Lights, camera, propaganda! - Monocolumn | Monocle


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23 October 2009

A president, dressed in a sharp suit and red tie, addresses crowds of cheering flag-waving Georgians from outside the parliament building in Tbilisi.

“Today the forces of occupation are gathered at our gates,” he shouts, wildly gesticulating and with a voice cracked with emotion. “They have guns, they have bombs. But we have something more precious than that. We have our love for freedom and our love for Georgia!”

The crowd erupts in cheers of approval. But this time it’s not Mikheil Saakashvili making the same speech that he made over a year ago on this very spot. It’s the Hollywood actor Andy Garcia, in town to shoot a film due out next spring that will cover the events of last August’s war, and will also star Val Kilmer. It is directed by Renny Harlin, famous for blockbusters such as Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2, and is likely to become another gambit in the battle for world opinion over what exactly happened in August 2008. Sceptics point to the fact that one of the film’s co-producers and scriptwriters is an MP for Saakashvili’s ruling party.

According to the local production manager, Tamuna Liluashvili, the film will help the international community “know what really happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again”. She confirmed that there would be no Ossetians in the film, and said that the portrayal of Saakashvili would be “very positive”.

Saakashvili himself, when interviewed by Monocle on Tuesday night, had just finished watching Garcia’s performance on television and said it was a “great thrill” to see the Hollywood actor portray him.

“He is very passionate, and that’s the main thing,” said the Georgian president. “He made more hand gestures even perhaps than I do.”

The film is the latest salvo in a cultural battle between Russia and Georgia. As usual, the Georgian side offers a product slicker and better produced than the clumsy Russians. The initial Russian cinematic offering about the war was a feature film produced for state television that was such repulsive propaganda it made the stomach churn. It claimed the Georgian Army went marauding through South Ossetia, commanded in the field by (black) American generals and shooting innocent civilians in the back. When an entomologist who happened to be in the region accidentally shot footage proving that Georgia started the war, the Western media collaborated with the Georgian government to track down and destroy the tapes.

Doubtless the Andy Garcia film will be better produced, cleverer, and less reminiscent of a Soviet propaganda movie. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be that much closer to the truth.

So far the only objective study of the war, the long and detailed EU report released at the end of September, quite clearly lays the blame on both sides – on the Georgians for starting the war with an attack on Tskhinvali that contravened international law, and on the Russians for a long history of nefarious motives and provocations in the region.

The two sides have selectively interpreted the conclusions and are continuing the propaganda battle. Instability in the region can only be eased if both sides take the report’s conclusions a little more seriously and humbly – particularly on the Russian side but also on the Georgian side. Even if such a nuanced approach doesn’t make for quite such a good Hollywood movie.


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