is interspersed with the view from above, observing the spider but at the same time controlling the space or territory in which the insect lives. The director’s voice-over announces that these spiders are an endangered species. Dziapshipa combines this particular moment with the footage of her wedding from the family archive, creating a process of meaning generation in the manner of Eisenstein’s intellectual montage. The perception of herself as something endangered and “exotic”, and therefore of interest, was inherent to Dziapshipa with her “unusual” name in Georgia.
Just as the outside observer invades the territory of the spider, the country of which the filmmaker is a direct but never complete part, metaphorically invades the territory of her body or identity.
At the end of the film, Dziapshipa finds her grandfather’s family holiday home in a semi-ruined state. It has been locked up for decades, the veranda of the house overgrown with greenery from the outside, the rooms covered in spider webs and dust. The home of her childhood memories welcomes her with a portrait painted while on holiday the year before the war started – both has been haunting her dreams. Dziapshipa doesn’t recognize herself in the portrait. The portrait has remained the same, it is just a piece of distorted memories from her childhood, tangled like a spider’s web and blurred like archive photographs. Despite her feeling of rejection, she takes the portrait with her because it is a part, if not of her identity, then of her family history, frozen within the walls of this house, a house that has become a metaphor for her search for a unified vision of herself.
The film becomes a search for oneself, for one’s place in the history of the nation. Not only the director’s own existence is called into question, but also the existence of the nation: “I often listen to the voice of the first president of independent Georgia, who constantly repeats to me that I do not exist”, the voice-over says. Just as an individual species of spider is subject to extinction, so a nation is subject to extinction in the historical, political and cultural space. Thus, the question of a nation’s existence can be instrumentalised through words – just as Russian propaganda rhetoric questions the very existence of the Ukrainian nation. In Self-Portrait Along the Borderline the search for identity uncovers tumultuous memories and delves into themes of nationalism, war, and hope. In this film, Anna Dziapshipa embodies an image of memory based on extensive archival research and reflection on her own identity. The archival images are like the threads of a spider’s web that connects the filmmaker’s past with the present, offering a glimpse of her country’s history through the lens of her own growing up process becoming an artist.
 Avtoportreti Zghvarze (international title: Self-Portrait Along the Borderline) won a prize at the Vision Du Reel Film Festival in April 2023, https://www.visionsdureel.ch/en/film/2023/self-portrait-along-the-borderline/ [accessed: 10.11.2023]
 Dziapshipa also explores the topic of corporeality and femininity as a union of sexuality and freedom in another of her works, The Hunter Erects the City (2018).
About the Author
Ekaterina Grineva is a Research Associate in the project “Europäische Zeiten / European Times – A Transregional Approach to the Societies of Central and Eastern Europe” (EUTIM) at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder). She obtained an MA in Russian studies, Literary and History studies in Freiburg and Moscow. From 2018 to 2021 she was a member of International Research Group 1956 “Transfer of Culture and “Cultural Identity”. German-Russian Contacts in the European Context”. Her research interests lie in Slavic as well German studies and she is working on her PhD project on modernism and baroque theatre, specifically on the impostor figure of False Dmitry.
Citation: Ekaterina Grineva, Avtoportreti Zghvarze: A Film Essay on Memory, Hope and the Search for One’s Identity, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.11.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49351