The head Valentin Arnoux being comforted by a puppet manipulated by Zoë Lizot.
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.
A very mysterious work of art in Palermo.
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.
My excellent friend Paulette Caron in Charleville-Mézières.
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 that the institute wanted to back me to finish my documentary. This was very good 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.
Paris April 2018: A self portrait in an old mirror.
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.
Facing death in Palermo. The desiccated corpse of a child.
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.
The Castelet of Les Petits Bouffons de Paris at Parc des Chanteraines.
And so I took off from Tbilisi to stopover at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport for a quick transfer to another Lot plane to Paris. At least that was the plan. I knew I was in trouble when the flight was delayed a little to begin with. And I only had 50 minutes originally to get make my connecting flight. 50 minutes to get get through the European Union passport control and walk the endless building. Which had been whittled down to 15 minutes by the time we landed. But they let me get through customs rather quickly. But then I turned a corner to run smack dab into another airport inspection. And while no else was there yet, they held me up a precious five minutes, to go through my stuff thoroughly. And I guess because I was looking hurried and sweaty they decided I needed extra security procedures. So they tested my hands for ballistics and looked carefully at my laptop etc etc, all in the time honored tradition of Polish paranoia, a tradition I refused to accept as an inheritance from my mother.
Then, finally, at last, I was allowed through and now I raced blindly, stupidly, down what seemed like an endless terminal just to watch my plane back away from the gate. And so I was stuck at the airport for another 6 hours. I’ve got to figure out these crazy connections someday. This wasn’t the first time I had been flustered by this particular Lot connecting flight. Warsaw’s Chopin was quickly joining London’s Heathrow as one of my least favorite airports. Well I tried to make the best of it. Lot did give me a voucher which didn’t quite cover a whole meal. And I sat and wrote one of my many essays about this journey. Eventually I was aboard another flight. I sailed through French customs and the train, eventually exiting a bus back in L’Haÿ-les-Roses in the southern suburbs of Paris, back at the Caron’s house, where Gilles and Lori were waiting for my arrival along with Paulette’s brother Julien.
Attacked by Guignol.
One of the things that I had arranged while back in Georgia was to visit along with puppeteer friend Paulette Caron, a performance of Les Petits Bouffons de Paris. Paulette had been working as a guignoliste in Lyon and the Lyonnaise and Parisian style differ quite a bit. I contacted my friend Pascal Pruvost to see if we could come with him to his show in the banlieue of Paris. We hadn’t been able to make it work in late 2017 but now schedules seemed to align. We woke up early and took the train and metro out to the 20th Arrondissement to meet him at his studio near Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Paulette and I stood quietly on the slowly awakening street. After a time Pascal arrived. We eventually roused his co-guignoliste Bernard from a bed not to far away. And then we were off through the unsightly parts of Paris that most tourists never get to. We arrived at Parc des Chanteraines, still in a wintry mood. I had been here before in 2012. This time I would record their show from a different perspective. Meanwhile Paulette talked with Pascal about his show and techniques. Pascal, all skin and nerves, would not be an American’s first choice of a puppeteer for children. And yet here in Paris it seemed perfect that he and Bernard, his rather surreal confrere, would be performing for les enfants. One wants quirky people in charge of the traditions of a culture.
Soon it was time for the children. Pascal apologized a little because the age of the kids was quite young, between four and five years old. But that was fine for me. And while an older group might have been wilder, this group took Pascal’s cues quite nicely and responded enthusiastically. When someone got beat up they laughed. (Oh no! That’s not nice! Yeah, but that’s kind of the point.) Cheers went up from the petite children, who thoroughly enjoyed the show, adding to the catalogue of attributes that make up Frenchness.
Bernard Willeme, Pascal Pruvost, Byrne Power, Paulette Caron
On the drive back Pascal, who worries a lot about the effect of the cascades of recent immigrants on France, drove us passed a squat in the divider of a highway where an encampment of the migrants lived in squalor in ramshackle tents. They had created a small realm of trash bags and debris and were living in it. It was hard to understand why they living in the middle of the highway overpasses. I didn’t really have an opinion. But clearly Pascal and Paulette both had many thoughts on the subject. And it was clear that there was something brewing here that would not simply go away. As an outsider to French (or any society) I’ve learned to not spew my own opinions about things I don’t really understand, especially when based on the shallow reporting of the American media.
