First the joke. You might not see the humor in it. But I do.
I came to Georgia to work on a doll and puppet museum. But recently I have realized that it would be an impossibility. I don’t wish to elaborate. But let me compare it to an event that occurred several years back in Alaska.
I moved from New York City to Haines Alaska. In Manhattan I lived somewhat close to Chinatown. And so I availed myself of the many flavors of Chinese groceries and cuisine. On the other hand, Haines is probably one of the few towns in North America without a Chinese restaurant. One summer day I heard a rumor that a Chinese takeaway place had opened up in an RV park near the edge of town. So I expectantly drove over to sample the wares. Pitiful. That’s all I will say. And I wondered why? The chef was Chinese. He seemed to have woks and knew what to do. But soon I was told the reason. The RV Park owner had brought the chef to town, like an indentured servant. Then he prohibited him from using Chinese ingredients. The owner actually bought the ingredients himself for the Chinese chef. And you can see him lingering over a food supply catalogue on the phone withe the dealer. “Okay so fifteen number 10 cans of that sweet and sour stuff with red food dye. Oh and what’s the cheapest rice you have?” Ad nauseum… The place closed in another two weeks. The RV park is now a field used for storing pipes by the state road crew. And that’s that.
Read between the lines and you’ll figure out what happened to me here.
And the joke? It’s not on me. It’s with me. So yeah Gravity From Above is stalled. My work in museum Georgia has dried up. Far too much cash has flown the coop. But you know what? I’m in Georgia. And had I known half of what I know now I would certainly have stayed in Alaska. But I can’t help feeling that this ruse, played upon me by God no doubt, got me here.
Recently my dear friend Silva Morasten and her boyfriend Honza stayed with me. Several things happened then to really renew my sense of purpose here in Georgia. Summer quite frankly had been tough. I expected it. But the heat drained me. (Next year time in the mountains. The museum work evaporated. Finances got wobbly. (I finally solved that by applying early for my retirement money. Which I still won’t get till the end of November.) Computers broke down. Etc. etc. But more than anything else a vague sense of failure hovered directly over my head.
On the good side I did get a temporary residence permit. Which isn’t going to last too long, but will look good next time I apply. And even if I don’t get another right away I can stay here if I cross the border once a year. So I’m not worried about getting chased out.
But with my friends here we drove up into the mountains and I finally had a chance to really get out of the city. I discovered this singular little village called Sno made out dark moody and very sharp rock walls. I walked into the Caucasus briefly, enough to give me a sense of mystery and enticement. I drove through the lush vineyards of the Alazani valley. Silva had a chance to sing her gorgeously dark songs at a museum. (To hear her music follow this link.) I also took Silva to meet my friends at Budrugana Gagra. And seeing them again reminded me of what I love most about Georgia. Likewise a trip to watch Erisioni practice had the same effect. I also stopped in a couple of times to see Giorgi Apkhazava’s work on his little theatre. (I have a whole interview that I need to edit and upload here!) And Giorgi was quite kind to me. And these people were all a part of what energizes me about being in Georgia. And so having resigned the museum project today I feel lighter already.
And so I am laughing at my great fortune, a fortune not connected to the local currency.
This is one of my first videos on Georgian Crossroads (Watch it & Subscribe.)
And another thing, back in February, when I was informed about the actual ‘salary’ I would be receiving I immediately realized I needed to get something together to staunch the pecuniary wound. I also felt it should be something that would grow, not some stopgap measure. And so I started a couple more YouTube channels. One for my ideas – The Anadromist. The other for my observations about Georgia – Georgian Crossroads. It was a wise decision. For even though the income from them is a slowly increasing trickle, that trickle has allowed me to breathe easier. More importantly I have found a few people receptive to my curious investigations. And the truth is I have been sitting on far too many explorations that need to finally see the light of day.
Hey if you are here for the puppets you should watch this.
And so with all of this in mind, I recently found myself watching Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix giving an astounding performance. And as I watched it I realized I was present for a moment in film history likened to Psycho or Star Wars. That is a complete game changer for the direction of cinema. Psycho opened American filmmaking up for what would eventually be the New Hollywood of the Seventies. Star Wars opened the door to the unfortunate blockbuster era that has enveloped us ever since. But Joker is something different. Joker, an extremely dark realistic vision based on the Batman villain. It has become a roaring success at a time when the hollowness of the mainstream world has become almost impossible to ignore. Also it wasn’t lost on me that the Joker is a clown, at a time when scary clowns have surfaced as a source of fear instead of fun. Which is quite ironic considering how devoted this age is to the teleological concept of Fun. I also saw the connections to Punch, the smiling psychotic hand puppet. And so I felt compelled to make a video on the subject. Not a review, but a search for the origins of this mythic imagery historically and presently. So I present that here for your consideration.
But there are other subjects I have dealt with on my new sites that might intrigue you as well. Particularly one series on Time and the other on How We Got Here.
And you should just watch this no matter what your motivations!
Anyway this has been a report on my activities here in Georgia. Deep gratitude to those who have helped out. And I hope to add more substance to these pages soon.
October 11th 2019
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Back in January of 2018 I was visiting Tbilisi Georgia for the second time. I had stopped into visit my friends at the hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. A few actors were there waiting for the rest to arrive when a young man named Irakli Toklikishvili walked in with some images on a sheet of paper. Suddenly Mariam Kapanadze and Elene Murjikneli lit up happily and went over to see what he had brought them. When I asked Elene what it was she said it was for Mariam’s animation project. I looked at the paper, a decayed landscape with a cabin on it. I thought it interesting. I looked for the drawings of the little characters who would be inhabiting the landscape. None ever materialized. Mariam said that the short animation film was about the landscape itself. I thought that was a beautiful idea and then didn’t think too much more about it.
While I was back in Alaska someone told me about an animation festival calling for submissions. I thought of Mariam’s film. I wrote to her. But she said it would be a long time before it was finished, maybe December 2019. I thought that there must be more to the story if it is taking so long. And so when I arrived back in Tbilisi back in December 2018 I asked Mariam what the story behind the short film really was. And then she explained it to me. And even in her imperfect English I suddenly caught my breath. I had never heard of such a simple yet complex idea.
In April I finally caught up with Mariam and Elene and asked them more about the project. The title of the project is მიტოვებული სოფელი (mitovebuli sopeli), in English The Abandoned Village. And essentially all it shows is the slow transition of a desolate village during the course of the day from night to morning to day to evening to night again. During the course of that day there are a few changes fog, wind, unseen clouds creating diffuse light, shadows changing during the course of a day. And with one exception that is pretty much it. There are no visible people, not even animals. Just the empty village during the course of a day in during the late autumn.
Now if that sounds like nothing happens you really don’t understand what Mariam is attempting here. In a way what Mariam is creating is something that has rarely been done. A living painting. Which is why for me to tell you what it is about is not to ‘spoil the plot’. What will matter in the end is simply you, stopping the insane business of your life for 13 minutes, watching the subtle transitions of a day in an abandoned village to ponder them. For Mariam has something up her sleeve much more complex than a mere picture.
She told me that “It’s a very important idea, it’s not only a village. The village is our world. Where we are living. What is an abandoned village? It’s when we have lost love, when we’ve lost important people. Life, this life, is very important. Because one day our spirit is abandoned. (Which is why the cemetery is an important image within the film.) The village is our world.”
Click on the Images to Expand
Is this village based on a real village that Mariam knows? Yes and no. As a young girl Mariam’s parents would take her to the family’s ancestral village in Imereti called Zodi. This is the village where her grandparents had lived in when she was a child. She remembers Zodi being full of life and people. But since then, while it is not quite the abandoned village of her story, some parts of it are not too different. This is actually a problem throughout Georgia as small villages wither as the youth leave to go to the cities. Of course similar problems have occurred throughout the world at one point or another as transportation and technology change the way we seen the world. But Mariam is very quick to point out that her film is not really a story about this particular village. For her the village in her short animation film is about the loss of love and joy. The abandonment of love, that the life of these old villages represented, the families, the songs, the communal feasts.
