Soso Dumbadze, Nino Dzandzava (eds.): Kote Mikaberidze

Soso Dumbadze, Nino Dzandzava (eds.): Kote Mikaberidze

Tbilisi: Sa.Ga. Publishing For Society 2018, ISBN 978-9941-8-0427-4, 505 p. (first published 2017 in Georgian, 520 p.)

Author
Alexander Schwarz
Keywords
Kote Mikaberidze; Georgia; Georgian cinema; silent film; sound film; Soviet Union; actor; director; screenplay; repression; satire.

Have you ever heard of the filmmaker Kote Mikaberidze? No need to blush – very few will be able to answer this question affirmatively. Rarely does one come across such a gem of film history and find that nothing has ever been written about it – like in the case of Kote Mikaberidze, the forgotten filmmaker. This assessment admittedly reflects only a western standpoint, as there are several articles about this interesting filmmaker that have been published in Georgian. In the case of the book reviewed here, Soso Dumbadze and Nino Dzandzava therefore must be honoured for their masterful work in not only compiling this first and comprehensive 500 page book on Mikaberidze (in Georgian) in 2017, but also for the accomplishment of translating it into English. It is also important to give credit to Tamar Bakuradze, Georg Felix Harsch and Levan Lomsadze whose translations into English have introduced the forgotten filmmaker to a wider audience. The reader of the book benefits from years of archival research by the publishers, a well-informed selection of documents and approximately 300 photos, posters, caricatures and document facsimiles. The editors’ approach is convincing: they not only rediscover this filmmaker, but also put his life and œuvre in the context of Georgian-Soviet filmmaking and film reception, the cinema of the Stalin era and the repressions of the 1930s and 1950s.

Moreover, we have to revoke the common evaluation of Mikaberidze as a forgotten filmmaker anyway. At least one (the first one) of Mikaberidze’s films will arouse lots of associations for the connoisseurs of Soviet/Georgian cinema who are, of course, familiar with Chemi bebia / My Grandmother (1929, Soviet Union), a quite unique satirical experiment in times when Stalinism was tightening its grip on society, politicians and filmmakers alike.1 Chemi bebia is included in every book on the history of Georgian cinema, although the genre tends to be categorised differently: not only as satire, but also as a satirical comedy, piece of revolutionary surrealism or farce and an eccentric comedy – which is the case with this book as well (Dumbadze, Dzandzava 2018: 66, 165, 169). Various film scholars have previously analysed the film. The most recent example is Salome Tsopurashvili who, in one of the chapters of her dissertation, studies the “Invisible Queerness of Georgian Silent Cinema” and coins the phrase “Monstrous Femininity” in response to it. (Tsopurashvili 2016: 174-196). References to this film between the 1930s and 1950s hardly exist, because the film was immediately banned after its production and only 20 years later was screened for the first time, in Moscow, in 1967. When it was restored in 1977 it was relished and celebrated as a rare surviving example of Georgian avant-garde cinema (see Dumbadze, Dzandzava 2018: 16, 42). Despite the ban of his film debut in 1929, the director was later recognised even by the Soviet authorities, being granted the state title of Honoured Artist in 1945. Thomas Tode holds an interesting view on the “irreverent satire of bureaucracy” (ibid.: 66) in his essay contribution to the book, aptly titled “The unknown continent — Kote Mikaberidze” (ibid: 61-76):

Chemi Bebia (My Grandmother) is not a dissident film. Rather, it tries to support the system by reinstating the working class as the ruling force, replacing the complacent authority of the bureaucrats. It is possible that the film could have avoided the ban if Mikaberidze had not set it in the Soviet sphere as a kind of Socialist self-criticism, but had framed it as a criticism of a capitalist system, leaving it to the audience to make the necessary connections. […] Mikaberidze’s deviation from the cultural directives issued in Moscow was his taking seriously the concept of self-criticism constantly demanded by official ideology and not understanding that this was only a diplomatic phrase to be employed or abandoned, depending on the situation. (ibid.: 69-70).

This seems to be quite convincing and important explanation for Mikaberidze’s attitude and behavior which played a major role in shaping his later life. So when a creative filmmaker like this one is (re-)discovered we ideally would like to be presented with the full picture: of the person, the artistic work and its reception, his concepts as well as an analysis of the subsequent fate of the films and the filmmaker. And this is exactly what we get in this monograph, only in a far more comprehensive manner than we could have hoped for. The book consists of three parts three concentric circles. The first part presents an introduction by Dumbadze, which outlines Mikaberidze’s political fate and sets the stage for the various sections and documents in the following parts of the book: Dzandzava’s overview of the five phases in Mikaberidze’s career as an actor, director and screenwriter of films, the repression phase and the later preoccupation with building a career as a dubbing director and a painter (“The Realized and Unrealized Artist”, 25-60), and the aforementioned essay by the German scholar Thomas Tode, which focuses on the most important works and the filmmaker’s main topics and achievements. This analytical part would already constitute a book in itself and a thorough introduction to Mikaberidze who lived from 1896 to 1973.

