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ARRAS 2019

Uta Beria • Director of Negative Numbers

"These young people are both guilty and oppressed"

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- Georgian filmmaker Uta Beria talks to us about his first feature film Negative Numbers, screened in competition at the 20th Arras Film Festival

Uta Beria  • Director of Negative Numbers

Prison, young people, organised crime and rugby are all at the heart of Negative Numbers [+see also:
film review
interview: Uta Beria
film profile
]
, the first feature film by Georgia’s Uta Beria. Produced by his fellow Georgians at Magnet Film and Alief, alongside Italian group 39 Films and French firm Wide, the film was unveiled in a world premiere, in competition, at the 20th Arras Film Festival. It was here that we met with the director, whose latest project Love in the time of riot won itself the main development support grant at the close of the Arras Days pitches (read our news).

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Cineuropa: Why did you decide to hone in on the criminal culture of "vori v zakone" (thieves in law) in your first feature film, Negative Numbers?
Uta Beria: Because it’s a problem in my country. This culture isn’t limited to prisons, it also exists on the outside, and young people get mixed up in crime because of it. On the surface, it looks like a Mafia group, but that’s not really what it is. The hotbed for this particular mindset is the prison setting. It’s a phenomenon that was born in Soviet gulags in an attempt to control them. It then spread into the streets and became a way of life. We have to combat this culture, and the best way to show how it works is to look inside the prison setting. Negative Numbers is based on real events which actually took place, where rugby sessions were introduced at a juvenile detention centre. One of my friends taught rugby there, and a conflict identical to the one portrayed in the film actually came about: on the rugby pitch, everyone was equal, but off the field, this wasn’t the case. There was the boss, his affiliates, and everyone else. This conflict between two worlds was a great source of inspiration for me, and that’s what led me to set about writing the script.

How much of the story is fictional and how much of it is documentarian in nature?
I worked on the script for almost five years. I had a lot of material, thanks to psychologists working in the youth detention centre, rugby players who had helped out in the prison and former inmates, not to mention the ideas I’d developed out of my own life experience. I absorbed all this material and started to write the script. All the characters in the film are based on real people, but I’ve chosen to bring them together in this one story. The time it took to finance the film allowed me to develop the script, re-working it at my own pace.

The notion of a group mentality is at the heart of the film; a group which can be as enslaving as it is liberating.
Finding freedom inside the prison and fighting for this freedom is the overriding theme in the film. These young people are both guilty and oppressed. The action oscillates between these two extremes from one scene to the next. Sometimes, they do bad things; at other times, they’re the ones who must suffer oppression: at the hands of society, the guards or their fellow inmates.

How did you decide to film the confined space within the prison?
My set designer is also a very well-known scenographer from the world of theatre and music concerts. I chose him in order to bring the whole space to life, not just what we see in a given shot. It gave us – the actors and I – a lot of freedom. We used the space as it would have been used in reality. The entire mise en scène was based upon this idea: where would we be if this were real life? The director of photography and I wanted to film everything with a maximum of sincerity, not using the young people in the film for something in particular but making them important in the eyes of the audience. In this spirit, we chose to shoot with our cameras on our shoulders because it’s friendlier and more expressive. We didn’t want to decide on a precise directorial style in advance, but rather to film with our hearts. It was this approach which allowed us to find our standpoint, and it also created the atmosphere within the film. I also think that sport is often misrepresented in film and that it’s not easy to portray, because it often ends up being too direct and lacking in depth. I resolved this issue by deciding to use the action of rugby in order to express the characters’ feelings.

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(Translated from French)

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