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:
And remember we are still funding this project from the bottom of very shallow pockets and can still use all the help we can get. We are grateful for recent PayPal contributions that really meant much more than can be expressed here. If you wish to help out please feel free to make a contribution. You can also share this story with others. Thanks for the continuing encouragement.
I jumped up on the all night train from Milan to Paris. I tried to open the door to my three person birth. It was locked, then undone, and I was welcomed to share the compartment with an Italian IT technician named Filippo on his way to Paris to work on a job. He and I were fortunately the only two sharing the room. He took the darker top bunk on the mistaken, we discovered in the morning, notion that some of the lights didn’t turn off. I was happy with the bottom bed, after taping something on the lights to cut down the glare. In the morning we had a interesting discussion about video games and fiction. After I told him about some of my stories, one will be self-published this summer. He demanded I give him contact information so that he could read my work and follow my progress. That was somewhat flattering I must say. Now let’s make good on that.
I arrived in Paris and rode the metro and bus out to my European home with the Carons out in the Ile de France. I had picked up an annoying, but not debilitating, minor cold in Rome that would linger for over a week. And so I used my down time in Paris to rest, see a movie (Les Gardiennes was a French World War I film that met my hunger for something grown up in this childish age.) and basically take it easy before going to London to visit the Quay Brothers. Before I left I dropped in on a store near Place de Republique called Heeza that I had bought a few odd items from online. Back in 2016 I had come here to search Heeza out but they were not open. But this time after a little effort I managed to get in. (There is no storefront.)
Once inside I met the owner Pierre who was an affable Frenchman who had very eccentric and intellectual interests in things like old silent film, primitive cinema, odd animation (lots of Švankmajer and Starewitch), a limited choice bandes dessinées (French and European comics), not to forget strange postcards, old fashioned games, and flipbooks. More importantly he stocks recreations of pre-film optical devices like the praxinoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the phenakistascope, the camera obscura and of course the magic lantern. (If you got even two of those names you’re doing well. Go check out his site. Fantastic stuff.) Plus books on all of this. We discussed puppets in animation. And he was curious himself why he didn’t have more on the puppets. I ended up buying a mysterious DVD by Patrick Bokanowski call L’Ange (The Angel) a favorite it turns out of the Quays.
As we were talking a couple of Ukrainian clowns walked in. (You really can’t invent this sort of thing. And what is it with clowns on this journey?) Now they weren’t dressed up! And they were on their way to Bordeaux to perform. Nevertheless we had a fascinating discussion about clowning techniques and how this little store was a perfect lure for truly intriguing people. I told the Quays later in London that they had to drop in sometime. You get the point. (Look them up online!)
Well eventually it was time to grab the old Eurostar chunnel express and zip over to London. I arrived on a wet London afternoon. And cursed the whole payment system for the London Underground. (Less than three days and more than $45 on spent on the Tube.) I was scheduled to drop in the next morning on the animating brothers so I did the appropriate thing. I went to the IMAX theatre where they were still showing Dunkirk. Since I had missed it in Alaska, this was my chance to see this perversely adult summer World War 2 epic with massive sound and huge screen. And I was duly impressed. I’m still weighing my thoughts about the film.
There was an degree of pressure at the Quays Atelier Koninck QbfZ. A mysterious benefactor had about a year and half earlier commissioned the Quays to make a film. Not a specific item for him personally. But, generously, to do what they did best. Make their own idea into a film. Institutions around the world aren’t exactly lining up to fund their films in this age of bottom line financial mania. The Quays were actually mid-way through another project when this person approached them. But since it was digital and he being interested in film rather than digital creations, he wasn’t so keen on it. One of his stipulations was that it be shot on 35mm film stock with their old cameras. But he basically said here’s a certain amount. Would you like to make a a real film out of it? What could they say? Why, yes! And now he was coming to check out what they had done on the 19th of December. And I had arrived on the 12th. So essentially my visit was a break in round-the-clock filming and editing (digitally then transferred back to film stock).
Well the brothers carved out a couple of hours in the morning. As they said in an email “Why don’t you come at 10am and we’ll throw you out at noon.” Sounded fine to me. We met as old friends and immediately traversed a wide variety of subjects from Sicilian marionettes to the Symbolist works of Marcel Schwob, whom I had been reading. We mentioned Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog as an opera with puppets. There were storage problems for their arcane studio, moving things up into the rafters to create something like a balcony. Evidently Švankmajer’s new film Insects is finished and will have a special Vimeo showing soon if you look for it. We also passed through subject of texture. They discussed their project, which at this moment officially is being called A Doll’s Breath. And the music for it is being done by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick’s wife. And they seem quite pleased with her style.