There are 21 paintings by Irakli Toklikishvili containing each cell of the animation for this piece. And then there are hundreds of small subtle effects that change slowly during the course of the film. Mariam says that her favorite filmmaker is the Greek Theo Angelopoulos. And another influence is Andrei Tarkovsky. And the slowness of the changes within the frame are certainly reflect their influences. Elene Murjikneli, her colleague at Budrugana Gagra, has been working with animation for twenty years, is both her assistant and at many points her instructor as they create this unique project. Other animators include Natia Pochkidze, Giorgi Chanturia, Nina Gvasalai. It is being produced by Tsotne Kalandadze for the “Kvali XXI” film studio. And when I asked where she got the idea for static frame without cuts she credits Gela Kandelaki, the Director of Budrugana Gagra, with the suggestion when she presented the idea to him.
Mariam Kapanadze originally conceived of the idea in response to a call for submissions by the Georgian National Film Center, when it called for its yearly submissions in 2017. She won the competition. They wanted a budget and a time frame. This was Mariam’s first attempt a complete film, and so she gave herself around two and a half years to complete it. She was awarded money, which by American standards would hardly pay for the electricity for the computers and lights. But Georgians have become quite adept at stretching budgets beyond what many further to the west would consider possible. In March of 2018 the project received a bit more funding. The money was important to keeping The Abandoned Village on track to a December 2019 completion date.
And yet this certainly isn’t a project with money as its central goal. Mariam told me that that even though the film has Georgian themes she considers it to be universal. The film while essentially being a silent film, has one character, an old man who can be heard mumbling inarticulately. He turns a light on in a rustic shack in the dark. And in Mariam’s eyes the entire film is a struggle between the life of light and the death of darkness. And this darkness is not an abstract thing for Mariam who is old enough to remember the times when the electricity failed regularly in Tbilisi. For Mariam the light brings the music of birds and the dark brings a muted muffled silence. And it remains for us to keep the light on in the dark. Mariam hopes people are reminded by this film to remember the goodness in life, the times of joy, and especially the love. If that sounds like a lot for a 13 minute animated painting then you should hear Mariam talk about it.
Better yet look for it sometime next year: მიტოვებული სოფელი The Abandoned Village.
June 25th 2019
Photos of Byrne & Mariam, Mariam in Zodi and all Production plates and art © Mariam Kapanadze
All other photos © 2019 Byrne Power
What’s happened to the documentary Gravity From Above? What happened to Byrne? We haven’t heard much about puppets or Georgia since the beginning of the year.
I’m wondering the same questions. The truth is that I guess I’m recovering from the double shock of losing whatever funding I had hoped to get for the documentary and then finding the work that I was supposed to do in Georgia not only endlessly bogged down in bureaucracy but also paying me far less than a living wage for the work that I am doing causing me to lose money every month.
Or to put it another way reality has set in.
Now to put a little more meat on the bone let me explain a bit. First of all I am quite hesitant to say much at all publicly. At this moment the details would be less than helpful. (Privately I can explain anything if interested.) And the situation has never been dire. But essentially I am only receiving about a third of what I need to live every month. Which is a drain on my personal economy, which can’t go on forever. Then there are expenses that I have to make to actually live here as opposed to being a transient. Things you need to buy simply to be a resident from frying pans to curtains. More catastrophically my computer has died twice on me. I now live in a strange twilight world of used MacBooks and external hard drives. (I’m waiting for a new hard drive to arrive through a tortuous path of mailing services.) And I have spent a fair sum just to keep myself running. And then there is the much larger question of how I will get my belongings shipped here. (Which had seemed quite possible when I left, but now more doubtful.)
The practical minded person would say something like this to themselves: “Well you’d better get back to Alaska where you can make money and forget about all of this. Admit you’ve been beat. It was an interesting dream, but it’s time to face the truth. Better get back while you still have the money to get there.” (I can hear the worried voice of my late mother here.)
Yet I know I haven’t made a mistake. Every time I have made a radical change in my life, from California to New York City, or from New York to Alaska, I have gone through exactly these moments of wall-smashing reality. In New York it took me multiple beds and floors for 4 long months to find an apartment. And that was beyond my means. I ended up leaving it after a year. Not to mention having one of the worst fevers I’ve ever had in my life during that first Christmas time. Narrowly escaping being beaten to a pulp by a street gang. And essentially finding that most of the folks I met during that period receded as friends. And then again in Alaska. I arrived without the job that supposedly was waiting for me, a container load of my library and other junk which then immediately sucked up all of my money on overweight freight charges, and I was renting a house for more than I could afford, especially without a job or money. The radio station work did eventually kick in. So did comments from certain members of the community about the music I was introducing to the airwaves. And I discovered the rather petty and vicious nature of otherwise friendly Alaskans during public board meetings, which I had to take part in as a part of my radio duties. Within six months I had to move everything again because the house I was renting was being sold out from under me. In both New York City and Alaska I knew I should be there. And eventually they became two of the most important places in my life.
So my thoughts now? What’s new? I expected the brick wall of reality. I look at these confrontations as the real test of my faith. If it’s worth it then it won’t be easy.
So I am very slowly learning kartuli, a language that has been very difficult to read and to pronounce. And I do not mean difficult to pronounce the way French and German are difficult to read or pronounce. We are talking a different order of experience here. And the besides the language there are the many cultural misunderstandings between the Georgian mentality and the Western European or American. The sense of time here is something I am still struggling to understand. It isn’t that it is loose as in many cultures, it’s erratic, inconsistent. Now slow, now fast. It has the irregular rhythms of its language.
But overall I haven’t felt let down, as much as puzzled. And hopeful. And cautious. Sometimes at home. Other times like an alien. Yet never in danger. I don’t feel that I’ll fall through the floor. It feels like there is a net somewhere below me. So apart from the drain on my economy and the moments of bewilderment, how are things really going?
Well I do feel at increasingly at home more than foreign. And I think what it comes down to is this… the conversations. Whenever I am feeling a little too distant from my own culture I end up having conversations that allow me to breathe in a way I normally can’t back in the USA. I find an openness to art and culture that is far more serious than I have found back in the states in a very long time. And that is why I am here.
Or I meet someone doing something creative that just takes my breath away. For instance seeing the animation that Mariam Kapanadze is working on for two years. Just to produce ten minutes of footage that hardly moves at all. Then she explains what she is trying to achieve and I am left speechless by the depth of it. (I’ve already interviewed her and will be sharing it very soon.) Or meeting Giorgi Apkhazava and the other members of the Tbilisi Chamber Theatre and realizing that they have the best perspective possible on why they are puppeteers. (Also coming soon!) Or the again being surprised at an intimate piano recital by the depth of music played by Eter Tskipurishvili. Words would fail me entirely here. And it is in moments like these and dozens more that I find myself more than feeling at home; it is something far more spiritual.
And it’s not that life here is in anyway convenient… for anyone. There is a sense of total chaos at times. I have been without electricity or water many times. I have lost the food in my freezer and then gotten sick on the food that wasn’t cold enough. I have found myself hunting endlessly for something as simple as thread or tape. The summer heat is not something I am looking forward to. Yet as I walk beneath endless grapevines on tree shaded lanes passing children who still play in the streets I find something human and humble here. And when I look around I see an intriguing future, both for the Georgians, and for myself.
And so that is where I am right now. I don’t need assurances that everything will work out. I just need to keep walking and see where this road goes and why I am here.
Well I’ve got three or four essays due to be written very soon. So no (!) I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m just looking around, catching my breath, taking stock, and uttering quiet words of gratitude.
And I haven’t forgotten about Gravity From Above, the documentary!
Thanks for your patience my friends.
June 3rd 2019
And thanks April Harding!
I haven’t written for a while now. It isn’t that there is nothing to say. It’s that I’m not sure exactly where I am. I am certainly not where I thought I might find myself three months ago. I’ve been waiting for more resolution to give you all some account of my time in Tbilisi Georgia. But the resolutions are slower in coming than I imagined they would be. So I might as well report on what I can say. Which isn’t much.
