Corn Island (Georgian: სიმინდის კუნძული, Simindis Kundzuli) is a 2014 Georgian film directed by George Ovashvili. It depicts a summer in the lives of two Abkhazian peasants who grow corn on a small seasonally-formed island in the middle of the river that separates Georgia and Abkhazia. It was the Georgian submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2015 Academy Awards.
Here’s a task: before reading any further, watch the trailer and then try to give a basic description of how you think the plot of the movie will go. I’m serious. Do it.
Now, if you’re like me, you thought along the following lines: We see two people, probably a grandfather and granddaughter, engaging in some small-scale peasant agriculture. We see armed patrol boats, we see soldiers cat-calling the granddaughter, we see the old man firing his gun into the air, and we see the granddaughter hiding as soldiers come ashore. The tagline is “The river brings life. The land brings struggle.” So perhaps, you might think, this is going to be a movie about life during wartime, and the plot will have to do with how the war impedes our protagonists’ simple desire to farm.
That’s what I got from the trailer, at least. However, the text at the opening of the film gives a different impression:
With the annual spring torrent, the Enguri River washes rocks and soil down from the Caucasus to the Black Sea, creating tiny islands in its wake. These islands are a blessing to the local peasants who leave the sodden riverbanks for the firm, fertile island soil. Between spring and fall they can grow enough corn to feed their families during the long, cold winter. But only if nature is willing…
That foreboding last line makes it sound as if Corn Island is a man-versus-nature kind of movie, presumably with the river as the central antagonist.
So which is it? Is it life-during-wartime or man-versus-nature? In fact the plot of the movie is something of a bait-and-switch. It’s difficult to discuss this without going into spoilers, so the next section will contain spoilers.
After the old man and the girl finish setting up their little farm on the island, patrol boats start passing by, some Georgian, some Abkhazian. Gunshots and explosions are frequently heard in the distance. One day the girl finds a Georgian soldier lying wounded among the cornstalks. The old man decides to nurse him back to health. When Abkhazian soldiers visit the island asking about a “lost dog”, the Georgian has to hide.
Sounds a lot like Tangerines, right? Simple farmers with no concerns besides their crops get squeezed between two warring sides. But whereas the Tangerines soldier storyline ended with (double spoiler alert) a climactic shoot-out, the Corn Island soldier storyline ends with…nothing. The Georgian leaves after the old man shames him for flirting with the girl, and that’s about the last we hear of it.
Then we switch to nature as the antagonist when a storm rolls in and flash-floods the island. We see the old man and the girl frantically trying to harvest what corn they can as the water lever slowly rises, consuming the whole farm. The grandfather trips and falls while trying to get into their boat to escape, and he drowns. That’s the end of the story.
END OF SPOILERS
In general, non-spoiler-y terms, the bulk of the story concerns the relationship between the farmers and the soldiers, but the ending of the story has to do with the farmers dealing with nature. This is not good storytelling. We can clarify the question from earlier: is this a life-during-wartime movie with a man-versus-nature ending hastily tacked on, or is it a man-versus-nature movie with some irrelevant life-during-wartime vignettes thrown in for variety?
Based on how I interpreted the trailer, of course, I take the film as the former. Maybe that’s just me, though, since another reviewer took it the other way:
The context of this film is ambiguous to western audiences. Throughout, the military presence of soldiers in the river gives interjections of Georgian politics which make Corn Island lose some of the universal appeal which the classic ‘man/ nature’ element gives it. However, the political situation is used solely as a backdrop and is never explored.
The director seems somewhat unsure himself as to what kind of movie Corn Island is:
But you know, in “Corn Island,” this conflict is like a generalized one between on one side, the old man, who struggles for his being, to get his bread from nature, and on the other side are the people who are shooting and killing each other over a piece of land. I just wanted to compare these two ideas and raise the question: Why are we in this life? What is more important for us?
My idea was to focus just on my characters and their inner world. It was not my idea to tell a story about the war. War is really a background, just one of the elements which comes into their world and tries to break this relationship between nature and a human. It’s not the main element.
Perhaps this lack of narrative focus has to do with the untimely death of one of the screenwriters:
[GO:] The idea for the film came to us a long time ago, when I collaborated with [Georgian writer] Nugzar [Shataidze] on a previous film. He had the theme sketched out somewhat. The story unfolds on the Enguri River. There has been a spring flood, and the farmers are looking for good, fertile soil brought by the river so they can develop their corn fields. This was the original idea. And then we decided to develop it further, turning it into a film script. Unfortunately, Nugzar Shataidze passed away before the script was written and we had to finish it up ourselves.
So the story left me unsatisfied. In other respects the movie is great. Visually it’s lovely, especially considering the technical difficulties involved. The filmmakers weren’t able to find an actual river island to use, so they had to construct one in a Georgian reservoir. They also didn’t film over the course of an actual season, so they to plant and re-plant the all the corn at various stages in its growth. In spite of these problems, not a single seam shows. (For more technical details, see the making-of video.)
Corn Island is one of those movies with almost no dialogue, so most of the characterization has to be done through pure acting. Fortunately, the actors are up to the task. The girl is played by a first-time actress named Mariam Buturishvili and the old man is played by Turkish actor Ilyas Salman. Note that although most of the sparse dialogue is in Abkhaz, neither of these actors is Abkhazian (nor is the leader of the Abkhazian soldiers, who is also played by a Turk). At least some of the Abkhaz speech is dubbed.
No fewer than three reviews I’ve read describe Corn Island as austere. Other words I’ve seen used to describe it include simple, modest, unshowy, stern, minimalistic, slow-paced, slow-burning, meticulous, procedural, and even lethargic. Are these euphemisms for “boring”? It’s certainly true that the movie is slow. Well over half the movie is devoted solely to the nuts and bolts of farming. We see them till the earth, plants the seeds, and water the plants. We see them sawing lumber, setting up posts, nailing boards, and thatching a roof. We see them catch, gut, and cook fish. We see trips in an extremely slow row boat back and forth between the island and the mainland for supplies. We even see them set up a little brush levee around the perimeter of the island. All of this is shown in documentary-level detail.
Does that sounds boring to you? If so, you definitely should not watch this movie. I found it interesting enough, but because of the problems with the story, there wasn’t enough of a payoff for me. So much time was spent on the corn that I found myself becoming concerned over the fate of the crop. I was worried that someone would steal it, or the soldiers would burn everything, or something like that. But in the end, nothing happened, and my emotional investment in the corn was squandered.
Oh, and by the way, when does this movie take place? A lot of reviewers suppose that it takes place during the Georgia-Abkhazia War in the early 90s. But the uniforms of the Georgian soldiers clearly feature the modern Georgian flag with the red crosses on the white background. That flag was used at that time, but I don’t think it would have been on army uniforms, since it wasn’t officially adopted until 2004.