The disturbing site of migrant squatters on a French highway divider.
The next day was Saturday, Passover and Western Easter weekend. And I was invited over to Paulette’s boyfriend Simon’s mother’s house not far from her parents house for a Pesach (Passover) Seder. I was quite fascinated to go since I had never attended one before. And this seemed like a good choice, since while they were Jewish they were not strict Orthodox Jews, and thus my faux pas would be over looked. We arrived at her cozy little house and settled in. When the rest of the gathering had arrived we slowly worked our way through about half of the meal while reading from a booklet in French, which contained the famous phrases and answers like “Why is this night different from all others?” I surprised myself by actually reading my portion in French without a hitch, a small milestone for me. We ate the unleavened bread (matzo) and drank wine and bitter herbs and other traditional foods. I was struck by how much the Christian communion had been adapted from the service. This along with my first Georgian supra, also not the full affair, but close enough, were two new traditions that I felt honored to be able to share in one year.
Americans eat cheese. The French dine on fromage.
Eventually, after warm farewells at the Carons, punctuated with French cheese, it was time to leave Paris and to take my Icelandair flight back to Seattle and then the Alaska Airlines flight to Juneau. I began to suspect things weren’t going to go smoothly when I arrived to an overcrowded Charles De Gaulle terminal, where all Iceland flights were being delayed because of severe snow back in Reykjavik. And so my flight was delayed by over two hours in Paris which then had an immediate ripple effect. This created another hour delay once we arrived in Iceland, and this meant I would missed my connection from Seattle to Juneau, causing me to stay overnight on the airlines tab in Seattle. And that then meant I would miss my ferry to Haines, causing me a two day delay in Juneau, where fortunately friend and erstwhile clown (!) Roblin Gray Davis put me up until I could get the early boat to Haines. And finally I arrived back in Haines where dear friend Martha Mackowiak met me and drove me to my dead car, where Scott Hansen was performing yeoman’s duty to resuscitate it. At last I entered the very cold house of my Haines Belgian friend Alain d’Epremesnil, who was still out of town counting tortoises in the Mojave Desert, to kick the wood stove to life. I was back in Haines.
My old Quonset Hut near the end of its days.
Within two weeks of my arrival the old Quonset Hut I had lived in for 21 years had been razed to the ground and turned into an empty lot. It seemed to me to be a final message that it would soon be time to move on. But not before working through the summer season here in Haines and bidding a proper adieu to the land that has nurtured and taught me too much to describe here.
An empty space where so much living once occurred.
But I’m not quite done writing about this truly life altering journey. Next time I’ll give a brief summary of what I have been through and what it means to me at this juncture in time. Come back then…
And so don’t forget you can still help with the project, and we will be moving everything to Tbilisi Georgia. Donate here through PayPal.
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.
Friends Strolling Down Rustaveli Avenue.
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.
Nino Vadachkoria five seconds before asking another complex question.
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.)
With John Graham, his mother Frederica, Jemal Chkuaseli, Otar Bluashvili, and the Erisioni choir.
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.
Tinatin Gurchiani meeting me at the Keto and Kote restaurant.
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.
Gela Kandelaki at Budrugana Gagra.
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.
Vladimir Lozinski documenting an abandoned movie theatre.
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..
I had been watching Erisioni practice their singing and dancing for nearly two months, taking photos, shooting video, when Otari Bluashvili, the company manager, invited me to travel with them on a short tour into the nearby rolling mountains to watch them perform a partial show at a retreat center called Bioli. This would be a chance to see them in full costume, which thus far I had not had a chance to witness. The date, March 24th, the last weekend of my three month sojourn in Georgia, it would be a good final event to end my stay in Tbilisi.
