«Stories that should be told»

They were born within the same generation and came from the same city. They were virtually neighbours, sometimes colleagues and sometimes rivals, but above all: in the 1970s and 80s they were the queens of international women’s chess. The Georgian women Nona Gaprindashvili, Nana Alexandria, Maia Chiburdanidze and Nana Ioseliani were dominant at the very peak of female chess for almost 30 years and also challenged the elite male players. In Georgia they were national heroines, but in the West – outside specialist circles – they are almost completely unknown. Filmmaker Tatia Skhirtladze, whose home is Vienna, plans to change all this with Glory to the Queen.

Your documentary film Glory to the Queen focuses on legendary female chess players in Georgia. Could you give us a brief outline of this phenomenon and explain who the four protagonists are?

To be precise, Glory to the Queen is about four Soviet women chess players from Georgia, international stars who were the best women players in the world between 1962 and 1991 (the year the Soviet Union collapsed). They were on the team in two Chess Olympiads, in 1980 and 1982, and of course in the individual sports they played against each other as well. They didn’t just come from the same city; they were virtually neighbours. So women who lived in close proximity to one another were able to dominate the highest echelon of international women’s chess for almost 30 years. It was astonishing. Nona Gaprindashvili, Nana Alexandria, Maia Chiburdanidze and Nana Ioseliani made history in women’s chess. Among them Nona was the first and Maia the second women in the history of chess who were awarded the title Grandmaster – an honour that had previously only ever been given to men.

You yourself have Georgian roots. To what extent is chess anchored in the culture there? It almost appears to enjoy the status of a national sport. But is there also a long tradition behind this?

I would agree that it’s considered a national sport, especially for women, and that’s closely connected with our protagonists here. I grew up in Georgia, and I was 14 when the Soviet Union collapsed, so I experienced the end of the Cold War era a little myself. In my childhood Nona, the two Nanas and Maia were the most famous women who ever existed. To this day chess is immensely popular, because of them. They provided a very powerful impulse and transformed chess into a national sport. A lot of women play chess – and men too – although at the moment there is only one woman from Georgia, Nana Dzagnidze, who plays in the top league. The popularity of the sport is also connected with the history of the country: in the 16th and 17th century the Persian influence was very marked in Georgia. And it’s believed that chess arrived from Persia or India. That influence contributed to certain cultural characteristics.

It’s interesting that all over the world people are familiar with the name of their contemporary, Garry Kasparov, while these four Georgian women – who were extremely successful – are not known outside the world of chess, even though they also reached the highest levels of the male game. Another example of female sporting achievement being denied equal respect and media attention. Was this one of the main motives for your film project?

I’m very glad you asked that question. I’ve always had the feeling that these women haven’t been taken seriously in terms of their professionalism, perseverance and successes. I hope this film will contribute to ensuring they get the respect they deserve. Milunka, the person who narrates the story in my film, said at our first meeting: “We only knew your country because of Stalin and the head of his KGB, Beria. So you can imagine the picture we had of the place. Then suddenly Nona appeared, followed by Nana Alexandria, Maia and Nana Ioseliani. They opened our eyes to the fact that it wasn’t only psychotic men who stood out there.” I regard these four women as positive figures with successful stories that should be told. You can see in the film that their great era is over, and they aren’t international stars any longer. But they still enjoy their status and are in good shape.

You also interview a fifth person: Milunka. What is the relationship between her and the four protagonists?

: Milunka Lazarević, who died in 2018, was from Yugoslavia, and she was also a top woman chess player. She was older than my protagonists, and she played first against Nona, later also against Nana Alexandria. At the same time, she was the chess journalist during the Cold War era. In those days Yugoslavia was a non-aligned country where Western and Soviet chess players could meet; it was permitted to hold top-level tournaments there. Milunka was an intellectual: she described herself as the Scheherazade of chess history. She was wholly supportive of my project, and she opened many doors. She knew all the international chess stars of those times, Bobby Fischer, Michael Tal, Boris Spasski, Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, etc, and she was able to tell me about their romantic involvements as well as the political and psychological background to the international chess contests. But my film doesn’t go into that. After all, women chess players were almost always defined predominantly in comparison with men, so I thought it was important that these women should be presented as themselves, without constant references to the male chess stars everybody knows.

