Domino Effect: In Abkhazia, a post-Soviet "frozen conflict" zone, patriotism runs deep. While Sports Minister Rafael is busy organizing an international domino event to put his motherland on the world’s map, his beloved Russian wife is just an unwelcome f
The documentary in German-Polish co-production, Domino Effect, has been collecting one prize after another at prestigious international festivals since 2014. This formally elaborate film about the relationship between the Abkhazian Minister of Sports, Rafael Ampar, and his newlywed Russian wife Natasha, takes place on the background of the VIII. World Domino Championship, set in the backdrop of the devastated Abkhazia, where - despite the Russian promises - almost nothing works properly. The award-winning Polish director Piotr Rosolowski and the documentarist Elwira Niewiera spent more than three years working on the film. They laid the foundations for it when attending a series of Ex Oriente Film workshop sessions organized by Institute of Documentary Film.
The dramatic modern history of small countries bordering the southern part of the Black Sea began in 1990 when the Abkhazian government announced Abkhazian SSR within the USSR and thus broke apart from Georgia. A year later, after the disintegration of the USSR an independent republic of Georgia was established and Abkhazia, who refused to become a mere region within Georgia, declared independence on July 23, 1992. About 250 thousands of Georgians were driven from their homes and thirty thousand of them murdered by their former Abkhazian neighbors. "For us, it all began in 2008, shortly after the war between Russia and Georgia, when Russia was the only country recognizing Abkhazia's independence. I read a lot about it in the newspaper and wondered what it must be like to live in a country that the world has completely ignored. In one news report I then read that Abkhazia could be a paradise, but there is unfortunately more minefields than residents. This sentence has become the main driving force for me, on the basis of which we had decided to make our first trip to Abkhazia a few months later" Elwira Niewiera recalls the beginnings of the project today. "Abkhazia is not on any map, and few people know this beautiful but enchanted land. We decided that we wanted to try to understand its paradoxes and tragedies hidden behind absurdity of this place and make a film here," says Piotr Rosolowski. Both filmmakers went to Abkhazia seven times in total and initially they had no idea how to communicate the situation in this country to the viewers.
Complicated marriage as a parallel to the tense relations of Abkhazia and Russia
Although the filmmakers had encountered Rafael, the protagonist of the film, already during their first trip to Abkhazia, it took them another year before they met his new wife Natasha and decided that it would be their story that would be the main focus of the film. "We attended Ex Oriente Film workshops in a very early stage of the project. They gave us courage in finding the right angle and at the same time help us get deeper into our topic. In the beginning we did not even have set the main characters and only during the further preparatory work we got to Rafael and Natasha and focused the whole film on their relationship," says Piotr Rosolowski. To express the tense relations between the residents of Abkhazia and neighboring Russia, this was an absolutely perfect couple. Natasha thus represents Russia, which had been dominating Abkhazia politically and culturally for centuries. "At the same time, their difficult personal situation accurately reflected the difficult situation of the whole country. Especially in relation to its closest neighbor, as the formal independence of Abkhazia means a practical -economical and military- dependence on Russia. You could talk about a kind of "forced love" because Russia is the only partner of Abkhazia. Yet in the long run the Abkhazians fear of being gradually annexed by the Russians. And Natasha is so often the target of the impact of these concerns, " adds Piotr Rosolowski and confirms the known fact that the majority of Abkhazians are not very fond of Russians, including Natasha. In the film this complicated relationship between the two countries is reflected in the relationship between the two main protagonists, where Natasha finds more and more flaws in Abkhazia, whereas Rafael denies them and their mutual quarrels become sharper. The filmmakers show in a sensitive way that both are right in a way, and their complicated marriage thus represents an eloquent parallel to the situation in this troubled region.
The pitfalls of the single dimensionality of a domino tournament
At first glance, the viewer may feel that the main content of the film is the record of the World Domino Championship, attended by 220 players from 22 countries. Additionally, the main organizer of the event is the aforementioned Abkhazian Sports Minister Rafael, who wants to raise the self-esteem of his fellow citizens and to present Abkhazia to the world in a positive light. The scenes with the inhabitants of the capital city Suchumi putting up posters, the performers rehearsing national dances and officers and policemen discussing the safety precautions may seem even amusing. “During our first trips to Abkhazia we have closely observed the preparatory works of the Championship and found them a bit absurd. Just the fact that some country invests so much faith and funds into it, hoping that ‘people of different nationalities will visit us, they will praise us and remember the existence of our small country’seemed funny to us. But then we realized that the whole thing is more about their hope for a new beginning and we thus put 'domino' into the film's title as well. We were yet very well aware of the fact that if we focused the film on the Championship only, it would have been a one-dimensional view of the country that would have led up to some humorous moments at its best. We finally decided to dedicate the film rather to the various problems, difficulties and challenges faced by the local people," says Elwira Niewiera.
Looking for the right way to tell a story
Domino Effect has been selected into the programmes of a wide range of prestigious documentary festivals and also won awards at many of them - for example Visions du Réel, Krakow Film Festival (where it got a total of three awards), Kosovo, Jerevan and others. One of the most valuable trophies was the Golden Dove for the exceptional German documentary from DOK Leipzig.The first steps on the long journey crowned by the awards were nevertheless made at Ex Oriente Film workshops. “These workshops were very important to us, especially for the forming of the first steps during the preproduction phase. We were able to consult our ideas with the tutors and then move closer to the final concept of our film. It was a long process and it took us more than a year before we found the right way to tell the story,“ Piotr Rosolowski recalls. He proved his talent already when working on the documentary Rabbit a la Berlin, that won a series of awards, including the main prize at Hot Docs festival and Oscar nomination. He is also a co-director of the extraordinary documentary The Art Of Disappearing, which introduces Poland in the 80s in an original way from the viewpoint of a Haiti voodoo priest. "Over the years we have developed a way of cooperation, when we were aware of each others strong and weak spots and tried not to waste time with useless quarrels. Which of course does not mean that we agreed on everything, we often argued passionately about some essential content matters," Elwira Niewiera comments on the way of communication of the director tandem, which resulted in an extremely creative and deservedly acclaimed documentary.