“DEDE”— Patriarchy and Ancient Customs


Patriarchy and Ancient Customs

Amos Lassen

In “Dede”, director Mariam Khatchvani showcases the pristine expanse and capture the otherworldly traditions. “Dede” is the fascinating tale of patriarchy and ancient customs in a rural Georgian village in the heart of the Caucus Mountains. Georgia’s Svaneti region dates back to the Ancient Greeks and was once under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. The village has been through more than a millennium and many archaic ceremonies haven’t changed.

Arrangedmarriages are commonplace in the village. Women in the Svaneti region to this day are unable to inherit land from men. There are many unique rituals seen here including sacrificing goats, a ceremonial dagger for saving a life in battle and wrapping a sleeping child’s wrist with a bracelet containing the evil eye to protect from evil spirits.

The Caucus Mountains provide a visual feast. Mariam Khatchvani is a first time director and a native of the region who knows how to showcase the pristine expanse and capture the otherworldly traditions. There are quiet shots of a lavender field, snow-covered cows and a mountain’s face. We see men who ruin women’s lives and this has to change.

This is the story of a young woman who rebels against centuries of entrenched tradition. Tradition and superstition are everywhere in this remote male-dominated community and this is a fresh look  at this. Khatchvani shot this film in her mountainous home region of Ushguli with a largely non-professional cast and uses her own family history to chronicle the fate of a young woman fighting for limited freedoms against an oppressive culture of bride kidnapping, arranged marriages and deadly family feuds.

Gegi (George Babluani) and David (Nukri Khatchvani) are brothers in arms who return home to the Svaneti. Gegi saved David’s life on the battlefield, and is thus invited to be guest of honor at David’s imminent wedding to his fiancée Dina (Natia Vibliani). But by fateful coincidence, Dina and Gegi have also fallen in love during a wartime encounter without even knowing each other’s names. Dina tries to break off her arranged marriage to David, but this threatens to overturn entrenched patriarchal power and shame for both families. “A woman has no say,” an incensed David tells her.

While David owes Gegi his life, he does not owe him his wife. Even so, the public humiliation drives him to commit suicide on a hunting trip. Initially suspected of murder, Gegi is cleared of guilt during a strange religious ceremony hosted the village elders. He is finally free to marry Dina, despite the deep rift this causes with her family members.

Five years later, the couple have a happy union and a young son Mose (Mose Khatchvani), but bad blood remains from Dina’s decision to marry for love. When Gegi dies in an offscreen tragedy, it as if the gods are punishing her for her attempts at autonomous agency. Then Dina’s longtime admirer Girshel (Girshel Chelidze) forcibly demands her hand in marriage and she turns full circle, from chattel to liberated woman and back again.

Even though Dede takes place just two decades ago, most of the story feels much older, not just in its archaic gender politics but also in its setting, traditional dress and antique superstitions. Horses still the main means of travel during long snowbound winters. We see a

harshly backward existence, but does not clearly provide the conflict between tradition and progress in binary terms. Director Khatchvani has mixed emotions about the homeland that she still describes as “paradise.”

She leaves some intriguing questions unresolved, notably the teasing possibility that Girshel was complicit in the offscreen deaths of both David and Gegi. The finale also can be seen as a surrender to patriarchal power, though the underlying message is strongly feminist even if Dina accepts compromise in the face of limited options.

There are many other strands to the story, which primarily deals with these old-fashioned, often cruel customs, but Khatchvani handles them as examples, instead of a united narrative. The film is completely dedicated to the gorgeous region of Svaneti, its gorgeous mountains and its traditions, with plenty of folk music and lullabies, superstitions, handicrafts and hunting.

The roughness and beauty of the setting and the rawness of the aesthetics and the directing approach make “Dede” a fascinating film— attractive and intriguing. The obsolete customs that still persist today, where everything is about family honor and where a woman has no say in anything, including her own children’s fate, can make us very angry, but Khatchvani’s perspective ensures that the audience sees both the best and the worst.