However, this is only how the book begins. Part two the next, wider concentric circle offers the main body of the material and provides detailed and exhaustive information on all films (ibid.: 77-139) starring Mikaberidze, even if only in cameo appearances, and a section that includes the respective film posters in colour. The following chapter on the film director and screenwriter Mikaberidze (ibid.: 140-222), the third concentric circle, delivers detailed information on, extracts from the screenplays, correspondence, articles, official evaluations and production documents as well as lots of stills, plus set photographs and drawings on all eight films the Georgian master was able to make between 1929 and 1952. These include an episode of the 12th century Georgian epic “Vepkhistqaosani” (“The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”) that resulted in the 1936 film Kadzheti. Especially interesting are the protocols of the then-customary discussions in the film studios, with the Georgian film authorities, or in factories, about the films which could easily have ended a filmmaker’s or screenwriter’s career. From the point of view of a film historian, the subsequent chapter about the eight “Unrealized Projects 1928-1960” (ibid.: 223-302) is a rare gem which allows deep insights not only into the creative struggles of the filmmaker, but also into the mechanism of the oppressive Soviet film bureaucracy. An intriguing and enlightening example, from 1930, is Mikaberidze’s desperate attempt to defend himself in the face of the failed production of Rote Fahne (The Red Flag, original project title in German; ibid.: 229-339), following a similarly uncompleted project called Rtveli / The Harvest, both dedicated to the iconic harvest of grapes in Georgia:

After the working plan and the budget are established, the director has to immediately leave for the location of shooting. […] However, the main issue that hindered the working process, namely the budget, was not ready and we did not have it until the very moment of putting the project on hold. […] The new budget regulations left us facing a reduction of budget by almost half. […] How could I agree to work when the conditions changed completely? […] I could not have filmed the grapes, which did not exist anymore. […] Some of my friends suggested that I buy some baskets of grapes and attach them to the bare vines; others offered to produce fake grapes, etc. […] 75% of the script was based on showing nature and the grapes – a process that required 60 shooting days during four months, considering all the delays. How is it possible to squeeze 75% of filming the natural world into several days, when the grapes are not hanging on the grapevines anymore? (ibid.: 231, 233, 235)

Proposals rejected, screenplays rebuked in public discussions, half-finished films shifted to other colleagues – all these projects give testimony to the ever more repressive system as well as the growing desperation of the filmmaker. This is reflected in Mikaberidze’s biographical notes of the 1940s and 1950s and the excerpts of his 1953 diary (ibid.: 315-366). From his personal perspective, this series of rejections already half-starved him to death and completely disillusioned him. However, the worst was yet to come – see the chapter “Repression 1957-1959” (ibid.: 368-420). In a tragic misjudgment of anticipated changes and the ‘thaw’ in Georgian and Soviet society after Stalin’s death, Mikaberidze wrote critical and anti-Soviet anonymous letters to newspapers and politicians, like this one:

We are sitting in our office listening to the radio telling lies: chat about improvement of electrical energy during the sixth five-year plan, improvement of quality of life, and similar tales. And this happens at the very time when our families remain in the dark […] because there is not enough electricity! The state does not have enough electricity! Ha-ha-ha! This is ridiculous! Each year, during these damned past forty years, impoverished Soviet people who are deprived of free speech are promised and given hope that in the future they will live in abundance. But people know now for sure that the Communist Party and the Soviet Government are comprised of a pack of swindlers, rapscallions, bloody murderers and liars whose days are numbered! (excerpt from a letter to the editorial office of the newspaper Kommunisti, 1956, ibid.: 369)

The criminal case, the interrogations and the conviction to three years in prison and labour camp that ensued are presented in great detail, including the failed strategy of his wife to declare him physically and mentally ill. Upon his return from labour camp, Mikaberidze was given a job as a dubbing director of foreign films. The final chapter in part two presents letters and public speeches from the years 1948-1966 (ibid.: 421-456). They summarise his lifelong struggle for better quality in filmmaking and for more honesty (albeit, in the given circumstances, with a communist-friendly bias), especially the article called “About the inventiveness of the film director and screenwriter” (after 1960): “As a rule, a helpless, unimaginative director, who cannot resolve creative tasks through the content of the story, resorts to manipulation of camera angles, positioning the camera at different places” (ibid.: 454). He then refers to Pudovkin, Eisenstein and Kalatozov as positive examples and continues:

It is time to pay attention to increasing the culture of the creative inventiveness of the director – screenwriter – actor. We cannot work with clichés anymore we cannot continue on the path of peaceful self-satisfaction. The Communist tomorrow demands from us that already, today, all films, no matter the genre, should be wiser and fully reflect the relevant requirements set for Soviet cinema workers by the Communist morale of our society. (ibid.: 454-455).