I arrived in the early afternoon at the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue. Dancers, singers and musicians were milling around. There was good natured vibe to the milling crowd. But not everyone was there. Several dancers were not needed because the performance area was not that large and the show only half as long. A car had arrived and the performers were taking the traditional Georgian garments and carefully placing them in it, especially the women’s dresses. As I looked around I noted Irakli the dancer and Irakli the garmoni (Georgian accordion) player, Toko and Lasha, a couple of the very high voiced tenors, the dancers Nina, Gvantsa, Neolina and Mari were there. Also present was Levan the male choreographer, Eka the women’s choreographer, Shermandi the choirmaster, Otar the manager and Jemal the Chief Conductor, who was really the head of the organization, whom I remembered from the original Georgian Legend DVD, where I first learned of Erisioni.
Eventually a massive white modern bus pulled up and we entered, all forty or so folks. Several dancers and musicians had to stay back since it was a small show, otherwise the number would be over fifty. I sat near the front and looked back on the troupe, took a few photos and we drove up into the rolling mountains south of Tbilisi to Bioli a ‘Medical Wellness Resort’. The mood on the bus was like a high school field trip. They hadn’t done a show for a while so it was a chance to get out into the world again. The journey covered about 15 kilometers and took about a half an hour, all up hill, as we ascended from Tbilisi’s 450 to 760 meters (1,500-,2,500 ft) to Bioli’s 1,200 meters (3,930 ft). At last the sign for Bioli emerged along the road and we drove down their dirt road to a rather futurist looking set of structures.
The Erisioni folk seemed to know where they were going so I tagged along. The women were give a large golf cart vehicle to travel in. I entered the domed main building. Evidently tonight’s performance was to be punctuation for a business awards ceremony of some sort that I never did fully comprehend. But I wasn’t there for the proceedings, except as it pertained to the Erisioni troupe. Before changing into their costumes they practiced briefly in order to ascertain their ability to move. The performance space was actually small considering the expansiveness of the dances. Sophiko Khachidze and Tornike Gelashvili danced gracefully in their street clothes. Others moved around them. It was tight but it would work.
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 Little Prince at the Majanishvili Theatre
The Snake Puppet
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.
Head or hand? Unusual design in a doll.
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 bathetically 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 saccharin world of the American doll and more in art galleries.
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.
Ana Sanaia Shows Me An Unfinished Puppet
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.
Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre თბილისის თოჯინების სახელმწიფო თეატრი March 2018 - YouTube
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..
The final moments in Mariam Khatchvani’s film Dede.
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.
An alternative poster for Dede.
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.
Dinola/დინოლა - YouTube
Director Mariam Khatchvani with a couple of her untrained actors.
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.
Giorgi Babluani and Natia Vibliani in Dede.
Horseback ride filmed in Kazbegi.
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.
DEDE - Trailer - YouTube
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.
Dede დედე - Natia Vibliani Interview - March 2018 - In English (ინგლისური) - YouTube
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.
Mother and Son in Dede.
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.
Meeting Natia Vibliani at the Four Seasons Café.
დიდი მადლობა ნათია ვიბლიანისა და მარიამ ხაჩვანისთვის მისი ფილმისთვის.
More Georgian stories are coming!
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I had found the location of Erisioni, the traditional Georgian music and dance troupe as I was walking down Rustaveli Avenue (see this story). I stopped and read the word on the side of a wall where I had a vague idea that they were located. I knew just enough of the Georgian alphabet to slowly read the script. It looked like this: ერისიონი. The official office was closed but I knew that this was the place. And I knew to return someday closer to noon. So at the beginning of February I came back. I readied myself to be misunderstood and to misunderstand as I tried to get passed the language barrier. I entered the darkly lit building and carefully stepped up the paint cracked stairs where I could hear music joyful filling the building. Accordions (called garmoni in Georgian and tuned in a natural state) were releasing the expressive melodies to the pounding of the doli, a handheld Georgian tom-tom drum. Instructors were calling out to dancers from behind an old door in the ornate cavernous building. (For a look inside another section of this incredible structure read this.)
Neolina practicing a move.
