Shadows of Forgotten Memories

It is strange how in life things come full circle.

10 days ago I was tracking down the `Hutcul people who inhabit the Carpathian mountains in Southern Ukraine when I received a call from Jason to come and speak about my Georgian adventures.

The reason I was looking for the Hutculs is that they were the subject of Sergei Parajanov’s Film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. His film triggered my interest in these mountain people and their customs.

My relationship with Georgia begins with Parajanov 1982.

I want to pass around an image of Sergei Parajanov.

It is an image that makes me happy.

Years ago when I was Director of the ICA I  learnt of the existence of the film ‘Colour of Pomegranites’ . The problem was that Parajanov was in prison and the Soviet authorities had impounded the film.

The film was smuggled to UK. 

David Robinson wrote a full page review in the Times describing it as the greatest Soviet film since the war and queues formed down the Mall day after day.

We soon discovered that each day two burly men from the Soviet Embassy also joined the queue. They didn’t ask for tickets they asked for the film back saying it was obtained illegally.

I met them the first day and offered to return the film if they offered me a contract to exhibit the film. They were not in any position to negotiate but content to share a vodka in the ICA bar. They came back every day for two weeks on the same mission –a glass of vodka. On the last day of the screenings the Cultural Attache appeared carrying a huge bottle of vodka and asked for me. We met in my office and he gave me a dressing down. What he called ‘an official complaint’ and said that I had put back Anglo-Soviet relations and I would never be able to visit Soviet Union. 

Fast forward nearly a decade and I was invited post glasnost to visit Moscow by the Mayor. I tracked down Guennadi Fedosov’s phone number and rang him to tell him I was coming to Moscow and could I bring him anything. Yes, he said Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses was not available could I bring him a copy. We met and I handed over a copy in Moscow and he told me that his new post within the Russian Foreign Service under  Shevardnazi was to be responsible for the Caucuses.

Now I knew the man who was ‘responsible’ for Georgia but he was not going to help me get there.

In my character being forbidden to go somewhere is a big incentive to go.

Keti Dolidze and GIFT Festival offered me the first opportunity.

A plane load of UK based artists/critics and producers were invited to assemble at Stansted Airport where a plane sent by the President was to collect us. We were advised to bring food and drink.

Around midnight in the summer of 97 we boarded the most riketty plane I have flown in. The seats were not bolted down properly and there were no signs of stewardesses. Unsurprisingly the plane did not take off and since we had brought our own alchohol and Paco Pena the Spanish Guitarist, and Vanessa Regdgrave and many other performers were amost us we started to party. Eventually we discovered the plane was not taking off because the landing fees had not been paid. Somehow a deal was done and we  eventually set off. We had been told not to bother about such things as visas and that we would arrive in the middle of the night and somehow everything would be taken care of. If you wanted to visit Georgia in those days it took a great leap of faith and we leaped.

Shortly after take off the Captain announced that we were going to divert to Minsk in Belarus to get some fuel. Evidently it was cheaper there.  A little later he annouced that we were going to skip Minsk he THOUGHT we had enough to get to Tbilisi and he was right thank goodness.

In Tbilisi Keti Dolidze and her assistant Sophie Tortladze had somehow commandeered all the taxis in Tbilisi to turn up at the airport in the middle of the night and give free rides to honoured guests from UK. Not only taxis but young female translators from the translating school were there with placards with our names on them to grab us by the arm and take us to their homes. It was the beginning of the most remarkable theatre festival I have ever attended.

It was chaotic. We went to shows that were not in the program and discovered shows in the program did not exist. I was appalled at the chaos but full of admiration for the Georgian capacity to improvise.

I learnt to appreciate the high regard Georgians place on culture in their daily lives. In the streets you could witness the most stylish people in the Soviet Union. Food was set on tables in such a way I never attended a meal without taking my camera. Song and dance was everywhere. ..and yet I began to appreciate how weak was the organizational strength of Georgian Institutions.

State institutions were crumbling but civil society had not filled the gap.

My next trip to Georgia was only marginally less adventurous. It involved handing over some money to UNDP to get on a plane from Yerevan to Tbilisi on a mission to assist in the development of the Soros Foundation in Georgia. My first day I wandered the streets with the then British Ambassador Stephen Nash avoiding the tanks that were patrolling the streets.