Finally, part three, as a fourth concentric circle, provides the reader with the filmography (once again) and the bibliography consisting of mainly Georgian and a few Russian articles published on Mikaberidze. Dumbadze, in an effort to keep the memory of Georgian filmmakers alive, had already published books by Germane Gogitidze (2013) and Rezo Kveselava (2008), as well as Georgian editions on Eisenstein, Kiarostami, Pasolini, Vertov etc. in his publishing company Sa.Ga. Publishing for Society, a non-commercial enterprise with the remarkable motto: “A thief of Sa.Ga.'s books is not a thief!“ This book is the first of Sa.Ga’s publications in English and a successful premiere, as it makes Georgian film history more accessible to the West. The concept, presentation and the analytical depth are impressive. The only criticism of the book is that it does not include at least a few hints to recent studies or reviews of Chemi bebia, this most important example of Mikaberidze’s films (cf. Denise Youngblood 2010 and 2013). The reader of the 500 page monograph is definitely immersed in the traditions of Georgian filmmaking, film politics and love of film.

Note: Dumbadze’s and Dzandzava’s revival of Kote Mikaberidze even included an exhibition of 300 paintings and drawings in the National Archives of Georgia in Tbilisi2.

Alexander Schwarz

Independent Scholar, Munich, Germany

alex_schwarz@t-online.de

Notes

1 The difficult relationship between the Soviet authorities and satire as well as another example of the repressive response to it can be observed in the life and work of Aleksandr Medvedkin. See my review: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/119

2 See „Learn about Kote Mikaberidze, master of silent Soviet cinema, at Tbilisi display“ . August 3, 2019.

Bio

Alexander Schwarz studied German literature, film, history and Russian in Munich, Germany, St. Andrews, Scotland, and at VGIK Film School in Moscow. He graduated from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich with his PhD thesis on the history and development of German and Russian Silent Screenplays. From 1994 until 2004 he worked as a TV manager for documentary channels in Munich and London. Since 2005 he has worked as a film historian, curator of film programs (including one on the Georgian filmmaker Michail Kalatozov), documentary filmmaker and translator of English and Russian factual TV programs. He teaches Eastern European film history at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Most recently he published Die rote Traumfabrik. Meschrabpom-Film und Prometheus 1921 – 1936 (The Red Dream Factory. Mezhrabpom-Film and Prometheus 1921 – 1936), Berlin 2012, together with Günter Agde, and with Rainer Rother Der Neue Mensch. Aufbruch und Alltag im revolutionären Russland (The New Man, DVD edition and booklet), Berlin 2017.

Bibliography

Gogitidze, Germane. 2013. From the Past of Georgian Cinema. Tbilisi (in Georgian)

Kveselava, Rezo. 2008. Memoirs on Georgian filmmakers. Tbilisi (in Georgian)

Tsopurashvili, Salome. 2016. Modifications of Women’s Representations in 1920s Georgian Soviet Silent Films. Orientalisation, Agency, Class. (Diss.) Tbilisi. dspace.nplg.gov.ge/bitstream/1234/204471/1/Dissertacia.pdf August 3, 2019.

Youngblood, Denise. 2010. “My Grandmother (Chemi Bebia) (1929)”. In The Moving Image 10 (1): 157-159.

Youngblood, Denise. 2013. „Soviet cinema 1918-1930“. In The Russian cinema reader, Vol. I: 1908 to the Stalin Era edited by Rimgaila Salys. 67-92. Boston, MA.

Filmography

Mikaberidze, Kotė. 1929. Chemi bebia / My Grandmother. Sakartvelos Sakhkinmretsvi (Goskinprom Grusii / Georgian State Film Production).

Mikaberidze, Kotė. 1936. Kadzheti. Sakartvelos Sakhkinmretsvi (Goskinprom Grusii / Georgian State Film Production).

Suggested Citation

Schwarz, Alexander. 2019. Review: “Soso Dumbadze, Nino Dzandzava (eds.): Kote Mikaberidze”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 9. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2019.0009.172

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.





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