Georgia through a Norwegian lens

Cultural crossroads along the Silk Road

Photo: Colourbox
The ancient city of Tbilisi, Georgia, is located on the crossroads between Europe and Asia. With its proximity to the lucrative Silk Road, cultures have intersected and interacted in Tbilisi throughout history.

Lori Ann Reinhall
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

“Whoever drinks the water of the Mtkvari once
will always dream of returning to the Caucasus.”

— Knut Hamsun, In Wonderland

In 2017, I traveled to Bergen, Norway, as part of a trip to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association. As part of a delegation from Seattle, I got to visit major sights in the city and take part in official receptions, followed by a trip up the Norwegian coast with the Hurtigruten Coastal Express. It was a journey of diplomacy and discovery. After saying goodbye to our group, I returned to Bergen to explore new opportunities for future exchange.

Timing can be everything, and during my last few days there, the Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF) opened, a unique opportunity to see films not available for viewing outside of Scandinavia. On my last day in Bergen, some friends invited me to a screening of The Return with filmmaker Inrgid Berven. Her documentary film depicts an encounter between the cultures of Bergen and Tbilisi, the capital of the country of Georgia.

Not knowing what to expect, The Return became a revelation to me, as we followed Berven on her adventure in the Georgian city. She first traveled there in 2005 to visit friends in the Norwegian foreign service who were stationed there as part of the rebuilding effort, as Georgia sought to transition into a market-driven capitalistic society.

In Georgia, Berven was surprised to discover a rich cultural landscape that has parallels with her world in Norway. Most notably, she followed in the footsteps of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, who wrote his novel In Wonderland (I Eventyrland, 1903) after his travels there a few years earlier.

Berven learned that although 70 years of Soviet rule had devastated much of the infrastructure of the country, its cultural life and soul had remained intact.

Through her interactions with a prominent family of educators, physicians, scientists, and artists, she began to see many parallels with her own life back in Bergen. Observing the lives of her new Georgian friends, the artist started to reassess her own Norwegian experience: how the generations interact, and how the legacy of the past will be passed on to shape the future. Berven decided to make her first documentary film.

The Return is an artistic juxtaposition of scenes from the cities of Tbilisi and Bergen. Both were part of major trade routes, Bergen a Hanseatic center on the North Atlantic, and Tbilisi located directly on the Silk Road on the Mtkvari River. Both cities are to this day major cultural centers, and both are surrounded by majestically high mountains.

In The Return, we learn—somewhat surprisingly—that the influence of Norwegian culture in Georgia was significant. Hamsun not only visited the area, but his works were read there before being banned, and the music of Edvard Grieg has remained in the classical repertoire to this day.

Dagny Juel, a writer and cult figure of the fin-de-siècle bohème, who modeled for Edvard Munch’s famous “Madonna” painting, was shot and killed in Tbilisi in a mysterious episode, and even today, Norwegian tourists make pilgrimages to her grave there.

More specifically, in The Return, Berven tells the story of three generations of Tbilisi’s Gedevanishvili family. At the head is Manana, the matriarch, her daughter, Ketevan “Keti” Kobula, the breadwinner, and Keti’s twin daughters who must travel abroad to improve their futures. While the next generation’s happiness and success is paramount, requiring huge sacrifices perhaps unthinkable in today’s Norway, the older generation carries an overwhelming desire for their loved ones to return home.

In his novel In Wonderland, Hamsun wrote that, “Whoever drinks the water of the Mtkvari once will always dream of returning to the Caucasus.” Berven, like Hamsun, became enchanted, and spent over a decade creating this film.

At the end of his journey through Georgia, Knut Hamsun observed, “We usually leave home to come back famous and better, but we find ourselves in worse conditions than those who never left.” Without a doubt, travel can invoke an overwhelming sense of longing back to the places we have visited. Yet, in a positive light, the outer and inner journey of travel broadens our perspective and ultimately enriches our world view, which is the magical experience of The Return.

I didn’t want the Norwegian-Georgian-American cultural intersection and exchange to end at BIFF. After seeing The Return in Bergen, I, too, fell under the spell. I wondered how I could have known so little about the country of Georgia, and of course, I wanted to learn more. I dreamt of traveling to Georgia to experience it for myself,

Subsequently, I worked to bring Berven’s film to Seattle, so that the people here could experience it, too. This led to a new involvement in the Seattle cinema community with the successful U.S. premiere of The Return. Through the Seattle-Bergen Sister Association and grant money from the City of Seattle, with cosponsorship from the National Nordic Museum and the Seattle International Film Festival, I was able to bring The Return to the Nordic Lights Film Festival in Seattle in January 2018.

I have still not made it to Georgia, but over time, my interest has only increased, and I have made new connections there. A valuable resource has been my friend and colleague from Baden-Baden, Germany, Rainer Ruge, who is an expert in the Caucasus region. He has been able to advise me and assist in the preparation of this issue in an invaluable way, along with his many friends and contacts in Tbilisi.

While The Return is no longer being shown in cinemas or on television, I believe reading and thinking about this documentary offers many insights on both Georgia and Norway—and it may get you thinking about your own home and heritage in a new way. This is what cross-cultural intersections and interactions are all about, as we discover new worlds and revisit the ones we know with a refreshed perspective.

Also see Cross-cultural insight in The Return, Tbilisi’s Norwegian greats and Dagny Juel, Norway’s “Madonna” in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.