I had been told that the offices were on the 3rd floor by a girl speaking broken English in my first trip. And so I continued on up the aging stairs. One problem, if this was a European reckoning of the floors then the ground floor was the not the first floor. But suddenly I was at the third floor in America and the second floor in Europe. And the stairs ascended no further. And so I stopped at the top. Incredible male voices rang out from behind one massive door. Then there was another old door opposite. I cautiously entered. I said Gamarjoba (Hello, but literally Victory!), then tried to let the woman at the desk know that I spoke English. She then allowed me to enter the heavy dark wood door behind her. And I was greeted in halting English to Jemal Chkuaseli, the venerable Chief Conductor and head of Erisioni, a man I remember seeing on the Erisioni ‘Georgian Legend’ DVD, which had been recorded in 2002. He was pleased to meet me and shake my hand. Soon I was joined by another man Otari Bluashvili, the General Manager of Erisioni, and the man who really handled the day to day affairs of the troupe. Otar spoke English well. And so I explained that while I was currently working on a documentary about puppetry in Europe I had an idea about eventually doing a documentary about Georgian music and dance. They were pleased to hear it. And they graciously gave me open access to the practices and rehearsals.
Sergo on point!
Sophiko preparing to move.
Beqa violating gravity.
They immediately walked me across the hall to where 15 or more men were just beginning a second practice session for the day. The men greeted me and then Jemal conducted them in an ancient hymn, a song so profound that I could feel the hairs on my arm raise. Eventually they sang more songs affiliated with the actual show. Jemal let his son the actual choir leader Shermandi Chkuaseli resume his duties. The strength of their voices overwhelmed the emptiness of the large room. It was a sound that physically effected my body as well as my essential being. No performance on a stage could be as powerful. There were no microphones here. Just an oceanic swell of vocal vibrations. It was an excellent introduction to a few of the people who would inhabit my world for the following two months. The next day I would beyond that door hiding the musicians and dancers.
Gvantsa and another dancer landing before a few visitors at Erisioni.
I arrived to meet Otar. I told him that I would not be trying to photograph or film the practice yet. I just wanted to take it in without putting something between myself and the experience. I am appalled when I find people at a concert or some other unique event and they are present yet hidden behind devices to capture poor video of something that they will look at only briefly and then never again. One is only present in reality once. And this is a principle I try to follow as often as possible, even when visiting puppet theatres. Even when I am recording it I try to watch the real show more than the my little screen. Or else what is the point?
On the garmonebi (accordions).
Vako with a Sword
Thus I was invited through the door where I would spend many hours in the subsequent two months. The dancers were stretching and and leaping, twirling and jumping in preparation for the rehearsal. Musicians were playing short bursts of well known tunes. They were about to run through a complete hour long version of the show. And I was sitting directly in front of the center of the hall. The nearest dancer would land a less than a meter away. A few other people were also watching this with me. Otar was sitting next me to explain a few things. Soon it was showtime.
Light and dark. Illumination and shadow. These are the most primal elements of visual experience. Everything we see reflects this. Even colors are essentially shadow shows with degrees on a spectrum of light and how they are reflected back to us by different materials. But black and white is the key. And black and white are the primary images in shadow puppetry. And the most basic of all entertaining shadows is silhouette of the hand. Hands and figures are the elemental tools. The shadows cast upon a wall by a light source creating rabbits or birds or perhaps just the shape and personality of the human hand itself. Thus making the hand the original puppet. And from that simplicity comes the complex artistry of Budrugana Gagra in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Budrugana Gagra Tbilisi Hand Shadow Puppets (Gravity From Above) - YouTube
‘Budrugana’ is a Georgian word that means a carriage, particularly the kind of carriage that might open up in a small village in the Caucasus Mountains and produce a puppet show. ‘Gagra’ is the name of a town now cordoned off from Georgia in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. There was strife in the 1990s in Abkhazia. There was bloodshed. There were refugees. Hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Mingrelian Georgians (or Megrels, მეგრელები Megrelebi). And they were housed in strange places, like the huge old Soviet Intourist Hotel, now the considerably more swanky Radisson Blu not far from Rustaveli Square.
