Youth initiative mobilizes Bolnisi residents to support renovation of local cinema, revive regional cultural life
The story of Bolnisi is one that is rich with culture and history. Located in Georgia’s southeastern Kvemo Kartli region, the area’s claims to fame include archeological sites providing record of the “earliest hominid dispersal beyond Africa” in neighboring Dmanisi, remnants of a German settlement in the early 19th century, and one of the oldest goldmines in the world in nearby Sakdrisi.
Beyond its compelling history, modern-day Bolnisi continues to be a center of cultural vibrancy with its ethnically diverse population of Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and Georgians. But despite this rich history and cultural diversity, the city and its surrounding villages have long lacked a place where residents can come together and leave their own modern cultural mark – a space where locals can meet, learn together, engage in discussion, and create their own stories.
Recognizing this need for a space to foster social and cultural engagement, a young group of residents first came together in 2015 to revive the city’s defunct cinema. Through advocacy campaigns and their own volunteer work, the activists were able to clean up Bolnisi Cinema for temporary use and hold several film screenings and cultural events.
But despite momentum in the campaign and indications from the municipal government that it intended to fully renovate and modernize the cinema, a lack of funding left the project indefinitely postponed.
Undeterred by this setback, the citizen group Youth Initiative for Changes continued its advocacy work, holding more events in the building and working to raise awareness about the importance of the cinema among the local population. In September of 2022, with support from the USAID Civil Society Engagement Program, the group launched its largest campaign yet, offering eight screenings of digitally restored Georgian films and several related workshops throughout the autumn months.
As part of its campaign, the youth initiative also submitted a proposal for the cinema’s renovation under Bolnisi’s inclusive budgeting scheme, a new initiative aimed at encouraging citizen participation in local budget planning that was first implemented in the municipality last year. Under this arrangement, citizens can submit proposals for projects they wish to see implemented in their communities, which are then put to a public vote; the most popular initiatives receive municipal funding.
Through their events at the cinema, cooperation with other activist groups in the region, and an intensive social media campaign, Youth Initiative for Changes was able to mobilize the local population around the initiative and successfully secure 300,000 GEL in municipal funding to begin the renovation of the cinema.
Head of the youth activist group Vano Eristavi says that securing the funding was a big victory for the region’s cultural development, and one that he hopes can help bridge communities. “While Bolnisi is an ethnically diverse area, the Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Armenian populations are geographically separated between different villages and the city. Creating a space like the Bolnisi Cinema and inviting cultural content that relates to all these groups is a great way to foster relationships and encourage social inclusion.”
And beyond the positive cultural impact that this space will bring to Bolnisi, Eristavi says the inclusive method through which the funding was secured has already boosted residents’ civic engagement and involvement in local processes. “Creating these types of independent social-cultural spaces in the regions is an important part of decentralizing culture and reviving regional cities,” notes Eristavi. “But it is also important for the local population to participate in the revitalization process of such spaces, which make them more invested in the community and its development.”
Following a January 2023 meeting with the mayor of Bolnisi, the renovation works commenced in the spring of 2023. In August, the group launched a new crowdfunding campaign, which aims to raise 7,000 GEL to equip the theater with a heating system and allow events to be held there year-round. “We were so pleased to see such a high number of supporters for our initiative under the inclusive budgeting scheme,” says Eristavi. “We’re confident that their continued support will make this new crowdfunding campaign a success as well.”