Not long ago I thought I might get most of the money to finish up Gravity From Above. I then realized that I would have to downgrade what support I thought I had. Now I am wondering if I’ll get any help at all from the sources that seemed promising. If it sounds like I’m being vague I am. Let’s just say this the funding isn’t there… yet. And because I stumbled into some murky cultural waters that I didn’t understand let’s just say I don’t know if anything will come my way from that direction. But I am still hoping to hear something.
Then there is my life in Tbilisi. It’s not bad at all. But it is much slower commencing than I thought it would be. Again odd cultural issues play a role. Strangely many of the friends I have made are slow in getting back to me. If it was just one person I wouldn’t think too much about it. But it’s almost everyone. It probably didn’t help that I arrived in the holiday season again. And so had to mostly sit out a month waiting for it to end.
I was looking forward to editing Gravity From Above. I had the time. Oodles of it! But I wait for returned emails, Facebook messages, etc. This is a cultural thing. In America we are trained to get back to others as soon as possible on the Internet. But in Georgia I get the feeling that emails aren’t seen as being quite real. Which is fine. I’ve been saying this for years. And if I were settled in more it wouldn’t bother me. I would have other ways of contacting people. But I don’t feel I know people well enough yet to just call them up or stop by. So I wait.
And that goes for my work as well. The museum project is there, down the road. Eventually. Though the architectural design part has been siphoned off. But that doesn’t bother me. If anything was going to be taken away that would be what I was expecting. And truthfully there is a lot more politics in all of this than I imagined. And by politics I don’t mean office politics. I mean the real beast. Government officials, state and city budgets etc. And that’s about all I can say about that.
But I’m not without work. The plan is to have me teaching puppetry in English for students in the schools. And while I am planning that, I haven’t got the paperwork done yet, because I have to see what the legal prospects are for me as a resident. So again I wait. And hopefully this will be resolved relatively soon. But then again this is Georgia where I’m discovering that everything takes time. But when you finally get the signal then the question will be why isn’t it finished yet? (See the architectural issues above.)
And then there is the question of money. So far I am coasting. But this can’t last. And I’m not really sure how I will fare in the future. Everything is up in the air. And how will the documentary, which is so close to being done, be finished?
And you know I’m not worried about all this. I figured that there is a reason I followed the breadcrumbs here. So meanwhile I explore the city. I’ve taken bus trips to nearby villages. I’ve hiked up the mountains near Tbilisi. I’ve explored more art and culture. I’ve discovered a couple of worthy bookstores previously unknown to me. I’ve gone looking for practical necessities.
And I’ve discovered the many things that hardly exist here. Where is a lumber yard? Can I find black string for puppets? Food ingredients that are like gold: Bottles of vanilla??? Molasses. Malt vinegar. Decent peanut butter. Maple syrup. Cream of tarter, which is really weird since it’s a wine derivative and wine is everywhere here. Recognizable cuts of meat. Most Chinese ingredients. Any Mexican ingredients or spices. Let alone real salmon. Oh Alaska you spoiled me!
Stop and watch this for a little taste of joy!
But oddly I found some real pluses too. For instance I noticed that Georgia has about 20,000 people from India, mostly students at the state university. Thus I reasoned they must have Indian spice stores. I’ve found two! And one guy Vijay was a real help. But there are much fewer Chinese. Thus real Chinese food is much harder to find. And there is something that Georgians eat at the few ‘Chinese’ restaurants which has very little to do with China. But great news! Just down the street from me on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue they just opened a real Chinese restaurant since I’ve been here. And I’ve gotten in good with the owner, Shelia, from China by way of Vancouver. And she has two, count ’em, two Chinese cooks. Okay I survived 22 years in Haines Alaska without Chinese food. I think I’m going to be all right. (In New York City I used to go to Chinatown all the time.)
I did spend a little time with friend and photographer (and my landlord) Mariam Sitchinava and her pixie daughter Sophie. I did visit my good friends at the hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. And I was welcomed with open arms and kisses on my cheek from everyone, men and women. And I got to watch a complete show of their shadow version of Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. And for the premier even the new president of the country, Salome Zurabishvili, was in attendance. I was quite proud to call these folks my friends. I will eventually write a more detailed review of this piece. As well as a report on the work on Mariam Kapanadze’s unusual animation project.
And then I found myself back at Erisioni where I was greeted as a returning friend. Otar Bluashvili commented that I indeed returned in December just like I said I would. When I first stepped into the dance studio several of the young male dancers broke into applause. And later when I finally saw the women dancers again I was greeted tenderly with kisses and very warm smiles. And today I stopped in and was invited to their big show this Sunday at the Philharmonic Hall where I was offered a better lens for my camera. I took a few photos today and greeted several more friends.
When I first arrived I felt even more disconnected than I did last year at the same time. With the financial questions hanging over my head, with Gravity From Above back in some sort of limbo, with friends yet to find me again, I was seriously wondering what I was doing here. The ground did not feel solid. I still have no idea how the practicalities of anything will work out. From getting a residence permit, to finding a permanent house to live in, to getting my container full of possessions, including my massive library, here, to getting Gravity From Above finished. These question fed my sense of dislocation.
Slowly I have been finding myself at home. I remember the day I walked up through Vake Park past the Soviet World War 2 Statue into the mountain, and then down the other side I felt at ease as I stopped at Parnassus Books, which also had books in English. More importantly there were two university students working there, Mariam and Ana. A wonderful conversation led to their offering to find someone to help me with Kartuli (the Georgian language). Within a week I had another university student Sandro helping me, for free! But it was on that walk, even before I got to the bookstore, that I thought to myself, how much I was feeling better about being there.
And there have been many other discoveries. But we’ll end our narrative here. What will tomorrow bring? I have no clue. None. Will I ever get enough money to finish up Gravity From Above? Will I find the wherewithal to get my stuff here? Will the Georgians let me stay? There are answers to these questions, but not yet. And so I am left with the big question mark. But you know a life without question marks really isn’t a very interesting life. So I accept that.
Oh and if anyone wants to help me get this bloody documentary finished….
There’ll be more to say, and soon, but for now I’ll just leave you all where I am. Wherever that is.
So if you wish to help out financially you can help me through PayPal. You can pass on a one time donation, or commit yourself to a small amount on a regular basis. Anything you choose to give will be helpful. And if you are one of those people who can help out in a more substantial way do consider it. I really am close to finishing Gravity From Above. But the amount needed is beyond me in this moment. So get in touch if you feel so moved. Click to donate. And thanks all of you for tagging along on this strange journey. CLICK ME!
While I am traveling through Western Europe on my way to Tbilisi Georgia to work on the puppet and doll museum I have been thinking about the project ahead of me in the next few years. And one reminder of that task is that I have the stunning new book of the Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum (თბილისის სათამაშოები და თოჯინების მუზეუმი). This is a large chunk of the collection I will be working with when I eventually start my job. And it is a curious eye view into the world of Georgian tojinebi (plural of tojina which can mean dolls or puppets) The book is a fascinating look at the history and art of Georgia tojinebi.
Interestingly Georgia doesn’t have a deep historical tradition of popular dolls the way France or England does. And just as intriguingly Georgian dolls have not descended into the overly cute and sweet commercial playthings that have developed in the West. Not that bad baby dolls can’t be found in bargain shops. Or that Barbies are nowhere to be found. In fact it was the Soviet Union, in one of their rare enlightened decrees, who decided that Georgia needed dolls. And so the museum collection was started in 1937 by Tinatin Tumanishvili (1892-1966)
Tumanishvili in her role as secretary of (in typical soviet speak) The Children’s Toy Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Education who originated The Children’s Toy Museum. At this point there was no official style of popular doll that came from the Georgian traditions so, like puppetry in various corners of the Soviet Empire, dolls were decreed into existence. And so Tina Tumanishvili began an ethnographic search through the country to seek inspiration. And then she commissioned several dolls to be created by artists.
