Few lines of work are more demeaning than acting. The job involves regular, demanding submission and rejection, in which one offers oneself only to be told that one’s self isn’t good enough. We might wonder why so many people want to be actors; in fact, part of role-playing’s appeal lies in the seeming ease with which self-elevation can become self-obliteration, and vice versa. To appear onstage or in front of a camera can be to realize a dream of becoming someone better, or at least different.
“If you had a machine which makes everything disappear, what would you disappear?” director Tinatin Gurchiani is heard asking in her debut film. In 2011, Gurchiani returned from abroad to her native country of Georgia intent on making a fictional film, only to discover that the faces she saw on the street were telling their own compelling tales. In this scene, she speaks from offscreen, and her words reach out to touch the young man she’s addressing, who stands alone between a bare wall and her camera. He is one of 15 people who appear throughout the documentary in response to the filmmaker’s casting call for Georgians ages 15 to 23 who believe that their life stories would make interesting movies. The young man responds, “I would disappear myself,” even though that’s the role for which he’s auditioning.
The slippages and contradictions between who people are, imagine themselves to be, and present themselves as being inform the structure of Machine, a kind of loose container into which people step and out of which they extract more ideal selves. Each section begins as a screen test, typically (though not always) of someone born in a small village. These auditions quickly become interrogations, with Gurchiani asking her subjects to articulate their goals for the future, and then challenging them to defend their desires.
And then, in most cases, those desires suddenly take shape, as though a subject’s act of wishing wills them to life. A young woman who has come to audition on her wedding day—even costumed in her dress—begins to sing, then appears surrounded at the wedding party while her song continues. A man who left Georgia’s largest city, Tbilisi, to govern a small village, moves from introducing himself to the filmmaker to standing in front of his village elders with the news that it’s time for him to leave. In other instances—such as the young woman who says she felt herself to be a mother as soon as she learned she was pregnant—the subjects relive transformations that have already taken place.
The film’s first auditioner is a young man who says he cries when he sees a sad stranger on the street, lost in thought, because he recognizes himself. He sets the tone for a film less regional than universal in its presentation of the human urge to reshape oneself with others’ help. Gurchiani, simultaneously a viewer and character—all the more prominent for staying unseen—shares this urge with the strangers facing her. “If I made a film about your life, would you act in it?” she asks a stand-in. Later, she adds, “If I come with you, will you show me your life?”