By Erëmirë Krasniqi
Dominos, for Abkhazi people, is a therapeutic game. It became a way of calming the nerves after the war in the early 90’s. Understandable, this made Abkhazians acquire professional skills at which they were quite competent. So it’s no surprise that in 2011 Abkhazia hosted the Domino World Championship.
‘Domino Effect,’ a documentary feature by Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski, is a captivating piece which closely follows the life of a couple – Natasha and Rafael, in the post-war Abkhazia. The documentary introduces them to the viewer through situations that reveal their passions and beliefs.
The opening scene shows Natasha rehearsing her voice. Natasha, a former opera singer from Russia, can only imagine herself in the confines of her home, in front of an audience of one: her husband Rafael, who paradoxically is the Minister of Culture and Sports. A developing country like Abkhazia does not present opportunities for her professional growth, or even personal, for that matter. She can’t work or make herself useful in these times of collective depression. This estranges her from Abkhaz society.
Coming empty-handed to a baptism ceremony, Natasha is denied participation in the family ritual, resulting in another moment of alienation for her. This triggers in her feelings of rejection which she has been experiencing since she came to Abkhazia. The baptism incident also puts into motion the dominoes, whose effects are seen taking place when Natasha decides to leave the country, and Rafael.
Although the war has ended twenty-years ago, in Abkhazia’s capital of Sukhumi, it seems it never left them. The directors make sure to take long shots of the city, most of the time of vacant spaces with no human soul to testify of its existence; just buildings communicating the turmoil of the time past and little future ahead of them. These images of the city distort the sense of time, as one does not get the feeling that war took place two decades ago.
Sukhumi has a song about itself, which is performed by a folk singer and appears in the beginning of the documentary. In it, Sukhumi is portrayed as a woman who everyone loves and longs for. For the viewers who do not have a good grasp of geography, they can be led into thinking that the song is about a woman. The directors’ choice of including this song early on in the documentary apparently is a way of demonstrating how nationalism, which supposedly endows the country with an understanding of itself, actually operates on a level of kitsch.
As the city prepares for the Domino World Championship, the imagery that glorified the war disappears, billboards with soldiers are covered with images of the professional women of the future. The future, which as noted before, Natasha does not enjoy in Abkhazia.
Instances of this type of nationalism we see more explicitly during the championship. For example, the tour guide for the international domino players describes Abkhazia as a place perpetually conquered by different empires, overshadowing the fact that as a nation was unable to confront any imperial power. Instead, the guide highlights the fact that Abkhazia was a very attractive place for the conquerors.
It is not by accident that we get to have all these cultural references that are all invested in manufacturing a national identity. And it’s no accident that all these references point at one of the main protagonists, Rafael, a Minister of Culture and Sports, and a man who went to war in 1993. A man of culture and war.
The documentary never tells us that Abkhazians went in war against Georgia, backed by Russia, which ethnically cleansed the country; nor does it tell us that Abkhazia then declared itself independent and is facing economic collapse because of certain political restrictions led by Georgia.
The documentary does not speak directly of Abkhazia’s war or their heightened nationalism. There are many instances where the viewer has the chance to observe the problems, for instance, creating its self-image and the narratives through which it wants to represent itself.
This, however, should not be seen as a weakness, but as way for the directors to avoid seduction by historical narratives, but nonetheless disclosing them while looking at the subject and documenting how they work their way around these grand narratives.