And for me the most startlingly unique dolls are also the most primitive. The most traditional folk dolls, called fork and spindle dolls, traditionally were made simply and beautifully with sticks, cloth and sometimes corn silk or even human hair. The dolls had an unusual aura to them, with the face made abstractly out of cloth, buttons, and thread or yarn with an X or a cross for a face. Often the cloth for the figure was embroidered with designs. The faces alone are enough to give the puppeteer in me many ideas for figures not yet imagined.
These primitive tojinebi also connect back to a not so distant past where these figures were used in rain making ceremonies. There was one ritual of making the doll, or is it a puppet since these were also moved with simple strings at times, in the form of the biblical Lazarus. Getting the doll wet was an important part of the various rituals. And Lazarus was beseeched ‘Humidify and wet us.’ During the Gonjaoba festival a figure called the Gonja was thrown into the water, while saying ‘We do not want hard dried clods of earth anymore. God, give us the mud.’ More fearfully there was another festival the Berikaoba, which is still occasionally celebrated, with strange masks that used to be made from animal skins, particularly pig faces which were particularly used to offend the various Muslim overlords. There was also a ritual of a person or figure riding a donkey backwards who was then thrown into a river at flood stage. A form of this can be seen in Tengiz Abuladze’s film The Wishing Tree, where a very symbolic figure is seen riding a donkey backwards. And it isn’t a good thing. These festivals, like Mardi Gras end at the beginning of Lent.
(Click to Enlarge)
There is another folk style involving stitching a simple expression on tightly pulled cloth. This technique as well as its extensions in design become through Tumanishvili and her artists, especially Nino Brailashvili, eventually become the inspiration and beginnings of serious doll making in Georgia. Thus Georgian doll making moves also most instantly from primitive ritualistic images straight to art, skipping the centuries of popular doll making in between. There is another worthwhile, and quite hard to find west of Russia, (in Russian and English) book featuring some of these primitive dolls and lavishly illustrated Nino Brailashvili, from her journeys into Georgia villages. It is called Ethnography In Georgia. It is well worth seeking out.
Inevitably Georgia costume design also holds an important place in the art of the tojina. Embroidery, thread and yarn all capture the elaborate patterns to be found in Georgian traditional dresses. The texture and detail of the fabric is just as important as the materials used to make the dolls. And again almost instantly created small works of art out of the tojina, blurring the line between the private fantasy of the doll and the storytelling skills of the puppet. And book of the museum’s collection shows this over and over again.
As far as tojinebi makers in the catalogue go (and there are many newer doll makers not in the catalogue) Irma Kaadze is the real discovery here. Her work figures quite strongly in unusual textures of natural cloth and fabric as well as various papier maché techniques. Her work is filled ornate designs in fabric ranging traditional figures that have faces with expressions like Byzantine mosaics. She also makes angels again with archaic faces. And an absolute gem of a puppet of a bedouin on a camel with more texture and creativity than seems legally possible. (Puppeteers take note.)
The work of Tamar Kvesitadze are also miniature statuary in a melange of materials, creating, as Kaadze does, miniature tableau vivant.
Besides the Georgian tojinebi the catalogue features mechanical toys, an automaton that blows bubbles, unknown dolls from Germany, a gift of dolls from Japan and other fragments of Georgian creative history. Also included in the book is artwork from the collection by such important Georgian artists as Elene Akhvlediani, Lado Gudiashvili, Natela Iankoshvili and others.
Tinatin Tumanishvili started with a toy collection and created a haven for tojinebi as well. The Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum has been housed in several locations before being packed away from its last location near the Gabriadze Theatre and packed away securely at the Union of Museums offices on Agmashenabeli in Tbilisi. And they will lie in boxes until a new home is constructed for them. Which is where I come into the picture. (But that will be another story altogether and the immovable tojinebi will find new movable companions when that happens!)
Oh by the way a word about this book: It is a large gorgeously printed 288 page tome. Only 500 were made. It is predominantly written in the beautiful but indecipherable Georgian script yet with plenty of English to give one a very intelligent idea of what the book is about. A reader of this essay might find themselves desperate for a copy. Getting one sent to you will not be an easy thing, but… it is possible. The actual cost of the book is mercifully not that much. But shipping? It weighs a couple of kilos (a few pounds). That will cost you more dearly. If you are one of those people curious to own it you can contact Nini Sanadiradze at the Union of Museums in Tbilisi. She can tell you how to obtain one. It cannot be found in any country other than Georgia.
You can go to this page.
At the bottom of that page there is a place to send email massages. Do so. And you should be able to get the information you need. The Union of Museums also has a Facebook page.
Well next time we discuss life at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France. But for now we’ll just say Au revoir and Nachwamdis.
And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
And so it was finally a time for farewells in Tbilisi after three months in Georgia. I had made many new friends and reacquainted myself with several of the old. Yet there were a few missed folk. I did not spend time with Mariam Elieshvili, Nina Ananiashvili or the Sukhishvili Dance troupe of again for various reasons. But I did make several friends this time that I hope to take with me into the future. And it was time to say au revoir to some of them.
On the day of my emotional farewells to Erisioni I had one more important meeting. My apartment had been rented to me by photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote Khutsishvili. They had been excellent hosts all along. And early in my stay on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue Mariam had invited me to meet her at the Book Corner Cafe down by the Mtkvari River. Meeting us there was a friend of hers, Nino Vadachkoria. Mariam pointed out that Nino was a surgeon, then I discovered that she had been earning a further degree in neuroscience. At some point she turned to me when she realized that I knew something about music and asked if I knew about the music of Moondog, an outré question if ever there was one. Of course I knew his music, few other Americans would have. By the end of our conversation I discovered that Tarkovsky’s Stalker was her favorite film, as it was mine. And she pointedly asked me questions about what I thought life meant. Well that was enough to cement a friendship almost on the spot.
We had had several other meaningful discussions over the course of my time in Tbilisi and this evening we would be meeting at a cafe that another friend, Tinatin, had introduced me to, Keto and Kote. And so we met for another of our impossibly full discussions. But this time our conversation was tinged with the knowledge that I would be leaving, as well as coming back one day in the near future. Instead of challenging me about my ideas, she asked more about my rather convoluted personal history. By the time we were finished she had given me a white woolen cap, white was for the village leader she said, obviously paying me a very high compliment. In the end after a walk down to the Rustaveli Metro, where I would be disappearing into the ground, she very clearly demonstrated deep emotion too. Yet another powerful farewell moment on this most memorable of days. Alaskans have many admirable qualities. But final gestures are not really in their arsenal. These parting moments were something I treasured in my heart, something I had been missing, nay needing. (We’ll see what the Alaskans do in September.)
But I wasn’t done. I had already said goodbye to John Graham, an American musicologist whose area of expertise was Georgian liturgical music. He sang in the choir at the Kashueti Church, his Georgian wife Eka was a musicologist as well with whom I got along quite well. After long discussions about Georgia, music, tourism, the Orthodox Church and life in general I found I had made a good friend. He was no longer romantic about Georgia, yet very clearly was quite committed to the country. I met him at a cafe shortly before I left where we had a good final talk. He was glad that I would be moving back and had much practical advice for me to ponder. We would see each other again.
One person that I had tried to connect with throughout my stay and finally did was filmmaker and now good friend Tinatin Gurchiani. I met her at Keto and Kote, which it turned out had once been in her family. It had to be sold off during the turbulent Nineties. But she still retained a fondness for this beautiful older Georgian building, like one of Elene Akhvlediani’s paintings. We sat in a latticed indoor terrace. Tinatin had been my benefactor last time back in 2016, making arrangements for me, introducing me to people, generally treating me with good will and hospitality. This time I had made my way largely without any help from her. We met as old friends, discussing our various film projects. I explained that I had been attracted to Georgia more and more as a possible place to live. (I hadn’t yet been offered the puppet and doll museum job yet.) And she was encouraging of the idea in a wise sort of way. Knowing that it would happen if it should. We parted as very good friends. I felt her to be a sort of guiding soul. It’s hard to explain.
