PHOTO BY WACHTANG KORISHELI
BOTSO: THE TEACHER FROM TBILISI
Where is it playing?: The Palm
What's it rated?: G
What's it worth?: $8.00
You can see and hear the legacy of Botso throughout the Central Coast. His impressive stone sculptures—one of them being the giant chessboard on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero—populate the area with an elegant and unique style. His prolific passion for music, as a long-time teacher and founder of the SLO Youth Symphony, has influenced several generations of children in the community. Some of those children have even gone on to become internationally renowned musicians, like conductor Kent Nagano. I, myself, remember Botso visiting my high school seven or eight years ago. There was a buzz about campus. My friends in band class told me there were cameras with him, that someone was making a documentary about him. Now, years later, that documentary, Botso: The Teacher from Tbilsi, has finally been released.
What I remember about Botso from that high school experience is scant and superficial. All I knew, like most in Morro Bay and the surrounding region, was that he was a well-respected music teacher and an artist of some accomplishment. My mother and I would pass his sculptures on the drive back home, but we never questioned them; I never knew who he really was, or where he even came from. He was just Botso, a nice and talented older man who lived nearby. I had no idea, until this documentary, that the teacher who visited my high school all those years ago carried with him the stories, suffering, and wisdom of such a varied and fascinating life.
In intimate interviews with Botso at his handcrafted Morro Bay home, we learn that Botso was born as Wachtang Korisheli in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Both his parents were artists. His mother taught him piano, and his father, Platon, was a popular theater actor. But his father was more than an actor; he was a critic of Stalin’s repressive regime, which we see glimpses of in flashback photos and footage. Soon, Platon, like so many during the Soviet era, was arrested and sentenced to execution. While in prison, he was given only 20 minutes to say goodbye to his son, 20 minutes to impart a lifetime’s worth of advice.
This tragic occurrence would not be the last. Soon, Botso was drafted into World War II as a ditch digger on the defensive lines, where he was captured as a prisoner of war under the Germans. He recounts, with resigned sadness, having to march for nearly half a year. “Life didn’t mean that much to me at that time,” he comments. Life didn’t mean much until a German officer gave him the chance to arrange some music, a song that mocked the Georgians as “untermensch” (“subhuman,” in German). The piece may have been demeaning, but the chance to arrange and play reignited his passion for music—a passion that would lead Botso to escape German confines, travel to the United States, and study at the Los Angeles Conservatory before moving to Morro Bay in 1957 as a full-time teacher.
Director Tom Walters films scenes of Botso with his many students. Because the documentary was filmed over the course of 10 years, students, who were eight or nine in one scene, age five years in the next clip, with their enthusiasm for music and their teacher as strong as ever. You can see the joy, the eagerness, and the interest on their faces, but you can see it equally on Botso’s jovial visage. At the age of 92, he still plays, still sculpts, still cracks jokes, and still maintains he has room to grow.
“What makes me live so positively are these words,” he says: “Have you done enough?” Certainly, this documentary has done enough to showcase a man so endlessly talented, hardworking, and generous that we could all learn something from him. (82 min.)
—Jessica Peña; New Times arts editor