(Stefan Dege’s article appeared in DW, 8/26; Photo: Honored for promoting cultural exchange with Germany: Taiwanese dramaturge and theater festival curator Yi-Wei KengImage: Willie Schumann/Goethe Institut/DW)
Cultural workers from Georgia, Taiwan and Hungary are being awarded the Goethe Medal by Germany for their courage and commitment but not without controversy.
Georgian cinema professional Gaga Chkheidze will receive the official badge of honor from the German state this year, as will Taiwanese curator and dramaturg Yi-Wei Keng, and the OFF-Biennale curatorial collective from Hungary. The award ceremony will take place in Weimar on August 28, on the birthday of German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The president of the Goethe-Institut, Carola Lentz, will present the cultural-political award during a ceremony.
This year’s choice of prize-winners is likely to cause political trouble, especially in the former Eastern bloc country of Georgia. Gaga Chkheidze, until recently director of the internationally renowned Tbilisi Film Festival, has fallen out of favor with the ruling Georgian Dream Party. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he publicly criticized Georgia for not
Gaga Chkheidze: Cultural bridge-builder
That stance cost him his position as head of the Georgian National Film Center. In addition, he was expelled by the country’s national film funding organization, the Georgian Filmfund. The Tbilisi Film Festival’s office on the site of the old Soviet film studios was closed, film grants were cancelled, and the festival’s budget was cut.
Born in Georgia in 1957, Gaga Chkheidze has always been considered a friend of Germany and a “cultural bridge builder,” and not only between those two countries. From 1976 to 1980, he studied in Jena, in the central German state of Thüringen. In the 1980s, he worked as the director of the German school in Tbilisi and taught German literature at the Georgian capital’s Ilia State University. In 1988, he organized a Georgian film retrospective at the Arsenal cinema in Berlin, for which he smuggled films across the Soviet border in his car. In the 1990s, he was a translator and program coordinator for the International Forum of New Cinema at the Berlin International Film Festival, before launching the Tbilisi International Film Festival in Georgia in 2000.
Tbilisi Film Festival under pressure
This coincided with the founding of a National Film Institute in Tbilisi, which gave Georgian films a new boost. The budget for film promotion was tripled, movie theaters sprung up, and more and more films made it to international festivals, from Berlin to Toronto. Georgian cinema drew attention from the European film market. “Gaga Chkheidze’s commitment to film is crucial to Georgia’s connection to European and international institutions and programs, film markets and festivals,” the Goethe Medal award jury said in their citation.
Indeed, Chkheidze’s festival concept appealed to both filmmakers and audiences alike. Soon the Tbilisi Film Festival became an international meeting place for filmmakers. As director of the Georgian National Film Center, Chkheidze promoted the digitization and restoration of Soviet-era Georgian films. The preservation of the Georgian cinema heritage is another of Gaga Chkheidze’s achievements.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine also had an impact on Georgia. The Tbilisi festival came under increasing pressure, as demonstrated by the firing of its director. “Unfortunately, here in Georgia we are on the front line between democracy and autocracy,” Chkheidze said in a recent interview with Deutschlandradio. There are many signs that political development in the country is heading in the wrong direction,” he said. “It’s moving more toward authoritarianism — I don’t want to say to dictatorship, but totalitarianism, we’ve already had that during the Soviet era. No one in Georgia wants that anymore.” But the danger is real, he said.
Analysts say Georgia is indeed teetering between Moscow and Brussels. 15 years after its war with Russia, the country officially has aspirations of joining the European Union, which is offering the prospect of membership but still denying the country candidate status. “Society is completely divided,” the dpa news agency quotes Tbilisi sociologist Iago Kachkachishvili as saying. “The majority wants to join the EU, but many hardly understand that the road is long.” The ruling Georgian Dream Party claims to be Russia-friendly. Its chairman, Irakli Kobachidze, emphasizes the high tourism revenue from Russians, the equivalent of about €900 million ($972 million). It is true that Georgia’s government always appears pro-European to the outside world, says Kachkachishvili. “But it’s doing nothing to set itself on a course to EU membership; rather it’s becoming more and more pro-Russian.”
Two years ago, the documentary film “Taming the Garden” painted a picture of the situation in Georgian society. In it, Georgian director Salome Jashi tells the story of centuries-old trees that an influential man collects for his private park.
The man — presumably Georgia’s ex-prime minister and party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his billion-dollar fortune in the finance and commodities business — remains unnamed in the film. Jashi’s theme is rather the uprooting of people, in both real and metaphorical terms. “Taming the Garden” caused a sensation at film festivals around the world, including the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. To this day, the film is not allowed to be screened in Georgian cinemas.
The Goethe Medal for Gaga Chkheidze arrives in the midst of this political tangle, Georgia’s struggle for its course between Russia and the West. For the pro-Russian camp, the prestigious cultural-political award could be seen as an affront. To pro-Western factions, the award will be a sign of encouragement. In any case, the Goethe Medal is likely to cause a stir in Tbilisi.
Medals for Taiwan and Budapest as well
Another Goethe Medal goes to Taiwan this year, with curator, dramaturg and translator Yi-Wei Keng being honored. He has brought important impulses to the Taiwanese theater scene, says the Goethe-Institut, including in the areas of experimental theater, children’s theater and theater for people with disabilities. Under his direction, the Taipei Arts Festival has developed into the most important festival for performing arts in Taiwan. Guest performances and co-productions with Europe, the United States and Japan are cited. Yi-Wei Keng has also brought German theater productions to Taiwan, such as those by the Deutsches Theater Berlin, the group Rimini Protokoll and Raumlabor Berlin. Yi-Wei Keng, born in 1969 in Taiwan, first studied philosophy. In Prague, he worked with non-verbal theater. Back in Taiwan, he began working in theater and as an author. Since 2012, he has been artistic director of the Taipei Arts Festival.