Nana and Shota marry

Nana Mghebrishvili and Shota Kiparoidze were married in St. David’s Church on Mt. Mtatsminda, near our home; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Nana Mghebrishvili and Shota Kiparoidze were married in St. David’s Church; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Nana Mghebrishvili and Shota Kiparoidze each kissed an icon during the ceremony; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Tamaz Jalagania provided 14 swords for the wedding ceremony. The swords symbolize strength and by walking under the swords the couple will have a strong marriage. Copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

A multicultural Merry Christmas

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

We all thank Tamaz Jalagania and Nana Imnadze for sharing their homemade Georgian wine.

Before we left Tbilisi, Tamaz and Nana gave us a 2-liter Coke bottle of his brother’s red wine from Kakheti, Georgia. Tamaz wrapped it and wrapped it and wrapped it some more in plastic so it would survive the long journey to Brazil. In order to show our appreciation for their generosity, I gathered the family together and took this photograph before we ate our delicious Christmas dinner.

Missing from the photo is Edith Schisler, the matriarch of the family. The day before Edith was supposed to leave Rutland, Vermont, to fly to Brazil, she slipped on a banana peel in a parking lot, fell, and severely hurt herself. As a result, she missed her family reunion. But we used Skype so that Edith could join us. Edith said the prayers for our Christmas dinner. Everyone cried.

In the photo you can see Edith’s four children: Debora, Susanna, Kennedy, and Millard. In addition, you can see Debora’s husband and their two daughters and one of their daughter’s boyfriends; Susanna and her two sons and one of her son’s girlfriends; Kennedy’s wife and their three children; Millard’s wife and two of their children. I’m taking the photo. Also missing are two of Millard’s children with their spouses and children.

From all of us, to all of you, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

A Georgia-Georgia connection

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Our video team interviewed and photographed Nikoloz Rurua, who heads the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia. Rurua kindly talked about the craftsmanship of Tamaz Jalagania, the hero of our film, and showed us two swords made by Tamaz. The “other” Georgia? Rurua graduated from Georgia State University in 2001 with a JD (law) degree. Susanna invited Rurua to visit us whether he is in “this” Georgia or “that” Georgia.

Story about Tamaz gains some structure

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

I knew that a film based on Tamaz Jalagania would be very interesting, but I didn’t have a story. In other words, I had a character, but no plot. Storytellers in any medium use conflicts and resolutions of those conflicts in order to capture and hold their audience’s interest. So I knew that Tamaz would be the hero who resolves all conflicts, but what are those problems, challenges, obstacles, or enemies?

After spending more time with Tamaz, I realized that the problem occurred at the national level. There was almost no one left in Georgia who could create historically accurate replicas of some important elements of its material culture: swords and guns. One of those few craftsmen is Tamaz.

So here is an outline of my story (but it will undoubtedly evolve):

•  Tamaz Jalagania or his assistants do fine detail work on a gun or sword that is almost finished. Meanwhile, Tamaz talks about how he is one of the last people in Georgia who can do this work and how he is training apprentices to continue such work.

•  Museum curators talk about the importance of artifacts for understanding Georgia’s history. I hope these people will also say that weapons, such as guns and swords, are particularly valuable artifacts because they make up a significant aspect of Georgian culture. We can show some items in the museum(s), especially guns and swords, and have the curators explain who used them, when, where, and why they were, and are important.

•  We use archive video from Georgian Public Broadcasting to show Tamaz or another craftsman making guns or swords.

•  Show souvenirs of historical guns and swords. Souvenir salespeople talk about how popular they are and how much they cost.

•  Someone says that replicas of museum-lodged historical artifacts are valuable. He/she specifically talks about the value of replicas of historic guns and swords. Tamaz talks about the gold and silver that he uses. He talks about clients for his work.

•  Tamaz and/or his apprentices make a sword/gun from start to finish. Tamaz explains how he learned to do this type of work and why the work is challenging. It takes at least six months to create such a replica. In addition, Tamaz’s three apprentices talk about their work with Tamaz.

•  Former apprentices, who have graduated, talk about what they are doing now and what, if anything, they gained by working with Tamaz. We show them at work.

•  We show other sides of Tamaz. He is not only a craftsman, but he also loves other aspects of Georgian culture. For example, he is one of the people who wears chokhas.

