My Happy Family

The second feature from directors Nana Ekvitimishvili and Simon Groβ (self titled duo ‘Nana & Simon’), My Happy Family (2017), follows matriarch Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), who decides to leave her family home, much to the outrage of the multigenerational occupants who live by her cooking, cleaning and care. My Happy Family tracks her attempt at finding freedom from the suffocating closeness of convention.

I have recently learned that this feature (alongside others including Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007] and more recently Child’s Pose [Călin Peter Netzer, 2013]), is considered part of the post-communist Romanian Cinema wave. Watch these ears prick! A niche characterized by this…

“Set of factors: the determined unpicking of recent Romanian history and the Communist ideology whose legacy still continues to frame discourse; an unabashed irony and black humour; and the lo-fi visual aesthetic that was most often the direct result of a total lack of state funding.”

As a part of this movement, the political implications of citizens’ stories are not displayed with prominence, but are instead subtly interwoven into the domestic and (exotic to these Melbournian eyes) banal motions. Nana & Simon’s developing style is characterized by lingering takes and moments of quiet solitude for characters, allowing emotions to fully play out on actor’s faces. It was established in their first feature, In Bloom (2013), which explored similar themes of gender and generation in 1992, post-Soviet Union Georgia — particularly the simultaneously oppressed and structural role women play in Georgian society. My Happy Family is similarly nostalgic — Tbilisi seems to steeped in tea itself, houses are lived-in, occupied fully, until the cracks form, and these are left run rampant, yet poverty or malaise do not overrun tradition, food, music. The film’s context is real enough- and already suffused with tradition (even, it seems, into the structural bones of the cracking apartments families pack into), so that Nana & Simons moments of creative, decisive clarity ring out without interrupting the realism of the narrative and world.

The lack of additional soundtrack in My Happy Family makes the passing moments of music impactful — Manana’s resistance against performing at her school reunion makes her song all the more enrapturing, the men’s multifarious harmonies in traditional songs lend a depth and intensity to the dinner scenes that seem so often to sent Manana running the other direction. The houses are labyrinthine and the women resistant, strong, the men (though hard fought) are actively contracted to be water brushed off the backs of women who have been told (and still are told) that family and marriage and submissions are their sole passage of self-worth and means. Some reviewers have criticized the film’s “slice-of-life” pace, particularly at the film’s conclusion, which cuts us away from moments of climactic tension, excluding us from, what will be, perhaps, the result of Manana’s long battle for freedom. However, the cutting of us as viewers from these moments shows with a deliberate awareness, Nana & Simon’s foci for the film — not the bubbling points of familial tension and personal wrongdoing, but in Manana’s slow, second-stage metamorphoses into her own self, who can sing you to tears on a Russian guitar and eats halva for dinner whenever she damn pleases. Shugliashvili’s portrayal of Manana is deft enough that she doesn’t need to battle her Husband for our voyeuristic satisfaction, but easily sways us to emotional vulnerability with her skillful performance. I would readily argue against this film being ‘quiet’ — in fact, it is steeped in Manana’s depression, and a broiling need to release, to scream, to flail for room. Only Manana is to strategic and wise of a protagonist for that to occur.

Again, the duo’s feature seems to adeptly use family as a lens to explore the social niche, the mihrab of post-independence Georgia. The film is slow to unspool from the distaff, but it remains clear Manana’s turmoil is that of many women the world over, and her stalwart persistence in chasing freedom.

DOUBLE FEATURE… Watch with In Bloom to get a sense of Nana & Simon’s themes. Would parallel well with Mustang (Deniz Gamze Erg üven, 2015) or perhaps, to venture to the land of extremes within the same thematic terrain, Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

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