In April 2014 I was asked by Krzysztof Sienkiewicz of the Bialystok Cultural Center if I would be interested in providing a score to Chemi Bebia, a 1929 Soviet Georgian film by Kote Mikaberidze for the Zubroffka Festival in Bialystok, Poland. The concept of the festival was “East meets West” and his idea was to put the film and myself together.
As I had always wanted to go to the last remaining indigenous ancient forests in Europe which are not far from there, I was immediately interested and said yes, knowing nothing about anything that was being proposed.
I was sent a copy of the film through the post and was immediately captivated.
Chemi Bebia was made in 1928 in Tbilisi, Georgia, right at the end of the Soviet Union’s creative spurt before Stalin’s censorship destroyed the creativity and his paranoia destroyed the trust.
One anonymous letter had been sent to the State Security Department stating that the film was full of Trotskyist aspiration. It showed the system of state management as an absurdity while encouraging the idea that the workers should gain control over the running of the state, a key provision of Trotsky’s politics.
The film was considered an “Anti Soviet Work” and would never be screened again for thirty-nine years.
It remains however, an extraordinary film: advanced and imaginative, incorporating wonderful expressive lighting and distorted camera angles, inspired sets, freeze frames, animation, puppetry, reverse footage, and all the joy and exploration of a new medium condensed into one hour.
When seeing the film many hundreds of times as one does when working on it, it seemed as though every day on set somebody said, ”I’ve got a great idea….”
I would have to incorporate some pieces I had already made into the film and even then It was going to be tight so I contacted a friend, Nick Strasburg and asked if he would be interested in adapting a piece I had made and writing a section too. Luckily he said yes and I knew it would be possible to complete it in time. (Nick wrote the scene where he is nervously cleaning his glasses.)
The director, Kote Mikaberidze had taken a knock after the banning of the film but survived the repercussions as did all those connected with it. Giorgi Mdivani became a successful scriptwriter in Moscow. The actor that plays the worker, Akaki Khorava went on to play many parts in theatre including Othello, and Mikaberidze directed several feature films, documentaries and continued with animation.
When Khrushchev began his period of de-Stalinization, Mikaberdize sent a letter to him in 1956 protesting the political situation in Georgia. The letter was considered anti-state and Mikaberidze was arrested and imprisoned for three years.
Finally, in 1968, at the Illyuzion cinema in Moscow the film was shown. It was given a warm press and announced as a masterpiece.
Kote Mikaberidze continued working at Qartuli Filmi, the Georgian Film Studio as director of the dubbing department. In 1973 after hosting a memorial to a friend and colleague who had committed suicide, he made a speech in which he called for greater cooperation and kindness in his industry, retired to his seat and died.
The film was restored in 1976 and shown around the world to the amazement of a western audience, unfamiliar with such an early, innovative and expressionistic work.
With my score I have tried to be faithful to the director. Although the film is outwardly critical of the lazy and inefficient bureaucracy, the treatment of the main character is actually very sympathetic and humane. I have tried to follow this sentiment. Although the film contains slapstick comedy it is interspersed with scenes that have real menace and serious implications and I have tried to give an edge to these scenes. The end of the film seemed to me to be an appeasement to the sensors and as a result feels a bit stuck on. However the clever imagery and interpretation of being put up against a wall and shot is inspired.
The name Chemi Bebia can be translated as “My Grandmother” but the word Bebia in Georgian, generally speaking, has no gender and refers really to the concept of a protector.
It is this concept of finding a protector who will give a good recommendation for employment that drives the story of the film.
I performed the piece in Bialystok in August 2014. The performance was preceded by a very informative talk by Dr. Zviad Dolidze – full professor of Film Studies of Theatre and Film at Georgian State University who supplied me with this detailed history of the film and insights into the pioneering work of Georgian Cinema.
The day after the show I was fortunate enough to be very kindly driven out to the forests of the Bialowieza.
Funki Porcini 2016