I had already said my farewells to Nini Sanadiradze, the Director of the Union of Tbilisi Museums, while I had been performing a few tasks designed to help me return as permanent resident in late 2018 early 2019. I had also said farewells to Ana Sanaia, who had also been so helpful and almost directly led to my being offered the tojinebi museum job. (See this essay.)
On my final day I had several more people to see. Mariam and Kote picked me up at the apartment and drove me over to the Marjanishvili area. We spoke on the way about my stay there. They had been glad to have me and from my perspective had been most excellent hosts. We met up during my stay a few times. They personally helped when the door to my apartment got jammed. And I was also invited over to their place for my first supra. I believe I acquitted myself fairly well. Kote’s father even paid me what I took to be a very high compliment, that I had toasted like a Georgian. I said fond farewells and then took my belongings over to Tsinamdzghvrishvili Street to stay one last night at Tamuna’s house.
I then made my way over to the basements of the Rustaveli Theatre to say my farewells to Budrugana Gagra. I had already told them that I would indeed be not only returning but coming back to live. And so when it came time to bid adieu to my creative home away from home, which Gela Kandelaki had been sharp to point out was really my home since I no longer had a place in Alaska, I watched several practice sessions with the troupe, marveling that these strangely balletic shadow puppeteers had been not only my friends for my entire three months this time, but most of them had been here in 2016. Gela had asked me to call him bidza, uncle, Gela. And he called me “my boy” chemi bichi” since he was older than I my some measure. And this was quite an honor. I waited for Gela to come in, and when he did I said my farewells, this time receiving much warmth and wishes for a quick return as he took me by the arm. The rest all gave me kisses on the cheek or sometimes hugs. And again I was touched by the genuineness of the emotions and gladness that I was indeed returning to stay.
I had yet one more appointment on my last day in Tbilisi. I waited until the early evening to drop in on Vladimir Lozinski, an Australian with a French diplomat wife, who had done news media freelance work for ABC, NBC, CBS, and the BBC among others. He was a great font of information about the area and I don’t mean tourist information, I mean the kind of scuttlebutt often swept under the rugs. And so he had given me a sense of reality about the world I was considering to make my home. He’s the kind of guy with endless stories, wide and usually fair perspectives, lots of strange encounters. As I stepped into his flat to share a cup of tea I nearly stepped on a skinned brown bearskin, complete with head and teeth. He apologized. “What can you do when you are given such a gift by Chechens?” Not offend them. That’s for sure. We discussed the practicalities of my return to Georgia. As usual he was filled with wry comments and even a few warnings. When I asked if he thought I should move here he heartily concurred. He thought it was probably an excellent thing for me all round. We said warm farewells. I had made yet another good friend that had an eye on things that could be very useful in many a moment.
I finally returned to Tamar’s Guesthouse, my original point of entrance back in 2016. I said a kind farewell to Tamuna early in the morning and her son Shako drove me to the airport for my 4:50am flight. Shako was also quite glad that I was returning and he gave me a warm parting hug as well.
And so my three months sojourn in Tbilisi was over. And my life would never be the same. But I wasn’t done in Europe yet. I still had to get to Paris, depart for Seattle and arrive to what in Alaska. So come back for the final chapter of this adventure soon!
While in Tbilisi I also hunted down puppets in other places. (Puppet = თოჯინა or tojina; plural = თოჯინები or tojinebi; puppetry also = tojinebi.) One of the places I ended up in, which I need to return to, is the Movement Theatre, which was located in Mushtaidi Park near the National Stadium. The Movement Theatre was not a puppet theatre per se but incorporates puppets into its performances. They also mingled dance, electronic music, acrobatics along with puppets into an unusual stew. They had a definite post-apocalyptic patchwork style in their cluttered foyer. Stacks of manikins decorated the lawn. The one show I saw was more of a dance performance in many ways than any sort of traditional play or puppet show. It was definitely an edgier vibe than the other theatres. And will be well worth further exploration.
I also stopped in at the pantomime theatre, which seemed to be in some ways like the black theatre shows in Prague, stylish but low on substance. More for visitors than serious art. About half the show kept my attention.
I mentioned in my last essay that I had run into Nino Namitcheishvili and she had invited me to a puppet performance of Antoine Exupery’s classic Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince. And soon it was time to wander over to the upper room of the Marjanishvili Theatre to watch Nino’s project. Nino gave me access to the light and sound booth so I had a chance to watch the whole performance give in the black box style theatrical space. ‘Black box’ means essentially there is no stage, just a square performance space with chairs usually on one end. Although in this case it was really a white box. White for the desert landscape.
The style was a mixture of live actors and puppets. The prince in particular was played by a young boy. And the denizens of the planets visited were mostly puppets. Lighting and visuals were important for setting the mood, especially in the unforgiving white environment. And the puppets were again, as in Gabriadze and the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, a modified Japanese bunraku style. More than one puppeteer moved the puppets from behind with little rods in the puppets. Bunraku would not have the rods. And the puppeteers were clothed in clothing appropriate for the performance, rather than all black. But I had seen variations of this style at The Little Theater in London, in Prague, and at ESNAM, the international puppet school in Charleville France. The puppets were creatively made. And one figure stood out, a woman all dressed in futuristic blank white to blend in with the desert environment was attached to a shiny scaly snake puppet, thus avoiding the use of strings or rods and giving it a much more sinewy movement. Nino had come up with this idea as a way to give more life to the snake. Seductively done. Serpent and Eve in one.
Meanwhile March 21st was approaching. March 21st is World Puppetry Day. An idea that has been around since the year 2000. In Alaska the day would pretty much come and go without fanfare. But here it was taken fairly seriously, at least by the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre. And one of the things, besides performances of ‘Georgia’, they did was to organize a tojina exhibition. Now I need to tell you one thing that will become more important as this story goes on. In Georgia the word tojina means both ‘doll’ and ‘puppet’. There are many cultures in the world for whom this is the case. And then as in English there are cultures where it is very different. And often when I spoke to people, even puppeteers in Georgia, they didn’t make the rather hard separation between the doll and the puppet that we make. And in fact more than once I did not know which the Georgians were referring to. And so the tojina exhibition turned out to be a doll show.
And what an interesting doll show at that. Dolls in America tend to be of a certain nature. I wouldn’t last very long at an American doll show. It would be like swallowing a cup full of artificial sweetener. Don’t believe me? Search the words ‘doll show’ in English. Then stand back with an insulin injection at the ready. And when the dolls aren’t cute they tend to be kitschy. Or maybe that’s the same thing. Even the ‘creepy’ dolls tend to be postmodern ironic cute. And for a break one gets the big eyed anime dolls. The only interesting trend is the BJD dolls (ball jointed doll), a Japanese idea, that has moved through other cultures, though not without its own issues. There is of course a separate world of genre plastic models and related superhero geek dolls found at comic book and fantasy conventions. And then there are art dolls, but they seem to show up less in the sweet world of the American doll and more in art galleries.
Maia Aladashvili’s detailed Tojinebi (Click for larger images)
But here at the old Silk Factory gallery these dolls were serious art, without trying to be edgy or countercultural. They were dolls as a classical art. And truthfully one could see that dolls being confused with puppets was indeed a very good thing for Georgian doll makers. Because many of the dolls seem to be telling stories. Rather than babies and Barbies these dolls had more character and presence. I was impressed. No mean feat. And indeed one could see a connection between puppets and dolls here. Whereas in America a puppet play made with anything resembling the average American doll would be something done in the worst possible taste, either inadvertently or on purpose to deconstruct the point.
Speaking of tojinebi, I was searching for a puppet museum. I had already finally gotten into the astounding Puppet Animation Museum of Karlo Sulakauri. (Do read about that here!) But I was also looking for a tojinebi museum that was listed on a map as existing near the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I walked to the spot on the map. It was no longer there. In it’s place was an industrial black shiny postmodern box instead. In a conversation with Elene Murjikneli at Budrugana Gagra she told me one day it was simply closed. Soon the building was gone as well. And no one knew what happened to the tojinebi. Ana Sanaia though said she knew. And she gave me an email of a women who could tell me, Nini Sanadiradze, the director of the Union of Tbilisi Museums. (This is not a union as Americans often think of the word. It is more of a civil department.)