With ‘Bidza’ Gela Kandelaki at Budrugana Gagra
Budrugana had existed as a hand shadow puppet theatre in a previous incarnation without the word Gagra attached to it. Gela Kandelaki (whose name actually means candle holder in church) a film director, producer, and actor once, wrote and directed უბედურება (Ubedureba) a very realistic film based on a play by David Kldiashvili. Directing work was not steady under the Soviet system. (Tarkovsky only directed 7 films in his fights with the authorities.) And so in the early ’80s Kandelaki came upon the idea of bringing the old art of hand shadows, which was still performed in small villages up in the mountains by parents for their children, into a new form. He created a unique shadow puppet troupe. Kandelaki began working as a director with hand shadows in the 1980s, which was a time of cultural ferment in the loosening grip of the faltering Soviet system. Interestingly enough they practiced in the basement of the Karlo Sulakauri’s house/museum. (See the previous essay.) Budrugana officially came into being in 1991 at the International Festival of Manipulations in Paris. In 1992 they were designated a ‘state theatre’. In 1993 they flew all the way to the International Puppetry Festival in San Francisco.
Meanwhile the situation in Georgia became more unstable as the 1990s continued. Civil War, separatist movements, financial collapse, political uncertainty, electrical failures, along with the growing internal refugee crisis, created a difficult moment for the arts. But as the dust began to settle in the roller coaster of the Georgian ’00s it seemed appropriate to Gela to start the hand shadow theatre again. There were many available Megrelebi with creative talents who needed something to do. Several of the shadow puppeteers are Megrelebi. And so the name Gagra was added to Budrugana as a tribute to the formerly beautiful resort town that was ethnically cleansed of its many Georgian residents.
So Budrugana Gagra under Gela Kandelaki’s directorship has been making hand shadow art for many years in one way or another. When I first noticed their work in 2016 I was impressed by the dedication that the hand shadow puppeteers have to their work. The motions are balletic, which Gela attributes less to any direct influence of dance than to the essence of certain aspects of Georgia folk culture. The movements of the hands are incredibly precise. And they have to be in order to communicate the shapes of animals or the much more subtle waves of the ocean. Kandelaki, who does not perform the actual hand shapes himself, works out the forms with the owners of the hands. And different hands have different suggestions of presence and movement. And these shapes often correspond to the character of the puppeteers. Zuri, with big hands will often play larger or move immovable objects. Shorena and Mariam have the most pliant and supple arms and are used more for the grace and delicacy of there movements. Elene plays the duck in one story and she is more humorous.
Giorgi’s Poster for Isn’t This A Lovely Day?
And there are essentially two styles that Budrugana Gagra works with. One is a more accessible comic style with hands making ravens, spiders, giraffes, elephants, ducks and above all bears. And the other is much more abstract and ethereal and often is set to the music of Bach. Most recently they have been working on a multi-part series of abstract vignettes to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. It will in the end have more than 15 sections and be performed to a recording, complete with orchestra and voices. Yet the way the work is unfolding it is by no means a literal transforming of the Gospel material into directly symbolic forms. There are no hand shadows making crosses for instance. And yet…
One thing has occurred to me as I have watched several performances. Even in the animal based images there is something going on beyond the obvious. In the piece ‘Isn’t This A Lovely Day?’ a hand shadow bear lip-syncs the words of Louis Armstrong from a live performance. (Sadly Louis Armstrong is probably better remembered in Georgia than in America. A live puppet film from back in the Soviet Era, called the Dreams of the Kojori Forest, also features a puppet of dear Louis.) Other animals play musical instruments. Another hand bear becomes the great Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. The Louis bear falls in love with the Ella bear and then loses her. In the end he dies. And the sad processional music of a New Orleans jazz funeral creates a moment of sorrow and tension. An angel takes him to heaven. But the joyful jazz marching music of the return journey from the cemetery brings him back in a resurrected form. It is not a simple nor ironic comedy. The Louis Armstrong bear is not a silly cartoon character of the great jazz musician. The disappearance of the Ella bear is a moment of genuine loss. (Louis and Ella never had any sort of romantic relationship in real life.) The death is truly sad. The resurrection genuinely joyful.
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.
Karlo Sulakauri (1924 – 2000)
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.
Back at the mysterious door 2018.
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 know 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.
A scene from one of Sulakauri’s films. But I have no idea which.
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.
Sulakauri’s posters for his puppet troupe.
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.
Daro Sulakauri in her grandfather’s Puppet Animation Museum
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.
One of the walls in Sulakauri’s museum.
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.