• We continue to develop Tamaz as the film’s primary character. We show that he is an opera singer, storyteller, and collector of antique saddles and samovars. We show that his home is like a museum.

•  Georgia’s minister of culture talks (1 minute) about Tamaz and his work. He explains that President Saakashvili buys guns and swords from Tamaz and then gives them to prominent individuals inside and outside Georgia as gifts. He talks about how Saakashvili will open a museum to display Tamaz’s work.

•  Ending. Focus on Tamaz, a lover of Georgian culture, a storyteller, a craftsman, and so on.

Rest in peace, Giorgi

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

There was a wake for “our” Robin Hood on Thursday and Friday evenings in Giorgi Jalagania’s home. Friends came by to spend a few moments to view the casket.

On Saturday, our video team was permitted to document the burial, and, after the burial, we were included in a dinner for about 70 people.

It may seem strange that we would want to attend a burial for someone we never met, and it may seem even stranger that the family granted permission. When I took a group of USC students to Jamaica in March, we were invited to attend a wake, called a “dead yard” and the funeral services for a friend of our host. I said, “yes,” and the USC students said, “no.” For me it was very interesting and because I was with our host, Matthias Brown, I never felt uncomfortable. Similiarly, Tamaz Jalagania and his family made us feel welcome. In fact, they made us feel extremely welcome. As a “thank you,” we are going to make an album of photos, both of the day’s activities and of happier times.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Family and close friends removed Giorgi’s casket from his home and set it across two chairs in the yard, where people had a last chance to say goodbye. Then we drove behind the hearse to the cemetery, where the casket was lowered into a grave in the family plot. Family and friends shoveled dirt over the casket, laid wreaths of flowers, toasted with wine, poured some wine into the grave, and drank the rest. I was asked to make a toast. I said, sincerely, “May God bless Giorgi’s soul. Although we are not old friends–we are new friends–who have become good friends. Thank you for including us.”

Then we drove to a banquet hall for a delicious Georgian meal. Tamaz’s son, Vladimir Jalagania, was the tamada (toast master). He made many eloquent, elaborate toasts to our ancestors as well as future generations. For each toast, all of the men stood and drank wine, while the women remained seated. After toasting the Americans, Vladimir asked me to say a few words, which is really an opportunity to return the toast. I again asked God to bless Giorgi’s soul. Then I continued and asked God to bless all of the people present, as well as their ancestors, children, and grandchildren, according to Georgian tradition.

I’m grateful to Tamaz, Nana, Vladimir, and their guests for including us. I’m grateful to Nana Mghebrishvili and Mari Papidze for filming the occasion. And I’m grateful to Susanna Melo for photographing throughout the day. My role evolved into supporting the video team, supporting Tamaz’s family, and participating in the toasts.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

A Robin Hood dies at 100

Let’s not romanticize Giorgi Jalagania’s life. After all, he robbed many people and went to jail nine times. Moreover, he could have chosen a different path. Giorgi came from a wealthy, prestigious family. But, for whatever reasons, he chose to become a gangster. And not a hum-drum gangster, but one of the richer, more powerful ones in Georgia. Even the other gangsters were scared of him. In fact, no one would rob or harm people in Giorgi’s neighborhood. Except one, young, inexperienced thief, who unknowingly broke into Giorgi’s home and stole some possessions, including a photograph of Giorgi with his siblings. When this young thief showed the photos to others, everyone said, “Oh my god; what have you done! You’ve robbed Giorgi!” The young man was so scared, he returned everything he had taken. Then he visited Giorgi in jail; admitted his “error,” and asked for forgiveness.

On the good side, Giorgi followed the gangster code of honor. He robbed the rich, and he gave much of what he stole to the poor. He never extorted money from people who struggled to earn a living. In addition, Giorgi was a “fixer.” If someone had a problem, and the government either couldn’t or wouldn’t help, Giorgi would often find a solution. When Giorgi grew old, became ill, and “retired,” the people he had helped showed their appreciation. They couldn’t give money directly to the ailing man because Giorgi had too much pride to accept such gifts, but people would sneak into his home and leave some cash beneath his pillow. So one could say that Giorgi was a Robin Hood appreciated by his neighbors. This photo shows Giorgi, front row and center, along with his four younger brothers. We will video the wake and funeral, as well as several stories about Giorgi—the Georgian Robin Hood.