I got together with Nini Sanadiradze at her office on Agmashenebeli Avenue. I told her of my documentary project and how I was looking for the missing puppet museum. She said she had the tojinebi in storage, which unfortunately I couldn’t see. But she did have a mock up of a rather exciting book of the collection. As she showed it to me I realized that most of the tojinebi were dolls. Wonderful dolls. Not so many puppets. She also told me of her difficulty in getting good workers in her museums. She said that eventually she wanted to rebuild the tojinebi museum. There was a potential plot of land that she showed me on a map. All very interesting. It was a pleasant two hour visit. She told me to get in touch with her again before I left, she wanted to show me the work she had done on the Nikoloz Baratashvili House Museum.
I contacted her a week and half later and we made an arrangement to meet at the museum. I met her early Sunday afternoon again down near the Gabriadze Theatre. She showed me how she had remodeled the building and redesigned the exhibition. She was proud of what she had done with good reason. We then sat on the veranda and talked for another hour or so. I had thought we might discuss Georgian puppetry more but the conversation turned in a different direction. She said ‘I’d like to offer you a job.’ I was slightly taken aback. ‘Doing what?’ I replied. I didn’t imagine myself simply working in a museum. ‘I’d like you to work with the tojinebi museum.’ ‘But there isn’t one.’ ‘Yes’ she replied calmly. ‘So do you want me to help organize the museum?’ ‘Yes.’ she replied. I was a little skeptical. ‘Well right now you have many more dolls than puppets. Can we get more puppets and have a room for them?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied in the same level voice with just a hint of a smile. So I threw this out. ‘Can we have a performance space?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied again. ‘Can we have a room that is hands on for dolls and puppets and for workshops?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied steadily. I put out a few more questions and then I came to this, thinking of the old tojinebi museum. ‘Look,’ I said ‘When people build new buildings these days they tend to make bad postmodern monstrosities. Can we make a modern building that looks like it belongs in Georgia, with elements of classic Georgian architecture?’ ‘Of course.’ She replied steadily and indeed smiling. Finally I just said ‘Okay you got me.’
I had been thinking about something like this for a while now. I was leaning more and more towards wanting to come back to live. I had made some very good friends. I had made excellent connections. I had been intellectually and creatively stimulated. When I talked with folks about music or puppets I had had rich conversations. When I had told various people about my music collection they suddenly perked up, wanting to hear more. Someone had suggested possibly getting me to lecture over at the state university. And there were many other possibilities. And now this…
Before I left Alaska, having put my life into storage, getting ready to spend six months in Europe and Georgia, more than one friend asked ‘Are you planning to move to Europe? Or Georgia?’ My answer was always the same. ‘I’m not planning to move there? But I’m not planning on NOT moving there either.’ I was simply open. It seemed like a time for considerations of things that had formerly been off the table. There was a moment in France when I briefly considered living there. But it was a passing speculation. But since I had been in Georgia I went from wondering why I was even there, especially during the long holiday season when it seemed like I could barely contact anyone. To finding the scales weighing more and more in favor of coming back to this place to live. And now I would say that everything had gone from 60/40 in favor of coming, to 80/20 before I spoke with Nini, to 98/2 with the 2% uncertainty being simply for the unpredictability of life.
I felt I had been in a game of chess with God and now he had me in checkmate. This was the road forward. I would go back to Alaska to finish my commitments for the summer, to say farewell. But Europe now had me.
More next time as we start to say our farewells to Georgia and go out on a small full dress tour with Erisioni.
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One of the puppet theatres I had most wanted to contact was the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I had seen them perform in Paris and then again in Tbilisi and yet I never quite made contact. It was a disappointment since Rezo Gabriadze was one of the puppet directors I had most wanted to interview and Ramona one of the best puppets shows I had seen. But alas, one doesn’t get everything one wants.
Click on these for larger images.
I did however discover that there was another place in town, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre (TSPT), which has existed in one form or another since 1934. And so I late February I found a Facebook page for them and and sent them a message. I was contacted by Ana Sanaia, an actress and their manager. She was happy to have me come see them. I found them in an old factory building called The Silk Factory, where they had a small theatre. I was let in on a day when there was an art exhibition in an adjacent gallery. The Silk Factory was used for a variety of purposes including a production studio that I was shown, which might be a place where I can edit the final version of Gravity From Above.
I was enjoying a conversation with a woman named Salome Berikashvili when Ana Sanaia came in. She was very glad to meet me. The show for the day was a short version of Tbilisi’s history done through allegorical imagery. The play called Sakartvelo (Georgia) featured a modified bunraku style not too different from the Gabriadze Theatre. They performed mostly on a table top, with performers in black moving the figures from behind. The main figures were a wooden donkey and a bird. But whether cotton balls for clouds or flat cutout dancers or pails filled with sand and turned upside down, then lifted up to represent an older Tbilisi, the sense of invention was continual. The main director Nikoloz Sabashvili had come from the theatre but was bringing to the puppet stage a wider grammar. I was especially impressed when the sandlot Tbilisi was set ablaze, some inflammatory accelerant laced into the sandcastles and then the sandcastles were destroyed. The donkey and the bird were seeking a butterfly, Suliko, who represents the soul of Georgia. Suliko is also a Georgian song, which is heard several times in the piece. But just when it seems like the butterfly will return it is crushed by the frightening boot of Communism. But, and this was a similar theme to Budrugana Gagra’s Isn’t This A Lovely Day, the donkey ascends in a ladder into the clouds to find the butterfly in a heavenly place. And then everyone sings a song. And that’s a happy ending in Georgia. Looking forward to eternal life, rather than the life in this embattled world. I find I am often impressed by the deep longings, often thwarted, in Georgian stories.
The song Suliko ends with these lines:
Ah, life has meaning once more now!
Night and day, I have hope
And I have not lost you, my Suliko
I shall always return to you, I know now where you rest.
Watch this now… It’s only 5 minutes of your life.
I also attended a children’s show on another day. The narrator was essentially a large khinkali. Let me try to explain what I mean. Khinkali is one of the national dishes of Georgia. It is a ravioli-like dumpling stuffed with ground spicy meat or selguni cheese. So what I’m saying is that the narrator of this children’s show was a large dumpling. The story, which I must confess I didn’t quite follow, my Georgian language skills can best be described as infantile, but it did involve love, a journey of sorts, farm animals and an ogre. Or was that a demon? The children were as noisy as the French kids, happily clapping and singing along when there was a moment. And the house was so crammed full that I felt guilty for taking up one of the seats.
A couple of weeks later in March I was invited by Ana to see the actual studios and rehearsal space of the TSPT. I met her in the Marjanishvili Square area. While waiting for her I bumped into Nino Namitcheishvili who was directing a puppet show based on Antoine Exupery’s The Little Prince over at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I told her I would go in a week. Ana came along after Nino had gone and had also met her on her way to see me. Artistically Tbilisi is not a very big town. Most people seem to know each other or at least about each other. Ana took me into a strange old modernist building that I had seen from a far but never seen close up. The building felt partially deserted partially unlit. We took an aging elevator up about seven floors. I entered the ramshackle hall on the floor that was used mostly by the puppet troupe. I was allowed to visit the rooms where craftsmen worked making dolls. I also met a few women working on clothing and other artistic aspects of puppet creation. It was a suitably crowded and thriving hive of activity. In another room the various puppeteers were gathering to work on improvisations and scripts. I also saw old rare posters for past shows sitting in a huge pile. At one point a puppet of Woody Allen was brought out. Evidently Georgians have a fondness for the neurotic New Yorker. Although it was hard to imagine what a Georgian would sound like imitating Vudi Aleni.
