Georgia has a rich animation history dating back to 1929 when Kote Mikaberidze created My Grandmother (Chemi Bebia).
I have often heard so much about the warm hospitality of the Georgian people and about their delicious food and wine; when Tofuzi Festival Director Zurab Diasamidze invited Nik and me to be part of the 2019 festival, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I certainly was not disappointed by my visit to Batumi.
Georgia has a rich animation history dating back to 1929 when Kote Mikaberidze created My Grandmother (Chemi Bebia). Unfortunately, aside from some episodes of My Grandmother, most of the other early animated films out of Georgia have not survived.
The true father of Georgian animation is considered to be Vladimer Mujiri who made the first full length animated film Argonauts (Argonavtebi) with sound. The black and white film was based on the ancient Greek legend about a group of travellers visiting Georgia’s historic Black Sea region of Kolkheti.
Although Mujiri’s independent animation studio was shut down several times by such disasters as his equipment crashing and colleagues “fired” by the elitist group of Communist Party appointees of the Administrative, Industrial, and Military Committee, Mujiri managed to make five other full length animated films before all animation studios in Georgia were shut down permanently in 1954, not to reopen until the 1960s.
In the 1960s and ’70s, puppet animation became the primary means of storytelling and remained so until the 1980’s when a new wave of young artists came on the scene and raised the standard of animated films to a new level. Davit Takhaishbili became a prominent figure on the festival scene during this period when his film, The Plague, won the Palm d’ Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. The film dealt with the threat of Fascism.
In the 1990s an economic and political crisis began in Georgia which had a negative effect on the entire film industry, not just animation. Studios were destroyed and over the next ten years only twenty-five short films were made in the entire country. By 2000 the situation had again stabilized and new young animators have begun to create animation once again.
Tofuzi’s Festival Director Zurab Diasamidze has made a great contribution toward the development of the next generation of animators in his country. He is a founding member of the Animation Development Fund (ADF) which began in 2007. It strives to promote and assist Georgian animation. As well as being the driving force behind the Tofuzi Festival in Batumi, the ADF also takes its adjunct festival, Echo Tofuzi, to more than twenty regions in the country. Echo Tofuzi screens animation and conducts workshops for young people. The ADF has established Educational Studies in five regions of the country along with their main studio in Tbilisi, the capital city, where professionals can work on their projects. Thirteen films created at the various Echo Tofuzi workshops were screened at the festival along with films created by children at workshops from around the world.
The eleventh edition of the Tofuzi Festival received 1,921 submissions from which 130 films from eighty-eight countries were selected for the competition categories. I was on the Main Jury along with Ligia Soare, co-founder of Anima’est Festival in Romania. We were joined by Lilia Nemchenko from Russia, Ukrainian producer Olena Gulubeva, and Rashid Aghamaliyev, Director of Animafilm Baku in Azerbaijan.
We were charged with selecting winners in eight different categories: Best Director, Script, Music, and Technique, and also awarded the Best Film for Adults, Debut Film, and Television Series along with the Grand Prix. After much deliberation, we awarded the Grand Prix to Russian animator Natalia Mirzoyan for her beautiful film Five Minutes to Sea. The seven-minute film evokes memories of childhood trips to the beach at an age when time seemed to move so slowly when you were waiting for something. Natalia’s film has won several other awards with good reason. The beautifully drawn images and watercolor palette complement the sweet story perfectly.
In the Best Film for Adults classification, we chose Lonely Monster Goes Out. Russian animator Ivan Maximov’s seven-minute film is about a monster who lives a solitary life underground, but finally finds a way to escape and find company. Ivan’s style of drawing is unmistakable and his quirky sense of humor is a delight in all of his films.
A film that was completely new to me was The Elephant’s Song by Lynn Tomlinson with music by Sam Saper. Tomlinson merges music, clay, and social consciousness in her animation about the sad life of Old Bet, the first circus elephant in America. The true story about Bet, who longs to return to her native country, is told in narrative song by her canine companion, an old farm dog. The animation was created frame by frame with clay on glass and oil pastels. The Elephant’s Song received our Best Music Award.
The Young Jury, comprised of young animators and festival programs was made up of Italian animator Adolfo Di Molfetta; animator Jasper Kuipers from The Netherlands; Anastasiya Verlinskaya, Program Director at Linoleum International Contemporary Animation and Media Art Festival in the Ukraine; Sander Joon, Estonian Animator; and Georgian animator Natia Nikolashvili. They were charged with selecting the Best Student Film, Experimental Film, and Best Film Created by Children.
The Young Jury selected The Remedy by Cal Arts student Zilai Feng as the Best Student Film. The seven-minute film is the story of a Chinese herbal doctor who is trying to heal herself from an illness by making a soup of memories. The doctor continually returns to her childhood memories, searching out the details of each one and preparing the ingredients in the form of a prescription. Finally, when all of the details and fragments are mixed together, they make a thick bowl of soup that helps her to find the one final memory that she needs to heal herself. I especially liked the music which was composed by fellow Cal Arts student Jason Crespi and his use of song The Garden of Old Dreams performed by the 1970’s/80’s Taiwanese singing star Lui Wen-Cheng. As I watched the film I felt that it is an homage to Zilai’s home country Taiwan and her way of dealing with the things that she misses from home.
There was also a thirteen-member Children’s Jury who selected the Best Film for Children. Their selection was Quiet by Maxim Kulikov. The ten-minute film is about young Irka’s grandparents who move to a house near a forest in search of peace and quiet. Although Irka and her grandparents have different ideas about the meaning of peace, that all becomes secondary when it comes time to really say goodbye.