Well time was passing and the hour of my ejection was coming. (Not exactly at the stroke of noon.) So I began wandering through their studio to photograph their oddities. It was something I’d always forgotten to do before. Several of the puppets for A Doll’s Breath were on hand. And I was allow to capture them. And there was a small set where they were still filming. I also was granted access to photograph that as well. Their place is quite thronged with strange little visual discoveries. Like the framed piece that they have had for many years that they never clean, except for one spot revealing a small face. At one point I realized that they had turned off the light for their little set. Rather than ask for the lights back I decided to take a picture in the darkened conditions, which seemed more appropriate.
Finally it time allowed us to talk a bit more while sharing a bottle of very dark wine I had brought from Sicily and some potent brie interlarded with truffles from France. For a little creative inspiration I promised to bring them a dried salmon head back from Alaska next time I visited. Alas it was time to leave them to their metaphysical activities. We would indeed see each other in the next year. After a fond farewells I ambled out into the gray London weather gladly satisfied that I’d crossed the channel to catch up with the Brothers Quay.
Next time we wrap things up in London and Paris before the big journey to Georgia
From the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland waiting for a flight to Tbilisi
PS. An abscessed tooth, London Tube costs, all the other stuff I’ve mentioned in my earlier postscripts. After doing my budget its clear things have become tight for Georgia. So really if you can thrown in a few coins in my PayPal account that would be greatly appreciated. It’s simple and effective. Click here.
March 2016 while in Huémoz Switzerland I had a chance to give a lecture with slides called A Brief History of Puppetry at L’Abri. Now I have met people involved with puppetry who know an awful lot about the subject. This lecture isn’t really for them, though I suspect they’d appreciate it. This is for the multitudes who only have a glimmer of an idea about puppetry. A couple of years ago I uploaded my Puppetry As Antidote Art, which was essentially my personal apologia for puppetry to be considered as a serious art form. And I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have watched it and in some manner contacted me as a result. And so I present to you a more detailed follow-up. Not a particularly scholarly history but nevertheless more involved and detailed than anything else to be found in video at this moment.
(It’s over an hour and a half long. The best way to watch it might be to download it and spend some time with it. I’ve added much more visual material than when I gave it live so that should help.)
If you find it worthwhile let me know. And if you want to correct my dates and facts also get in touch. Leave comments below or on the YouTube page.
And remember I must get back to Europe this year to continue and hopefully get closer to wrapping the interviews for Gravity From Above, our documentary on European puppetry. We do need financial help if you want to donate to the cause use the “Make A Donation” button above. It’s simple, painless, direct and absolutely needed. Plus I will put your name on the final film.
Stay tuned, more will be developing as we go. And thanks to all those who have already helped out or followed our progress in some manner.
April 9th 2017
Time for an update on the progress of Gravity From Above. I’ve meant to write sooner but I’ve been intensely busy trying to finish the editing for my short feature film Arca. (And that will be worth watching!) Nevertheless things haven’t stayed still.
So I will be going, by hook or crook, to Charleville-Mézières France for a three week residency to the International Puppetry Institute and ESNAM, their school, in October. And I have decided as long as I am there to visit a few puppet theatres and friends and try to get so more filming done. So far here’s what I know. I’ll be visiting Paris, hopefully to reconnect with Pascal Pruvost and the Petits Bouffons de Paris. I’ll will of course find my good friend Paulette Caron, who’ll help at ESNAM as well. I might drop down to Lyon. I will certainly get back to Brussels to visit Dimitri at the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet and Nicolas at Le Théâtre Royal de Toone.
In London I will have a chance to visit the Quays, who are working on a mysterious project on actual film again. While there I’ve also been invited by filmmaker Matty Ross to consider making a puppet sequence for a rather intense half hour film of his. So I’ll pop round and officially make his acquaintance. And there are other possibilities as well. (Of course I must get back to Georgia again sometime as well!)
A lot will depend upon financing. If I get the Rasmuson Foundation grant I’ve applied for that will help. But you can never count on grants until the money is in the bank. If I can get more support I’ll try to film the final stages of the documentary. Even if I can only get a few more clips it will make the work left to be done that much less.
(That PayPal donate button above this somewhere has come in handy so far, and right about now it would be a real encouragement to know that some of you are willing to contribute a bit more. I truly can’t go back to crowdfunding for quite a while. But why go through a middle man (Well PayPal does take its cut too.), when you can donate directly to this project today. Think about it.)