I was sitting in a moody dimly lit office with Niko Sabashvili watching a video he had directed in a theatrical manner that told a tragic Georgian political story of recent vintage. Ana Sanaia was there. She was also a potent actress within the film. Niko had to work on rehearsals when Salome came in. I told the two women about what had happened before this trip even started, losing my home of more than 20 years, receiving the backing of the International Institute of Puppetry in France at the beginning of this journey. As we spoke I also conveyed that I was starting to wonder if maybe I should relocate to Tbilisi. I had had several conversations that pointed me in that direction. They both looked at me seriously and told me at different moments: “You are supposed to be here.” There was something eerie about it. As though some direct word from above was coming through them. If I had been tilting towards the idea 60/40 when I walked in, I was even more thoughtful about the possibility when I left.
So while I was ruminating over these things it was clear to me that puppetry it turns out is very much alive in Tbilisi. There is much more to say though. Next time as we will visit the Marjanishvili Theatre and celebrate World Puppetry Day with the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre.
Come back soon!
Svaneti is a province in Georgia in the Greater Caucasus Mountains with the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe; Ushguli at 2,100 meters (6,900 ft). It is buried in snow about six months of the year. Until recently the roads were so fierce and unpredictable that the village remained essentially in the Middle Ages culturally. The roads are still quite dangerous. And so Ushguli has preserved strange towers that make it look like something Tolkien forgot to describe in Middle Earth. Improved roads now take visitors up the mountain sides today, mountain roads festooned with crosses for the dead who drove off the path. But as recently as the 1990’s not only Ushguli but much of Svaneti was living in a tribal past. Soviet Communism never penetrated too far. Even the Georgian Orthodox Church found its beliefs with mingled with animal sacrifices of a not too distance pagan past.
Mariam Khatchvani’s film Dede (pronounced day-day), which opened in Tbilisi Georgia in February 2017, after being featured at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, among others, is set in the near feudal world of Svaneti in the 1990’s. And you’ll have to remind yourself of that when you watch it. Filmed in Ushguli and other Svaneti locations it has the feel of authenticity that comes from a filmmaker knowing exactly what she is seeing. Khatchvani in a Svan herself and tells a story partly based on the stories her own grandmother told her. And in case you were thinking that the tribal past sounded like a romantic place to visit Khatchvani is sure to make you rethink that notion. In an earlier short film, Dinola, also based on her grandmother’s stories, and some of the harsher Svan traditions, a woman who loses her husband must marry the first man who then proposes. And leave her child with her late husbands family. Dinola is almost told from the child’s perspective.
Dede is the full perspective of the mother. It is a slightly different setting but recognizably the same basic story. But now it is much more complex. With three men and one woman and their relationship to her. But again the issue of child loss through tradition comes to the fore. Without going too deeply into the subtle and intense plot twists, which need to be seen without any advance knowledge, we can say that the issues with the child eventually recreate a winter trek through the deep snow directly based upon Khatchvani’s grandmother’s story.
The film is beautifully shot in Svaneti by Konstantin Esadze, which gives it far more production value than any Hollywood special effects could possibly match. Everything is real, because Svaneti, though now more accessible, is still there. Khatchvani uses stillness. She is unafraid to study the faces, the behavior of her characters. Giorgi Babluani is the only professional actor in the film. For anyone who has ever seen the original French/Georgian film 13 Tsameti he is the central figure in that extremely dark film. All of the other actors in Dede, as in Dinola, were Svan amateurs. And that is hard to believe. Especially in the central performance of Dina by Natia Vibliani. Natia plays the role with such conviction and honesty that I was surprised to find that she was not an actor at all. In two moments of emotional connection she conveys beautifully the depth of human longing and tenderness.
Now this is the part of my story that would be hard to replicate anywhere but Georgia. And why I am reviewing this film for you. I was in Tbilisi. I also have many Georgian Facebook connections. So I was curious as to whether Natia had a Facebook page. Why yes. She did. And so I wrote to her. And lo and behold within a few weeks we were sitting down in a cafe in the Saburtalo area, not too far from my apartment, for an interview. One thing I have come to understand about Georgians is that there is almost a innate curiosity about people and things. And so after a bit of communication back and forth we eventually found time to meet. And the reason it took a while, apart from the fact that she had to come back from an Egyptian film festival, is because her job keeps her quite busy. Natia she is a policewoman! She had studied law at university and was now doing security duty at the airport. This really made me laugh. One minute I’m watching her on a screen. Then I’m getting in touch with her. And she’s with the police. Only in Georgia!
We had a friendly and natural discussion, she in no way has let her film experience affect her. One thing that was important for me was to clarify parts of the film I may have misunderstood since there were no subtitles. Yes the film was about a woman whose child was taken from her due to ancient tribal codes. One character dies in a mountain car crash off screen. She was taken to another village to live while her son had to be left behind. We then entered the meat of the interview. (Which can be viewed below.) Why she was chosen to play the role. How she portrayed her character. How she felt working with professional actor Giorgi Babluani. Eventually we simply talked about ideas and places. I shared a few Alaskan stories and images. Natia had very recently gotten married. She wanted to take on more serious policing responsibilities and yet the idea of being in another film was also intriguing to her. One thing that was clear to me was that no matter what else happens to her Natia would always look at this time of her life as a unique moment.
While Dede has been shown in a few festivals it has not arrived in any English speaking countries yet. But I know one day it will. Mariam Khatchvani has made a very special and personal film well worth seeking out on disc or download someday. I would not have sought out Natia had the film not been excellent. My only small criticism of the film was that I would have wished that the scene where Natia’s character Dina had to walk through the snow to get back to her child had been more developed. But this is really a minor flaw. It was an excellent and heartfelt first feature film.
In an earlier essay I lamented the lack of mature films in our times. I mentioned the glut of comic book heroes and science fiction fantasy culture that surrounds us today. And many of these symptoms of cultural sterility can be found in Georgia as well. But not being made by Georgians. Dede is the kind of film we need in such hollow times. A film of honesty and reality set in a specific time in a specific place.
More Georgian stories are coming!
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I’ve discovered a lost world just this week.
And I mean that. I’m not talking in hyperbole.
I was ushered into a room that had the puppetry equivalent of King Tut’s treasures in it. Collecting the dust of years. Made by a name seemingly opaque to the world of puppets, puppet films, puppetry animation, never mind the big world. More than once my jaw was firmly resting on the floor with the miniature spectacle being revealed to me. I found a lost world this week, the world of forgotten Georgian puppet animator Karlo Sulakauri.
I originally visited Tbilisi Georgia in March of 2016. One of the tiny museums I tried to get into was what the Georgian Museums site called the Animated Puppet Museum. I had dutifully, eagerly hunted it down, going so far as to navigate the cryptic bus system to end up at 23 Amagleba Street. All I found was a locked door, the most paint cracked door imaginable, with an old rusty plaque on it that read ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. A ringing of the bell and knocks on the door produced no sound. Trying to peer into the windows proved impossible. The other puppet folk in Tbilisi didn’t even know of the existence of this place. I wrote to the email addresses listed on the Georgian Museums page. Silence.
I wrote a note to the Quay brothers about it. They immediately saw the extreme possibility of what might lay behind that door. They wrote back: “The plaque of the Puppet Museum is very moving and poignant. Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key and he/she was buried with it, and the museum as well. But you must try to get into it.” I took that as a command. But to no avail. Like the spectral house in Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover, no one ever came to the door. Whenever I mentioned it to people who might know something they just looked at me with a puzzled hopeless expression. And so I left Tbilisi and all I had was the mysterious plaque in a photograph.
I arrived back in Tbilisi in late December of 2017 for an extended three month stay. I would meet more people. Occasionally I asked about the museum. No one knew anything. Then at the beginning of February, reflecting on the older photo, I thought again about the museum and then remembered the Quays command. I thought let’s give it one more try. So I wrote to the email addresses still listed on the museum website.
A few days passed.
And then I received a response from someone named Daro Sulakauri. Originally I thought it was a man, but it is hard to tell male and female names apart in Georgian. Tako is girl. Toko is a boy. Daro proved to be the granddaughter of Karlo Sulakauri, who had made animated films from the 1950s until the 1980s in the old Soviet Union. The little museum featured his work exclusively. Daro would be happy to open the door to the ‘Puppetton Animation Doll Museum’ and to give me a private showing. I had no idea what to expect. But it would take longer than I expected to get in. Daro is a photojournalist who works for international magazines like National Geographic or Georgian Journal, etc and she was often out on assignment. I had to wait. But what else is new? This is Georgia. I’m getting used to it.