You depict these women as very individual figures. The fact that they were once bitter rivals, with notable victories and defeats between them, could perhaps have made that more difficult. Did those emotions also come to the surface while you were filming and when they met again?

I would very much like to have had more time to show all four of them together. I think the fact that they are both colleagues and rivals at the same time – and have been for 30 years – is still relevant today. But the thing I found really fantastic was that despite all the history of tension, they’re too professional to allow the potential for conflict to gain the upper hand, and they always maintained an attitude of mutual respect. And they love each other a lot. I’d call it a kind of love-hate relationship between them. With me they always displayed complete solidarity, acting the roles they had adopted: of a team that worked together, with them all doing the best, knowing that at the end they would go their separate ways. While we were filming they behaved just as they did in their professional careers: they were with one another while at the same time competing against one another. And I’m very grateful to them for that.

One aspect of your conceptual approach is to introduce women who share the first names of one of these chess players. What was the idea behind that?

One narrative strand of Glory to the Queen depicts namesakes of the protagonists. Initially I had no idea about this: I have Nana Alexandria to thank for that information. In the chess school she runs there’s a cleaning woman who was named Maia after Maia Chiburdanidze, and as we filmed on a train we happen to meet a conductor who was given the name Nana, after Nana Ioseliani. We had been wondering how, in parallel to the portraits, we could also depict the way the system in those days used those successful women for propaganda purposes, while at the same time their success prompted genuine love and admiration from the people. So we came up with the idea that this theme could be conveyed nicely by means of the younger women. That aspect became a travelogue, throughout the country. The triplets in the film get this across very well when they explain that they originally had different names, but they had to be renamed on the instruction of the Women’s Committee. But we also show young women who enjoy playing chess or dream of a career in chess, as well as those who were given their first names by male relatives though they themselves never had any interest in chess. I regard these women as an important component of my film.

You use archive material of the tournaments on the one hand but also of TV portraits which makes it clear that the chess stars were used to a considerable extent for propaganda purposes. Which footage did you find particularly interesting?

We worked with two archives: the Georgian State Archive and the Georgian Documentary Film Archive MEMATIANE. The State Archive contain footage from Moscow, of tournaments, etc. The home stories are fragments from the Documentary Film Archive MEMATIANE which were only ever used in part, if at all. There were some of those fragments that we couldn’t use, because Nana Ioseliani in particular didn’t agree; she didn’t want extremely personal material to be made public. The decision to feature these home stories anyway was rooted in our desire to convey how those women – apart from their fantastic successes – were clearly portrayed at the time as housewives, mothers and beautiful women. There is a section where Maia is shown as a flower girl, and I selected the sequence where she is holding a mushroom instead of a flower, looking into the camera with a sly expression. I think that’s very significant, because it shows she is well aware of being pushed into role, as a 17-year-old world champion who plans to become a doctor.

Was it also a return to Georgia for you personally?

I had been away from my country for a very long time. Today I have Austrian citizenship, and I feel at home here too. My homeland, Georgia, is a place I like to visit; I have friends there, I speak the language, and that’s where my roots are. Returning to my country in the film was one of the most significant events in my life. The world premiere of the film was held on 4 September at the CinéDOC-Tbilisi Festival. Three of the protagonists who hadn’t seen the film before were present. Due to Covid-19 the film was shown in the open air, and there was a huge crowd: the atmosphere was electric. Sometimes a thing happens that you felt you simply had to do. It was part of my duty to my homeland, and now I have fulfilled that. I’m happy that it took that form. The premiere was like a party. What particularly impressed me about my protagonists was their generosity. They never point out how fantastic they are. It’s just obvious. And perhaps this film might trigger discussion in my home country about what women achieve. Why do women contemplate and talk about their own achievements so little? I’d like to pose that question when the film is shown in cinemas in Georgia. And maybe the chess players will be there to take part in the discussion.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
February 2021

Translation: Charles Osborne