Meanwhile back in Haines I’ve been teaching a class of five students a serious course in puppetry studies. We are studying puppet techniques, history, films, materials etc. And at the end of it in late April we will be putting on a comic 21st Century version of Faust. It’s a step towards more puppetry education.
Speaking of puppet education. Very soon I will have a new YouTube video to share with all of you of the Brief History of Puppetry lecture I gave in Switzerland at L’Abri last March. Stick around and you’ll have a chance to watch another hour and a half video. (The last lecture Puppetry As Antidote Art is linked below. And so far it has received 15,500 views. Not bad eh? Now if each of them had contributed five dollars….)
I’ll be back very soon with A Brief History of Puppetry.
Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE have been curious about the journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the fifth part. More will follow shortly. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
I arrived in Poznan, Poland a day after Pope John Paul II died. After spending a requisite amount of time being thoroughly confused by Polish housing numbers I found myself at the main entrance of the Adam Mickiewicz University along with what started off as fifty or so mourners to the late Pope and which eventually grew to a march of what appeared be about twenty thousand people. I was searching for the Teatr Animacji for puppet shows. I passed it and didn’t even recognize it. The building was much grander than I was imagining any puppet theatre would be. (Follow the link below to read the story.)
Kote Marjanishvili was a famous Georgian theatre director from both the late Imperial period through the early Revolutionary Era in Georgia, Russia and the Soviet Union. I was visiting a theatre named after him on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi on the appropriately named Kote Marjanishvili Street. I was there to see Nino Namitcheishvili, a name I’m still wrestling with. Tinatin Gurchiani had come through again finding the theatre’s puppet mistress who was glad to invite me up to her office in the stately building.
Nino was a friendly curly black haired woman, a bit quirky (as puppeteers often are) and dedicated to her craft. As I set up my camera for an interview I couldn’t help noticing the bird in a cage behind her next to a couple of similarly sized puppets. Somehow it seemed fitting. Once you start seeing things through the eyes of puppetry everything begins to have connections with the art. On the wall was a piece of colorful fabric that had once been used for the backdrop of a puppet show. Behind me rested a community of puppets that all looked like they had been prepared for a barbecue, with skewers sticking out of their backs, as they laid face down a table.
Puppets and Bird
We spoke about her connection to puppetry.We spoke about her connection to puppetry. She had discovered it almost by accident as many others had having already embarked upon a theatrical career. But had been enchanted by world of puppets. We spoke of Georgian theatre, Obraztsov, rod puppets, and the Georgian reaction to puppet performances.
After the interview she showed me the puppets individually all of which had somewhat blank faces yet with plenty of features to make them possible to be read in many different ways during a performance. There were many parts of a Georgian village present. Men, women, a priest. And obviously these were not hastily made creatures. Georgia was indeed connected to the traditions of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet world in terms of puppetry. One of my prized possessions gathered on my scrounges through Georgian used bookstores was a large photographic book in Russian on the great puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov. And clearly his effect had been felt from Poland to Georgia. As I thanked Nino and prepared to leave she told be that she could get me into the theatre’s play the next evening, which was to be my last day in Georgia. And the play was being done without words, so how fortunate for me. And so why not? The day was already busy but why not make it a day to remember.
My last day in Tbilisi was indeed full. At ten in the morning I met Tinatin Gurchiani for breakfast. Our words drifted from subject to subject as she checked in on my progress in an almost proprietorial and concerned way. She apologized for not connecting me with the busy puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. And it pleased her to know that she had been of service to me. And I felt honored to have had made another good Georgian friend. She spoke of her current documentary project. Her earlier film, The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear, had had as its theme the dreams and confusions of youth. Her new documentary focused on the longings and reflections of the aged. I told her more of Alaska and my observations on Georgia. Eventually it was time to go. We bid farewell as though old friends. (And I didn’t remember to take even one photo of Tinatin!)
I then moved over a few blocks to the Sukhishvili dance troupe where I had my interview with Nino Sukhishvili and had my second chance to watch the dancers practice. (See my last entry.) A bit later in the afternoon after my last Georgian meal I arrived at Budrugana Gagra to say farewell. Again another fond farewell by Gela Kandelaki, with ‘Medium Elene’ translating for me. After he left I stayed a little later to show Elene some of my other creative work. And then it was time to go to the theatre.