Eventually Daro’s schedule proved favorable to a visit. And so I took the bus up to Amagleba Street and stood again at the decaying door. I pressed the doorbell. No answer. But I assumed that she would be coming from somewhere else. I was wrong though. Shortly before the appointed time a pleasant curly haired young woman wearing glasses opened the door with a friendly smile. She didn’t know I was there. The doorbell didn’t work. I should have knocked.
But as I stepped in I was suddenly presented with a very tactile colorful artistic stairway leading up to the first floor. But we stepped under it and back passed piles of stored boxes and other debris. Daro opened up a door and flipped a light switch. I was sidetracked by some art on the wall. And then I turned my attention to the room. And as we entered I must have gasped. I had expected some children’s puppetry. It turned out that Elene at Budrugana Gagra did know about this place. In fact they used to practice underneath in the basement, in what is now a restaurant. (This happens all the time here. Someone says they don’t know what you mean. Then it turns out they know much more than they said.) Elene had shown me a couple of pages in a book on Georgian animation. A thick book! And it seemed like pleasant work. But none of those images prepared me for what I was about to discover. Karlo Sulakauri wasn’t just an animator, he was an artist with a complete aesthetic vision. And no one seemed to know anything about him.
But Daro knew a lot. We spoke as she pointed things out. I waited a moment before beginning to photograph the collection. I was just trying to take it all in. Once my eyes adjusted I began to see images of creatures and people that I had never seen before. There was an old man in a wagon. I saw strange assemblages on the wall made many years ago that looked like they could have been found in a Soho gallery today. There were strange figures with even stranger lips. A tree man, I think, made of of wood. Look again and that old man had a strange grin. There were old posters of puppet shows from the mid-20th Century. Photos of Karlo and his film crew. Deformed asymmetrical puppets. A wicker figure. A large spider with a weird painted abdomen. A wooden flute with insectoid notes emerging from it. And most impressively, even eerily, of all I was struck by an insect/bird/moth/fairy that was battered with age and set against a ragged aquamarine background.
And as I spoke with Daro fragments of Karlo’s life began to revealed. And I soon recognized an absolutely dramatic story in the telling. And later I would hear even more of the tale from Daro’s father, Karlo’s son, Dato. Meanwhile I began to discuss even more with Daro, which eventually settled upon the topic near and dear to many Georgians – music. Then Daro introduced me to her husband, an electronic DJ, Giorgi Kancheli. And soon we were sitting in his studio listening to music and discussing the vinyl LP, of which he had a respectable collection. And I realized that there was something in the way Georgians talk that is at once open to new ideas, yet simultaneously respectful of traditions. Meanwhile I was smitten by the art all over the house. Much was by Dato. One wall tapestry arrested me for its use of textures. This was made by Daro’s mother, Nino Kipshidze. Then Daro pointed out a portrait of her mother in her youth as drawn by the famous Soviet Era filmmaker, Tbilisi born Armenian, Sergei Parajanov. In fact the creativity of this lineage of human beings was quite something to behold. And soon I would see just how much more there was.
Daro drove us through the back streets of Tbilisi until we arrived at a building not too far from Rustaveli Square, yet complete hidden. A gently aging ornate wooden house similar in color to the paint behind the moth fairy. We were met at the door by Dato Sulakauri, who it turns out is a very respected painter in his own right, and his wife Nino Kipshidze, who actually runs the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art that I described in my last essay, and does fantastic patchwork art of her own in tapestries, based on traditional Georgian motifs. And the part of me that is desperate for texture really connected to one of her works back at the museum / Daro’s house. But it was Dato’s work here that caught me. His work too was often inspired by Georgian themes. And his encaustic (waxed based) ikons were beautifully rendered, being both primitive (you could see ancient Roman art in his paintings), contemporary (technique, style, intensity) and yet there was gratefully no trace of postmodern irony. I was so impressed that Dato noticed and eventually handed me a copy of a book of his work.
But I was here to discuss his father, Karlo. But not until Nino laid a small but wonderful table setting of wine, tea, cookies and jam. Eventually it was time to set up the camera and train the lens on Dato, who then through Daro, an excellent interpreter due her time spent in the USA. (But that’s a long story better left for another time.) Then came the story of Karlo Sulakauri, which touched me in its complexity, heartbreak, drama and epiphany. How can I possibly do it justice? Perhaps a few details.
Karlo left Georgia to work in puppetry under the great Sergei Obraztsov. Obraztsov soon recognized his talent and sent him back to Tbilisi to work on animation films. He made a series of animated films including Soviet childhood classic Bombora, Salamura (a serious and impossible to classify hour long film based on the work of poet E. Kipiani), Dolls Laugh, and a unique film whose title translates into Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale. Sadly the only copies of these films available for anyone to see are muddy copies on YouTube in the Georgian and Russian alphabets and certainly no subtitles. Supposedly at least some of the films still exist in vaults in Moscow, but who knows in what condition. (I’ve linked Salamura and Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale which are highly worth watching even in this form.)
But that’s only the beginning of the issues surrounding these films. The Soviet apparatchik producers were playing a strange game with the puppets, which involved destroying the figures in front of Sulakauri at the end of production in order to embezzle the money needed to produce more puppets. Sulakauri was able to smuggle out duplicates of many of the puppets. But many precious originals were cut in half before his eyes. And then there was a fire that swept through the Tbilisi studio. Sulakauri actually risked his life to rescue the puppets that now live in this museum. There were strange issues with the censors. Sulakauri would put in ambiguous images like a red Kremlin shaped building that was filled with clowns. Hmmm. What kind of symbolism could that contain? When asked, he waved away their correct suspicions by saying it was just the clown house. They made him paint it white. But the point was still being made. In another episode Sulakauri put a subliminal image of St. George. But they caught it when they happened to freeze frame the film accidentally in that exact spot.
After the end of the Soviet Empire, in the early 90s, when Georgia was independent but caught in an internal civil war, fighting spread to the streets on Rustaveli Avenue. Sulakauri watched on helplessly. The main body of his work was finished. Yet he was inspired to make a new piece. He worked on it for over a year. He wanted the strife to end. This was to be his masterpiece. When it was finished he took it to be developed. As it was running through the developing machine the electricity suddenly failed, as happened often in Georgia in the 90s. The entire film was ruined. Sulakauri was devastated. He gave up on filmmaking, never to make another film. His depression was serious. It was the birth of his grandchildren that brought joy to his final days. He died in the year 2000.
And so his collection has remained pretty much where he left it ever since then. Collecting dust. Awaiting rediscovery. This small museum was occasionally open. But not for some time. And it was his granddaughter Daro, now living in that house, who opened the door for me to see these treasures. I told her that I was absolutely stunned and honored to be able to see these things. I also told her that puppet animation history needs to be rewritten to include Karlo Sulakauri. My time with the Sulakauris was deeply moving on many levels. And I felt grateful to be allowed a step into their world.
When I arrived at my apartment on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue I did a little online homework. I accessed the archives at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. Not a mention of Sulakauri. Nothing on Wikipedia. He is listed as Carlo (sic) Sulakauri in IMDb. I guess someone thought he was Italian. There was very little information there. Not even his dates (1924 – 2000). I was more convinced than ever that others, especially animators, need to know who he was. And so this essay along with my photos is a first step to informing the rest of the world about him.
There was one final thing that Dato told me that said me everything about his father. When he was just a six year old boy a traveling puppet troupe had come through his village. Later the family realized that Karlo was missing. Everyone searched the village. Karlo was nowhere to be found. The whole village was worried. Eventually it was discovered that young Karlo had stowed away to join the traveling puppet show.
Many more discoveries are awaiting. So come back again soon. (Or stop now and read our past encounters with European puppets, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and more.)
For more information about Dato Sulakauri’s art:
For more information about Daro Sulakauri’s photojournalism:
I’ve written more on the unique world of Georgian artists here: