A white man rides a white horse against a backdrop of forest

Student Films Documentary in Georgian Caucuses Mountains

  • Apr 14, 2023

Robert Hope, graduate student in the Radio-Television-Film program at The University of Texas at Austin, is shooting a documentary in Tusheti, ancestral homeland of the Tush people in the Caucuses Mountains in the Republic of Georgia.  

Titled “Tushurai,” the documentary focuses on the community’s ancient relationship with the surrounding mountain range and Irakli, an 82-year-old man who serves as the community’s only licensed doctor in the 386-square-mile region that grazes the Russian border. 

The crew captured footage in 2022 of families and shepherds leaving before the only road to the region, the Abano Pass, becomes inaccessible due to harsh winter conditions. They also followed Irakli as he made house calls on horseback to the dwindling population of his fellow Tushetians who elected to remain in the highlands.  

“During our first trip to Tusheti and time spent with Irakli, we found in him a deeply generous person who possessed vigor, a child-like mischievousness and ease,” Hope said in his director’s statement for the film. “Not only does he provide life-preserving medical care in a place where there is no other way to access it, but he also brings joy and laughter to the hearts of those he serves.” 

Every house call Irakli makes is an effort to preserve his culture’s way of life and to ensure that community members can remain in their homes through the winter — a right they lost in the 1950s when the Soviets forced their entire population down to the lowlands, banning their reentry.  

In the 1990s, when families were allowed to re-inhabit the highlands, few chose to return year-round. By providing a lifeline to this region, Irakli strives to preserve not only access to the land, but also the culture and memory embedded within it. However, he does not know how long he can continue this dangerous work, nor who will want to replace him. This month, the film crew returns to Georgia to document further developments among the community members who decided to brave the winter. 

During the production process, Hope’s work on the documentary has won grants from the Austin Film Society and Center for Eastern European Studies at UT Austin. The MFA candidate in film production also recently produced a queer sci-fi film set in the Californian redwoods, which premiered at HBO’s Outfest and on the sci-fi channel Dust. His short doc about an ex-commune in Los Angeles played at multiple Oscar-qualifying festivals, and a documentary on dementia during COVID-19 played at festivals nationwide. 

View the trailer for "Tushurai" here