Written by By Madeleine Skvic, CNN
Deserts and a sinister subterranean lair were the culinary star of much of the 20th century art cinema.
When cinema explorer Gisela Hillier set out to search for the lost underground city of Vardzia, Georgia’s Vardzia-Sanela National Park took an entirely different turn.
The cave, one of Vardzia’s most remote and intriguing historic sites, would be Hillier’s centerpiece for a unique feature film, Visits with Food , hosted by Georgie Studios — the production company behind the directorial debut of Elliott Smith’s actress daughter Thao Nguyen.
CNN returned to the work of Georgie Studios this week, as it screened the ten-minute film in New York. And it wasn’t exactly what the director was looking for.
As filming started in September 2017, Hillier and director William Matthew Haywood were struck by the bitter cold, abandoned relics of years of war and the overwhelming sense of isolation, she told CNN. The film’s aim was to explore that isolation through food.
“The film was trying to convince people to enter the cave and to eat at meals,” said Hillier. The record was never recorded.
But the powerful experience of feeding herself, at times more than once, left its mark.
“If it was by accidents, I certainly would have stayed [in the caves] longer. I wouldn’t have gone back to the other rooms,” she added.
Born in 1989, Thao Nguyen had her acting break in the 1999 movie “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” She also played Vardzia-Sanela’s alien Aleta in the 2014 Georgie Studios docudrama “Arena.”
Eat well in Vardzia
She’s not the only film lover to have enjoyed the splendors of the Vardzia-Sanela National Park.
Andrew Morgan’s documentary of the same name (produced by Southern Exposure Films), explores how the park’s primitive shacks on stilts have survived under the harsh conditions, despite vast archeological discoveries for nearby ruins.
The National Park also features in “Zarkavod, Ark” (1989), Sergei Eisenstein’s Russian epic on the Revolutionary War.
Documentary filmmaker Fredrik Gertten — who cut his teeth on TV shows such as “Fear Factor” and “Wipeout” — shot a feature film of the National Park in 2014.
He told CNN that “the Vardzia cave was so vast that it seemed even more inconceivable than the previously unseen caves in the Macedonia cave system.”
In addition to the volumes of archaeological and documentary filmmaking, both Hillier and Gertten noted the soaring vistas of the area’s famous sandy beaches in Georgia, almost 200 miles away.