Ahead of our 2 October Q&A with director Eric Baudelaire and screening of Letters to Max, Maya Caspari caught up with the director to hear how the history of Abkhazia, his interest in liminal spaces and a friendship with the eponymous Max led him to create the film.
What first prompted you to contact Abkhazia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxim Gvinjia (the eponymous Max)?
I’ve known Max since August 2000, the first time I visited Abkhazia. I was a photographer at the time and Max was a junior staffer at the Abkhaz Foreign Ministry. We became friends immediately. He came to visit me in New York, where I lived at the time, and I returned to Abkhazia several times over the years.
Max was eventually promoted and became Foreign Minister of his unrecognised state in 2010. I wrote him my first letter just after he lost that job in 2012. I wrote him a letter as a way to reconnect, to play a game with an old friend. I didn’t really expect the first letter to arrive. France doesn’t recognise Abkhazia, so I expected the French post services would simply send it back to me with a stamp on it saying: “Country Unknown”. But strangely, the letter did arrive.
How did the film evolve? Were you surprised by anything that happened during the process?
I was certainly surprised that most of my letters arrived to Abkhazia. How is that possible? A bug in the system of state recognition? A handful of overzealous postal employees? When Max received the letters, he began recording answers for me on a voice recorder, because the postal system doesn’t work the other way around, so he couldn’t reply in writing. Max has a beautiful voice, he is a diplomat and an original thinker, so he has a lot to say about Abkhazia and about our friendship. He made these recordings, and a year later, I returned to Abkhazia with a camera, listened to the recordings, and shot some images. This is how the film came about.
The film achieves an interesting blend of the personal and political: though it is structured around your relationship with Max, it also explores broader questions of national identity and European history. What was behind your choice to structure the film around a personal dialogue?
My relationship with Max and with Abkhazia is inextricably personal and political, so the film reflects this experience in relation to a place and to a character. It is also a reflection on the very personal nature of civil wars where the political is painfully personal. I like to expose, on the surface of the films I make, the particular nature of the complex relationship I have with the subjects of the films and the nature of the transaction that the film is built upon. Documentaries are built through transactions between a subject and an author. Something is exchanged. The nature of this transaction is not always explicit, so I try to bring it to the surface in the very structure of the film. My correspondence with Max was a way to do this.
What interested you about Abkhazia in particular?
The liminal nature of Abkhazia is quite interesting: Abkhazia exists as a place, physically, but not legally. It floats in a grey zone, between borders and our political system does not like grey zones, it doesn’t deal very well with places that don’t have a clear status. Mostly, we pretend that Abkhazia is not there. It doesn’t appear on maps, it doesn’t have a seat at the UN. And yet it will probably not disappear away anytime soon. This makes it worth thinking about. There is also a more self-reflexive dimension: talking about the exception to the rule is also a way to focus our attention on the rule itself. So thinking about Abkhazia is a way to rethink our own conceptions of statehood, a way to re-examine our own nations as collective fictions.
Max comments that "you can travel in time by writing a letter to yourself." How do you see the film in relation to this concept?
Because Abkhazia is the quintessential "non-place”, it is tempting to think of the film as a film about place, about space. But in answering one of my letters, Max introduced the idea that a letter can function as a time-machine: by writing a letter to yourself in the future, you can travel trough time, in the sense that you can modify your own behaviour in the future by writing a letter to your future self. In some ways, time seems to have frozen in Abkhazia. I became interested in thinking about Letters to Max as a film about time, a film about promises for the future, and whether these promises hold up or disappoint. ■