Tamaz–master storyteller

Tamaz Jalagania wanted us to film him in front of the waterfall below his house, so we, of course, obliged. He told stories and sang.

Tamaz will live for two years in this building overlooking a river fed by geothermal springs. Their new home, Tamaz’s workshop, and the museum of his guns, swords, and other historical recreations will be built immediately to the right of this building.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Filed under Films and Photography Tagged with

Happy hostages

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Our video team returned to the home of Tamaz Jalagania and Nana Imnadze in order to film their home before it is demolished. Because their home is too damaged to be repaired, and because it is in the historic district of Tbilisi, the government will build them a new home (which is very nice), and the government will pay their rent for the two years it will take to build a new home (also very nice). Moreover, the government is going to help them pack their household belongings (very, very nice). Since their home is a veritable museum, and since they won’t be unpacking for two years, we filmed in different rooms as Tamaz explained various photographs and other objects that stimulated special memories. He also explained how he was born in this house.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

After a couple of hours, we had to go to another appointment. But we couldn’t. Tamaz and Nana wouldn’t let us leave unless we ate some fruit. We explained that we couldn’t, but they insisted. After playing this “game” for a while (yes, you must; no, we can’t), we agreed to eat a piece of fruit. Immediately more fruit arrived; then wine glasses; then wine; then a toast; and another toast; and another toast. That’s the way Georgian hospitality is. Lots of leisurely eating, talking, toasting, drinking, laughing. Before you know it, the day is gone. Fortunately, we escaped before dinnertime.

Filed under Films and Photography Tagged with , ,

We start our second film

Our Svaneti film team has reassembled to make a documentary film in Tbilisi.

I’m sooooooo grateful to Svaneti and Tbilisi team members Nana Mghebrishvili and Mari Papidze for their scouting efforts. Back in May, while I was still working at USC, I had asked these two strangers to find a particular type of person who was going through a particular type of life change. Part of me knew that it was an unreasonable request, especially since I told them that I would not pay them—at least no cash payments. Moreover, my assignment was a difficult one. I wanted “a family that used to enjoy living in a traditional home in an Old Tbilisi neighborhood, but now the family is considering a move to a modern apartment.”

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

I also had these requests:

• At least one person in the family should be a great storyteller—interesting, animated, articulate.

• The family should interact with its neighbors in the “spirit of old Tbilisi.”

• The family should maintain traditional Tbilisi/Georgian culture—singing, playing Nardi, using the public baths, attending Georgian Orthodox church, and so on.

• The audience should have empathy for the family.

• The family must be open and honest. It must be able to continue to act naturally even though a camera is recording their actions.

Nana and Mari found Tamaz Jalagania and his wife Nana Imnadze, who exceeded my expectations. First, Tamaz is a chokhosani, or a person who wears the chokha. Chokha is part of the traditional male dress of the Caucasus people. It has been in wide use among Georgians from the 9th century until the 1920s. Second, Tamaz is

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

an opera singer who will sing in a beautiful voice without any prompting. Third, he is a master craftsman, who makes museum-quality reproductions of Georgian swords and guns. In fact he would have been the last master craftsman of this art except that he has trained 15 apprentices over the years. He uses gold, silver, ivory, and bone for elaborate inlaid decorations. President Saakashvili just selected one gun as a gift for Senator McCain (lucky guy!). See the video: “Caucasian craftsmanship keeps traditions alive” (

Fourth, Tamaz is an extremely animated storyteller; he recently turned 72 and he seems to remember everything that has happened in his lifetime as well as all of the history of Georgia. In addition, Tamaz is a poet, painter, and collector of antique saddles and samovars. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union he was an engineer.

Last night was supposed to be simply, ” Hello, my name is” type of meeting. Instead, we stayed four hours, ate a delicious meal, received a tour of his museum-like home, and became instant friends. I don’t say “museum-like” casually; President Saakashvili is building a museum next to Tamaz’s current home and workshop; many of items in his home will fill this new museum.

I also thank Susanna Melo, another video team member, for her excellent questions and filming suggestions.

Tamaz and Nana’s home will be demolished soon, and the government is constructing a new home for the couple.

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

I’m sure you can now understand why I’m soooooooo grateful to Nana Mgebrishvili and Mari Papidze and why I believe the story of Tamaz and Nana will delight the film’s audience.

Filed under Films and Photography Tagged with , , , , , , ,