My Grandmother (1929): experimental Georgian phantasmagoria

It is absolutely extraordinary that an hour-long film from Georgia, My Grandmother (ჩემი ბებია, Kote Mikaberidze, 1929), predating the surrealism of Dalí and Buñuel, Breton’s dark humour, Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and even hypnotic homoerotism of Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1932), manifests the elements of all these ensuing cultural phenomena. So if you are not familiar with any of these, watch My Grandmother and experience all-in-one instantly.

There's a parallel between Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet and the above shots from My Grandmother: the statue comes to life and then returns to the pedestal in the reverse-motion photography

There’s a parallel between Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and the above shots from My Grandmother: the statue comes to life and then returns to the pedestal in the reverse-motion photography

Of course Soviets had to prohibit it. The film was seen as anti-regime because of its Trockyist attitude towards bureaucracy within the Soviet Union, banned from viewing and “shelved” – a very common practice in the USSR, usually applied to innovative and the most culturally significant films.

Only in the 1970s the film was rediscovered. At first the attention of restorers was caught by formal qualities and aesthetics of the film. Indeed My Grandmother looks like a catalogue of experiments with film form: from puppetry, cut-out and stop motion animation á la Starewicz, to optical effects in the best traditions of French Impressionist cinema — so it can enlighten you in this aspect, too.

In terms of form, My Grandmother is a cocktail of experimental techniques

In terms of form, My Grandmother is a cocktail of experimental techniques

Relentless satire on bureaucracy and corruption, flourishing in the young Socialist state, the film opens with a shot of the round table in the headquarters of some trust. To get a seat at this table, people would hurl themselves at each other’s throats, but as soon as the seat is taken, the bearer of the desired chair gets bored to death and seeks to entertain himself by any means.

But the junior communist league does not slumber!

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In a highly surrealistic manner a huge ink pen of a young komsomol becomes a weapon of a symbolic murder

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… The ink pen pierces the chest of one of the bureaucrats and pins him to a wall newspaper, like a dead butterfly is pinned to a beaverboard.

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Owing to the poignancy of the komsomol’s pen, the Bureaucrat gets fired for “being a notorious idler”. Not knowing what to do with himself at home, he loses his mind: his daughter’s plushes come to live and talk to him, and finally he puts his head in the noose. The grotesquerie of the scene goes off the scale when the Bureaucrat’s wife and kid arrive home dancing out of happiness about the shopping they made.

The Bureaucrat’s wife and daughter trip it away, as he hangs from the ceiling

The Bureaucrat’s wife and daughter trip it away, as he hangs from the ceiling

Pestered by his wife, the Bureaucrat gathers up, gets out of the noose (he was “just rehearsing” he says) and sets to find a new job. One of the fellow-bureaucrats gives him a valuable advice:

“You idiot! All you need is a grandmother!”

Now this mysterious dictum remains a puzzle for us, but we assume that either he refers to some Georgian phraseology or saying not known to us, or “the grandmother” might be a metaphor of a senior protector from the highest circles of society, who will always put in a word for you.

If Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a story of an ordinary worker man fighting, with no chance to success, the very well-oiled bureaucratic machine, My Grandmother is a palindrome. Here a bureaucrat, even with a granny, has no chance in front of honest labour man, and the film ends with an overt call for the death of bureaucracy and the victory of the Communist party.

What they banned the film for, you’ll wonder. Well, one will never understand how the Soviet censorship worked.

To red tape, to sloppiness, to bureaucrats - DEATH!

To the “red-tape”, sloppiness, bureaucrats – DEATH!

As an intertitle–message from the restorers in the beginning of the film states, they decided to restore the film “not only because of its artistic merit, but also because of the conviction that even today it is able to combat certain shameful practices present in our society”.

So in the 1976, when the topicality of the issues raised by the film supposedly weakened, in fact as relevant as ever My Grandmother was given a new lease of life, thanks to a Georgian film director Leila Gordeladze.

A special word has to be said about the new score for the film composed by Beth Custer and performed by her band. The score is “a quick-paced pastiche of American jazz and blues, contemporary classical, and world folk music”, being a brilliant match for the film.

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