I was principally concerned with ensuring that the Soros program for supporting cultural was well conceived. 

You will understand that Soros wanted a transparent and open system where judgements regarding recipients of grants were made by qualified and independent assessors. You can imagine it was not easy to fulfill these qualities. We wished priority to be given to youth and to those who had been deprived of opportunities as well as the grants to the distinguished who had been marginalized.

I don’t know whether a thorough analysis of the legacy of the Open Society support for Georgia has been undertaken but I have heard many factual fatuous statements. Rhumours aboud and it would be useful  to undertake some assessment of the impact of the Soros Foundations work.

It is important to understand that the Foundation operates in such a way that most of the discretionery decisions are made by Georgians in Georgia not by Soros or the OSI office in NYC.

Over the years I have been fortunate to collaborate with a number of remarkable Georgians.

I would like to mention the successful establishment of International House in Tbilisi. In 1989. It was the first IH school in Soviet Union. and welcomes over 1500 students every year.  As  a long standing trusttee of the International House trust I am most proud of our school in Tbilisi established by Irakli Topuri and his wife. 

Irakli and Peter Nasmyth went on to establish the first English Bookshop ‘Prospero’ which has become a beacon of information and a place of rendevous.

Another partner in various schemes is a woman who should be Queen of Georgia if ever you return to Monarchy. Marina Tsitsishvili Tumanishvili.

She and her husband Georgi have initiated so many good projects from Georgian restaurants in London to English Gardens in Tbilisi. Georgi made the first Georgian films for C4 and Marina has masterminded the regular tours to the Barbican of the  Georgian genius Rezo Gabriadze’s Tbilisi Puppet company. Currently she is the President of the English Speaking Union in Georgia and never misses a trick in forging bonds between Georgia and UK.

Recently I have had the pleasure of working with Tamta Turmanidze who holds the ring which guaranttees Georgia music is known, sung and loved in UK. She is a remarkable woman who juggles motherhood, teaching, singing and producing touring concerts with all the Georgian grace you could wish for.

I have many fond memories of working with Georgia artists and arts managers.

~Robert Sturua, David Sakvarelidze, Ghia and Nato Kanchelli, Sophie Tortladze, Eka Mazmishvili, Levant Khetaguri, Yuri Mitchitov, Mako Abashidze, Gogi Alexi-Meskhishvili  and many many others

Over the years I have tried to assist friends in Georgia build working relationships with UK. 

It always seems easy to build friendships but working institutional relationships have proved more challenging. 

Georgian Institutions sometimes seem to operate in a maverick manner. Collaboration does not come naturally. 

It is very sad what has become of the Rustavelli Theatre in recent years and the erratic behavior of the Ministry of Culture has not helped matters.

Nor am I  proud of the initiatives of the British Council.

Perhaps both the British Council and the Georgian Ministry of Culture should find a way to embrace the advice and willing contributions of others such as the British Georgian Society in formulating plans for the future.

Civil Society is undeveloped in Georgia but if there is one area where it could and should flourish it is in culture. Theatre, music, dance, the visual arts and indeed the media benefit from being held at least one arms distance form the state. 

In Britain we still struggle with finding the right balance between state and media though I think we have found a good formula in relation to the arts.

I wish to end with three Quotes 

one from an American Duke Ellington about the British

‘To me the people of London are the most civilized in the world. Their civilization is based on the recognition that all people are imperfect, and due allowances should be and are made for their imperfections. I have never experienced such a sense of balance elsewhere.’

The other from a Russian writer/playwright Anton Chekov

‘There are plenty of good people, but only a very , very few are precise and disciplined.’

And maybe my favourite of the three  from a Czech British Sociologist Ernest Gellner.

‘Social tolerance always, Intellectual tolerance  never.’

Let me end with a quote from Eduard Shevardnadze, ‘You know, to address crowds and make promises does not require very much brains’

Finally I wish to salute the career of a very great theatre Director who has graced the world stage.

Robert Sturua who has recently ceased to be the Director of the Rustavelli Theatre.

Bill McAlister

London 20-10-2011

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