Georgia welcomes 'President Garcia'

Shooting starts in Tbilisi for Hollywood take on last year's war with Russia
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The Independent Culture

Andy Garcia is playing a very different type of leading man this week. The Hollywood star, best known for his very American roles in The Untouchables and Ocean's 11, has taken on the part of Georgia's flamboyant leader Mikheil Saakashvili in a big-budget film about last year's Russian-Georgian war.

Filming in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, began in earnest this week with a crowd of thousands of volunteer extras, who had gathered to stage a huge mock rally. Garcia was in full Saakashvili mode, intoning lines that would seem boilerplate were it not for the fact that they are more-or-less direct cribs from Saakashvili's actual speeches.

"Tonight, do not be deceived, we are not alone," Garcia told his pseudo-supporters, who were re-creating a demonstration that took place outside the country's parliament on 12 August last year.

But whereas on that occasion there were Russian tanks moving towards the city, this time there was a party atmosphere. The crowd, mainly made up of families and young people, dutifully cheered on cue, and looked on with amazement at the way the centre of their city had been turned into a massive movie set. With a budget of some $32m (£19m), this is the biggest film ever produced in Georgia, and many had come just to watch the spectacle.

Provisionally entitled simply Georgia, the film is being made by Renny Harlin, director of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, as well as mega-flop Cutthroat Island. It follows a journalist and cameraman as they struggle to remain impartial in the heat of battle.

The film-makers have stressed that this movie will have a strongly anti-war message, but there are fears that it could be a vehicle for the Georgian government's version of events. This view is reinforced by the fact that the government has put public buildings and military units at the disposal of the film-makers, and that one of the co-producers, Papuna Davitaia, is an MP from the president's party. Nor will the film be the first to address the subject: a strongly pro-Moscow take on the war, Olympus Inferno, ran on Russian state television earlier this year.

That film placed the blame for the conflict squarely on Georgian shoulders, and many still hold Mr Saakashvili responsible today. The war began when Georgia attacked the separatist region of South Ossetia, claiming that Russian troops had crossed the border. A recent fact-finding report commissioned by the EU found that both Russia and Georgia were responsible for the war, which claimed hundreds of lives.

Salome Zourabichvili, a former foreign minister turned opposition leader, is one of those who holds Mr Saakashvili responsible. She posted on social networking site Facebook that by agreeing to the film he had followed a "real war" with a "bad taste replay", and suggested it was just too soon to recreate the events of the war for the big screen.

For most Georgians though, the movie has brought a sprinkle of show-business glamour to the post-war situation. Posting on one of the many internet discussions on the movie, "Tamuna K" had nothing but praise for the film, and a wistful request: "I have a proposal," she said. "Let Garcia stay here and be president, Saakashvili can fly to Hollywood."

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