How a bishop, art school and animation festival brought hope to war-torn Georgian village

Just yards from Georgia’s heavily fortified border with Russia-occupied South Ossetia, an Orthodox bishop uses culture – and his love for entertainment – to convince locals to stay.

In the Georgian village of Upper Nikozi, the destruction caused by the war is still evident.

The village saw heavy fighting during the brief but bloody conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and now sits on the fortified border between Russia-occupied South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.

Abandoned by many of its inhabitants both during the conflict and in the years that followed, renewed hope for its future was offered by a Georgian Orthodox bishop, Isaiah (ecclesiastical name of Zurab Tchanturia), who, against all odds, has set up an art school and international animated film festival in the village.

Tchanturia worked in an animation studio in the late 1980s before studying animation at the Shota Rustaveli Theater and Film University in Tbilisi.

Nevertheless, after graduating in 1993, the fragile economy of the newly independent Georgia and the instability caused by the civil war led him to follow a very different path.

He briefly joined a monastery in Abkhazia – like South Ossetia, another part of Georgia now occupied by Russia – but was among nearly 250,000 Georgians forced to flee the area due to fighting and cleansing. ethnic.

In 1994 he became a monk and then bishop of the Nikozi and Tskhinvali Eparchy (an administrative division of the Georgian Orthodox Church).

In 2004, Bishop Isaiah set up several educational programs in painting, reading and animation in Haut Nikozi. Unfortunately, the village’s only animation film studio was destroyed during the 2008 war.

Nonetheless, Bishop Isaiah says the conflict has given new impetus.

“The war was destructive, our facilities were bombed, but it also brought good. I thank the war for its involuntary kindness ”, says the bishop Emerging europe.

Bishop Isaiah

Bishop Isaiah re-established the art school in 2009 with foreign financial assistance. It offers free courses in fine arts, music, choreography, animation, theater, foreign languages ​​and promotes a healthy lifestyle through climbing lessons.

Two years later, after the creation of the school, Bishop Isaiah created the Nikozi International Animation Film Festival.

“It was difficult to imagine a festival in the village, because no one would be interested. Yet every year the festival has managed to attract the attention of various countries and the festival has started to develop, ”says Eter Glurjidze, festival coordinator and graduate of the art school.

The main objective of the installation was to help society cope with the stressful experiences of war and to help the village maintain its population and become a regional socio-cultural center.

“It should be noted that the children of the art school do not only come from Haut Nikozi itself, but commute from other neighboring villages,” adds Glurjidze. “The school functions primarily as an educational institution, but at the same time it creates a socio-cultural space which has helped to reduce migration from the region. The school also tries to improve the resilience of society despite the insecurity and instability created by the Russian occupation.

A reason to stay

The school and festival have been hugely successful thanks to the collaboration with foreign donors and renowned international festivals, and have convinced many families of the advantages of staying in the village rather than moving to the nearby town of Gori, where the government has established camps for internally displaced people. people.

“The school’s graduates are successful: many continue their studies at the Tbilisi State Conservatory or abroad,” adds Glurjidze. “The school deepened my interest in various fields. Having learned foreign languages ​​at school, I was able to continue my studies in China and Estonia. Today, I am happy to be personally involved in the development of the animation festival.

One of the school’s greatest achievements is Giorgi Maghradze, who studied folk music and piano lessons before turning to oboe.

The school helped him enroll in a project that earned him a full scholarship to study at the Tbilisi State Conservatory and eventually join the orchestra of the State Opera and Ballet Theater. from Tbilisi.

“It was at the [Nikozi] school where I was introduced to classical music, ”says Maghradze, now enrolled in a postgraduate program in Switzerland. “Without that, I wouldn’t have become a musician.

The story of Upper Nikozi is even today the subject of a documentary, Children of Nikozi, by filmmaker Nina Benashvili. He has already won several awards, including the Bronze Remi at this year’s Houston International Film Festival.

“I watched the villagers, the bishop, the frequent guests getting ready for the feast; there was a great sense of unity, ”says Benashvili. “With admiration, I observed, filmed and interviewed Nikozians, old and young; with what bravery they approached the uncertain future, how grateful they were for the little they had and with what heart they warmly received everyone to a place where good and beauty compete with war and the destruction.

Future goals

About 20% of Georgia remains occupied, and Russian forces continually move the border fences that demarcate the territory they hold, simply lifting up the barbed wire that separates South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) from the rest of the country and planting further and further into Georgian territory.

Hundreds of Georgian citizens can therefore literally find themselves overnight in Russian-held territory, their farms and businesses uprooted, their lands confiscated.

By establishing the school and the festival, Bishop Isaiah succeeded in helping the inhabitants of Upper Nikozi – which lies a few hundred yards from Russian-held territory – to survive the hardships and ignore the “creeping occupation. “.

Nonetheless, its ultimate goal remains to help reconcile divided communities living on different sides of the barrier.

“Cultural activities are close to spirituality,” he says. “Art is an area where you can build bridges between people. “

Glurjidze says raising awareness at the school and at the festival is paramount in helping the bishop achieve his goals.

“The added value of the school, with the animation festival, is its ability to unite the communities living on both sides of the administrative border,” she concludes.

“I am on [the art school] would be attractive to people living beyond barbed wire.

Photos: official Facebook page of the Nikozi International Animation Film Festival.

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Kayleen C. Rice

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