The Marjanishvili Theatre was a classic Soviet style building similar to what I seen in Poland and the Czech Republic: gray, columns, stately. I was seated in a spare seat. And watched the play, which had been based on the same Sholom Aleichem source material as Fiddler On The Roof. It was called Begalut (In Exile) and developed fragments from Shalom Aleichem’s and Georgian writer Guram Batiashvili’s novels. At first it seemed like a comedy. But by the end after a brutal pogrom it indeed proved to be utterly tragic. Told in a somewhat abstract wordless style the play ends very differently than Fiddler On The Roof, which has notes of hope in a voyage to America, with the final image of a grandmother holding the last surviving baby in her arms among the dead villagers. It wasn’t a stretch to feel that the Russian villains in the piece had a special meaning in Georgia of today, a country with fresh memories of the Five Day War in 2008. I left the theatre walking back home along Marjanishvili Street with many, many thoughts of my time in Tbilisi. Returning to the city was foremost on my mind. It had been stimulating for me in the best possible way. Not as a touristic frantic search for experiences. But in the way seeing new possibilities, sparking new ideas, even challenging my American notions of order.
(The following 25 minute video is my reflection on my time in Tbilisi. Enjoy it at your leisure.)
I was awoken early at four in the morning. Shako purposely came home to say goodbye to me. I had said fond farewells for my host Tamar to Shako’s girlfriend Aneta and especially to my Georgian teacher, the seven year old Mariam. The silent man, whose name I never did get, though I know he is Tamar’s husband but not Shako’s father, drove me through the dark nighttime streets again. This time the music was slightly louder. I looked out at Tbilisi thinking about all that had happened since I arrived. There is much I haven’t even mentioned: Meeting photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote, time spent in museums, meeting American expat Steve Johnson and his wife Tamara who own Prospero’s Books, many serious food experiences, time spent scavenging Georgian music on the Dry Bridge flea market and art bazaar and so much more. Finally my silent driver drove me up to the Tbilisi Airport, I took my luggage, now bursting with Georgian artifacts in a new travel bag purchased at the endless Georgian bazaar by the train station, and said to my driver “Didi madloba.” which means ‘big thanks’, whereupon he suddenly smiled for the first time and responded something in Georgian I didn’t understand. And that made the trip complete.
It was time to get back to Paris to finish up this journey. I had puppeteers waiting for me and memories to share.
And when you have the time go back and read all of my Georgia adventures…
Upon returning from a very full three days in Brussels I met my friend Paulette, who had been working behind the scenes to set up time with Leona-Beatrice Starewitch Martin, the granddaughter of Ladislas Starewitch (also spelled Vladislav Starevich, in Russian: Владисла́в Старе́вич, in Polish: Władysław Starewicz). (Always pronounced Star-a-vich.) Because we are in France we will stay with the French version of the family name, which is also helpful in trying to buy is DVDs (region free playable anywhere). After a meal in a French café, wherein I almost lost the multicolored checkered scarf I’d had since the 70s (!), we took off by train to the Val-de-Marne area where Beatrice and her husband François Martin were waiting for us.
Ladislas Starewitch, for those not aware, whom I must consider to be most folks conscious at present in the world today, is considered to be the first person to make and show publicly stop-motion animation films in 1910 in Lithuania. There are whispers of another, a Russian named Aleksander Shiryayev, a principal dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet, made a few animated puppet ballets in 1906. He only showed his work privately and they were completely forgotten until their rediscovery in 1995. Nevertheless Starewitch is the man who discovered animation independently and became a master of the art.
We were taken by car over to Le Musée de Nogent-sur-Marne where they were currently showing an exhibition called ‘La fabrique du cinéma’, a look at the history of movie studios in the Val-de-Marne region from the early silent era till 1970. Walking through the many photos and memorabilia from the active area of film production one is suddenly arrested by the encased puppets of Ladislas Starewitch for Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). These are the actual figures made by Starewitch, including the Lion Queen, the singing cat and other strange creatures. (Unfortunately the lighting and the glare of the glass made good photography difficult, but I did manage to locate a couple of worthy angles.
Also in the museum were several of notebooks and animated beetles that indicated Starewitch’s abiding commitment to entomology. In the early 20th Century Starewitch had been the Director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he sought a way to demonstrate a couple of stag beetles in action. He had been making live action films of other insects for pedagogical reasons. But putting any light on the beetles effectively killed them. And so, inspired by French pioneer Emile Côhl he came up with idea of animating the carcasses of dead insects. And then he began to focus more exclusively on animation to tell stories. So successful and unusual were these strange little films, including gems like the Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), that even the Tsar took notice.
After our time in the museum we were taken back to Madame Starewitch’s home where we spent more than an hour discussing her grandfather as well as looking at curious books (like the one from the Metamorphosis exhibition from Barcelona that featured Starewitch, Jan Švankmajer and the Quays that I must find for myself) and sipping on tea and eating madeleines. I recorded audio of the conversation, which Paulette translated, but it was decided not to film until later in the year or the spring of 2017.
