“The initial vision for the film was to tackle the stigma”: Interview with Mariam Chachia and Nik Voight

English Daily #3
Magic Mountain, directed by Mariam Chachia and Nik Voight is a remarkable blend of poetic and political cinema. The film tells a deeply personal story intertwined with the traumatic experience of one of the directors. In the past, Mariam Chachia had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, facing the possibility of being transferred to Abastumani, an isolated hospital nestled within the remote mountains of Georgia. Fortunately, Mariam's health improved without the need for relocation, but the haunting presence of the hospital persisted in her nightmares. Years later, she found the strength to confront her fears. Joined by co-director Nik Voight, she headed to Abastumani.

"When I shared with Nik the impact tuberculosis had on my life and how I had to conceal my disease due to its taboo nature in Georgia," Chachia reveals, "he was shocked. We both realized that we need to transform this experience into a film and, perhaps, inspire others to share their own stories. The initial vision for the film was to tackle the stigma surrounding tuberculosis and shatter the culture of secrecy around it."

From its very first appearance on screen, Abastumani evokes a haunting sensation of a ghostly place or a purgatory for those secluded from society. Simultaneously, the overall ambiance of the hospital, with its Russian-speaking doctors, creaking floors and doors, carries a sense of familiarity that resonates deeply within the collective consciousness in post-soviet countries.

"This is the first time the film is being shown in the region," Chachia mentions. "While European viewers may not grasp it, I think Armenian audiences will recognize the presence of a prison-like hierarchy within such an institution, where a significant portion of the patients are former convicts and hold control over the dynamics within." Despite all these challenges, the directors successfully gain people’s trust, enabling them to authentically depict their lives within the confines of the hospital walls.

"It can be very difficult when making an observational documentary because you are asking your protagonists to expose themselves, to be naked, not physically, but in another sense," Voight explains. "I suppose the best approach is to place yourself in front of the cameras as well, revealing your own vulnerabilities. That's what Mariam has done."

The plot takes an unexpected twist. Suddenly, the attempt at self-therapy evolves into a film that explores collective memory, ultimately encompassing highly political undertones: the personal is indeed political. "This project has taken a long time to make, spanning five years of filming and four years of editing," Voight elaborates. "Throughout this period, everything changed: the story, the environment, the people involved. Over time, new narratives unfolded before us. The building itself came to symbolize the history of Georgia over the past century: established by the Romanovs, molded by the Soviet Union, and eventually appropriated by the oligarchs."

Every new authority puts so much effort to claim ownership of the place, persistently eradicating its past memory and destroying its historical heritage. It is as if Abastumani’s magical allure blinds the ones holding power. “When we began filming, nobody could have imagined what was going to happen to the hospital in the end,” the directors expressed with a sense of sorrow. “There were some rumors that it has been sold and will be turned into a hotel. But what they did to that beautiful monument was a big shock for everyone.”