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!
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.