After the generous time and hospitality from the land of Starewitch it was now time to move on to Lyon to discover Guignol on his home turf. Meanwhile if you haven’t seen any of the films of Ladislas Starewitch… what are you waiting for? I mean it. Go look you can find them. Start with Mascot (Fetische) or the Cameraman’s Revenge. Look for The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) and discover a truly enchanted world.
On my last day in Brussels I had been invited to visit the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet by Dimitri Jageneau. I must confess I didn’t quite follow his directions and so explored a little more of Brussels than I had expected to both on foot and by tram. Fortunately I had given myself plenty of time to get lost (a good stratagem for finding new places by public transportation) and so arrived just in time to set up for the children’s show of the Three Little Pigs. It was a rather cozy old theatre with wooden seats in an old farm house surrounded by industrial apartment buildings. As the performance was about to begin an older French woman came out ringing a bell and introduced the play, this would turn out to be Biserka Assenova, Dimitri’s mother, once upon a time Bulgarian, a theatre student in Prague in the 60s, a puppeteer in her own right and working several of the characters in this play.
The story began with a little parable about the rain, the wind and the sun that worked together to become a rainbow and then shifted into a marionette version of the classic little piggies. Now the winsome star of this fable was the rather louche wolf. He would enter the stage with a strange monotone song with lyrics that went something like this: ’Youp-La-La-La Youp-La-La Youp-La-La-la Youp-La-La’. And so bizarrely infectious was this that I heard several kids afterwards chanting, ‘Youp-La-La-La Youp-La-La’. And of course the wolf tries to blow the houses down, the straw, the wood and the brick. But he does it by turning around and around and becoming a mini-hurricane. By the end I was caught up in the story myself and was almost rooting for the unsavory canine.
Apres la spectacle, I met Madame Assenova who was a sweet charming lady with much insight into the art of puppetry. She consented to be interviewed. I also met the two others members of the cast, a couple of younger women just beginning their life of puppetry. I was shown the adjoining museum which was chock full of puppet upon puppet with many from Asia, evidently Dimitri’s father, Franz Jageneau, had become passionate about Indian puppetry in particular and other countries puppets as well. Also gracing this collection were many unusual European puppets as well, including a few by famous Russian puppeteers Nina Efimova and Sergei Obraztsov. I was quite astonished by the depth of the collection. Dimitri demonstrated several of the older puppets from the Péruchet theatre.
Finally I sat with Biserka (a strange name given to her in World War 2 as a tribute to a woman who helped her mother deliver her and died shortly thereafter) for an interview. We spoke for about 40 minutes about her time in Prague, her discovery of puppets and mostly, a common theme for many puppet folks, the unleashing of the imagination. And she was quite eloquent about how the current tendency toward all encompassing storytelling and media, actually stripped away the imagination rather than feeding it. The puppet leaves room for the spectator to create their own version of the story and characters. Again something similar to the Quays’ concept of reading the mask/puppet face which is incomplete. The incompleteness invites completion through an act of imagination.
And then Dimitri sat down for around 50 minutes and spoke again about many subjects related to puppetry. He had inherited the theatre from his father. He had never intended to go into puppetry. And in fact he had a degree in European political studies. But during the course of his father’s decline and death due to cancer he had assumed the mantle of puppeteer. And had done a fine job in continuing the profession and researching puppet history. I’ll save much of what he said for Gravity From Above, but in the end, when it came down to it the point of puppetry in the 21st Century, it was ultimately about simplicity. Another theme that had recurred in my various interviews. We live in a time when things are so abstract that only the simplicity of a handmade creature made of a wooden or some other tangible substance could help us rediscover the value and mystery of the material world.
In the end I left Dimitri, Biserka and Péruchet feeling I had made friends. As I returned through the rain soaked streets of Brussels I felt I had understood more than when I had started. The two main puppet theatres of Brussels Toone and Péruchet were traditional in many ways, though also in their own ways remaining contemporary. They were friendly contemporains on a field without many players. Yet neither of them could claim to be hip or cool. And that connection to the past is what gave them a rich life. Each were multigenerational dynasties and in Toone’s case with a very long history as well. And yet they seemed to be on a battlefront, maintaining the classic style of European puppet art into the heart of the 21st Century. (Even as I write Toone’s future is hanging by a thread. To support them sign a petition. You don’t to be from Belgium or speak French. Just run this link through translation tool.)