Along with daily screenings, there were workshops for children as well as Master Classes and presentations by jury members and guests. A program of Azerbaijani children’s films presented by Elchin Hami Akhundov and Rashid Aghmalive celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Azerbaijani animation. Elchin Hami began his career as an animator in 1966. He is the founder of Gurama, the first permanent animation studio for children with disabilities. In 2000 he was awarded the title of Honored Worker of Azerbaijan. In 2019 he received the Golden Boat Award at the 2nd ANIMAFILM Festival in recognition of his valuable contribution to the development of animation in his country.
Rashid is the Director of Animafilm Baku International Animation Festival. He has also edited a book, Azerbaijani Animation, tracing the history of animation in his country. The book contains articles by thirteen contributors including one by Rashid himself. It is beautifully illustrated, sadly it is currently only available in Azerbaijani and Russian.
Anastasiya Verlinskaya is Program Director at Linoleum International Contemporary Animation Festival held annually in Kyiv, Ukraine since 2014. At Tofuzi she screened a selection of films from her festival. Ligia Soare, co-founder of Anim’est in Bucharest, Romania also presented a program of contemporary Romanian animation.
Workshops were conducted for more advanced students. Georgian cinema and theatre playwright Tamar Bartaia led a group in “Writing the Script Together” where everyone worked together, with an equal voice, to write a script.
Sandor Joon, Estonian animator and director, discussed the important topic of balancing between commercial and personal projects. Italian animator and 2D animation teacher Adolfo DiMolfetta gave tips to a group of students to help them prepare the pre-production phase of a 2D animated short film. There were also special Master Classes at the Arts University of Batumi and the Puppet Theatre.
One afternoon was devoted to pitches given by young animation students. The fourteen films ranged from projects in storyboard form to works in progress. The films presented were primarily for children and their families, the one exception was Wood, Lane, Water by Irakli Okruashvili from Telavi. This film is about a young poet who is attempting to free himself from his everyday intrusions and worries so that he can follow his creative urges to write. This film is for adults. All of the proposed projects will be made in 2D animation.
Batumi is a charming place for a festival. Located on the shore of the Black Sea at the foot of the Caucasus, it is both a resort and busy port city with miles of beautiful beach. The town is a mixture of old and very modern.
Founded in the 8th Century on the site of the Hellenic Colony of Bathys, it was a small fortified town in the medieval kingdom of Georgia until it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. In 1878 the Ottomans relinquished control of the city to the Russian Empire who ruled it until 1920 when it became the Democratic Republic of Georgia. During the Sovietization of Georgia in 1921, the country was ruled by an authoritarian dictator. This lasted until 2004 when mass protests sparked the Rose Revolution.
Because of its history, Batumi is a mixture of cultures, and there is a delicious mixture of foods also. When Nik and I arrived in Batumi we were met by Festival Director Zurab Diasamidze, Festival Coordinator Ani Gejadze, and Mariska Diasamidze, Program Coordinator at a local café. It was there that I had my first khachapuri. It is a traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread. The bread is leavened and allowed to rise and then worked into a boat shape filled with a cheese mixture and topped with an egg. It is delicious, extremely large, and very filling.
Along the seafront, large ultra-modern high-rise hotels and apartments boast a curious architecture. One tall building even has a working Ferris wheel built into its upper stories. There is the Alphabet Tower, which is 130 meters tall. The exterior features a twisting DNA helix-shaped ribbon inscribed with the unique Georgian alphabet which dates from around the 5th century. The top floors sport a bar and restaurant with magnificent views of the city.
Each evening at 19 h00 the 8-meter tall kinetic steel sculpture by Georgian Tamara Kvesitadze moves as the lovers pass through each other. The two figures represent a Muslim boy, Ali and a Georgian princess, Nino. They are characters from a famous 1937 novel by Azerbaijani author Kurban Said.
On our first evening in the city, Nik and I were treated to a visit to the Marani Wine Cellar by Zurab where we sampled excellent locally made wine which is fermented in the traditional Georgian way in clay jugs underground. Marani Wine Cellars bottled a Tofuzi wine, especially for the festival. I can attest to the fact that it is excellent.
The tasting room is in the cellar of the traditional Georgian style Marani Hotel which has a wine restaurant on its top floor. Along with delicious traditional meals, it boasts a beautiful view of the city all the way to the sea. Festival guests were treated to lunch and dinner there every day.
It was especially lovely to spend time with Elena and Salome Sebiskveradze who came to Batumi from Tbilisi to see Nik and me. Elena is a talented animator who we met at KROK the previous year and her sister is an excellent photographer. They know Batumi well and were excellent tour guides.
All too soon it was time for the closing night ceremony at the Batumi Drama Theatre. After the presentation of the awards, the audience was treated to a performance of a multimedia play which incorporated animation into its sets. Odyssey was written by and starred Avio Diasamidze, Zurab’s son. The story, performed by a cast of four, revolves around a husband and father who becomes so involved with his work that he almost loses his family.
I have so many lovely memories of my visit to the Tofuzi Festival. There is no way that I can thank Zurab and his lovely wife Naile Jikhashvili for their warm hospitality. Even though Zurab was terribly busy running the festival he took time to make sure that Nik and I enjoyed true Georgian hospitality. He also taught me a great deal about what he and his colleagues are doing to impart Georgian animation tradition to young people throughout the country.
A big thank you to Mariska Diasamidze, Program Coordinator who always made sure that I was at the right place at the right time and that I never missed a meal. A special thank you goes to Festival Coordinator Ani Gejadze for always being there to answer my questions and laughing a lot with me.
Following the closing ceremony, we were all taken by charter bus on the six-hour ride back to Tbilisi, armed with bottles of Tofuzi wine. From Tbilisi airport, Nik and I flew to Cypress for Animattikon, which will be the subject of my next article.
The next edition of the Tofuzi International Animated Film Festival will take place 26 – 31 October 2020.