Considered in pieces, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear is poignant and often hard to watch. Tinatin Gurchiani's documentary takes an episodic look at contemporary youth in her home country of Georgia, weaving together a series of vignettes featuring young people Gurchiani found by putting out a casting call for anyone ages 15-25 who thought their lives were suited for film.
Her curation of the responses is telling: The children and young adults we meet have diverse stories to tell, but share achingly similar circumstances. Machine paints a bleak picture, all gray skies, muddy roads and dour faces, and while what we see of Georgia leaves little doubt that life can be hard in that Eurasian country, the all-encompassing gloom of the film can seem overdone. Surely the sun comes out in Georgia from time to time, right?
Still, there's no denying the power of many of the stories that Gurchiani captures. Particularly worth noting is one segment focused on a teenage girl searching for the mother who abandoned her years earlier; their cathartic reunion is so wrenching and so personal that it seems uncomfortably voyeuristic to watch.
Other moments in the film leave you similarly discomfited, though not always for the right reasons. As one story rolls into another, the links between them remain hard to pinpoint, which again and again raises the question of why Gurchiani wants to share these tales of personal woe. One young man delivers letters to family and friends from his jailed brother, all the while pleading with them to visit his sibling more often, and it offers a look at a particularly painful moment in the lives of this group of people. But beyond the seeming injustice of the brother's sentence — which is mentioned only in passing — it's hard to ascertain what the scene tells us about Georgian society at large.
And that's the largest problem with Machine: No doubt it's affecting, but Gurchiani hasn't effectively connected the pieces to shape a larger story about Georgian youth. Most lacking, particularly for an international audience, is any contextualizing account of the country's difficult history, which has included a civil war and increasingly hostile relations with Russia in the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Machine is still a distressing film, even without that context, but only in a general way, whereas it's clear that the pain and desperation felt by many in the doc are not mere products of the human condition but consequences of a specifically Georgian situation.
The Abkhazian War, for example, figures in more than one story, but unless you go searching you'd never know that it pitted a Northern separatist movement against Georgian government forces — and that tens of thousands are thought to have been killed in the yearlong conflict.
If it's meant as simply a look at disparate lives that have gotten stuck before having the chance to take off, Machine is an evocative success. Bright spots include the fascinating story of a 25-year-old serving as governor of a town whose 150 residents have an average age of 70. And there are powerful visuals in the form of Gurchiani's portraits of world-weary Georgians.
But if it aims to be an inside story of life in Georgia, a kind of people's history of Georgian youth, this documentary sometimes feels like scattershot vox-pop journalism. Its individual threads resonate strongly, but the larger pattern never comes together; the social tapestry meant to be on display seems, to the end, to have holes in it.