How to solve a problem like Abkhazia? Or rather, how to send a letter from Paris to a country that has not yet been acknowledged by the French state? Documentary filmmaker Eric Baudelaire again chooses the epistolary form in Letters to Max (2014) after employing a series of email exchanges to structure his first film The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenbou, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images which dealt with the titular characters’ exile in Lebanon.
His new film is in equal parts an intriguing travelogue of a little known corner of the world, a meditation on the birth of a new nation from the (literal) ashes of the old, and the correspondence of two pen pals whose musings on the past, present and future centre the film. The adoption of snail mail could be considered a little contrived, antiquated and certainly overly complicated given the difficulties of addressing a letter to Abkhazia. However, Baudelaire’s decision is as much a part of his intended social and geopolitical message as it is a personal means of contacting a man vital to the development of a nation that splintered from Georgia in the wake of the vicious 1992 conflict.
Former Foreign Minister Maxim Gvinjia receives 74 letters written in 74 days by Baudelaire. Never received on time or in the right order, the majority are in the form of philosophical questions, constituting a long distance and convoluted interview which over the course of the film will tessellate, highlighting the Soviet history of Abkhazia, its separation from Georgia and the role it now plays in the ever-shifting puzzle of nations at risk of being subsumed by mother Russia – one of a handful of countries to have registered Abkhazia’s legitimacy. The film’s structure is at first shrouded in as much mystery as its subject but the disassociation of sound, image, place and time all come together as the misshapen patchwork gradually morphs into a coherent whole. Although his queries may nudge the narrative down certain avenues – the director’s letters appear in text on the screen – Baudelaire leaves the storytelling to Max, an insider better able to speak of a nation whose cries for validation have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Max’s responses – which were recorded on tape – are dubbed over footage that was captured by Baudelaire long after the letters were received. From its gloomy opening shots of a potholed road and tank half consumed by foliage, Letters to Max is filled with images of desolated buildings and monuments still in ruins after war and years of neglect. However, the overwhelming optimism of its narrator shines a far more positive light on this dilapidation and strife, instead seeing potential for recycling, rebirth and regeneration of a country and people who may not be sure where they are going but certainly know where they have come from. The deliberate pacing and excessive 100 minute running time does unfortunately make the last act rather heavy going but this is one of few negatives. Like a cake made in completely the wrong order, Letters to Max really shouldn’t work, but Baudelaire has gilded a perfectly tuned and well-structured visual essay on an interesting and worthwhile topic.