Hot Docs/EFP: Changing Face of Europe: Dead Souls Vacation

Hot Docs/EFP: Changing Face of Europe: Dead Souls Vacation

Levan is a drunk whose every decision is influenced by its potential effect on his hypochondriac mother, so he generally decides to do nothing at all. He also happens to have been one of Georgia’s most creative musicians…


Watching Levan Svanidze operate, if that term can be applied, is intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. In his mid-40s he still has looks, and it’s obvious he retains some talent as his inventive electronic music accompanies the visuals throughout Keko Chelidze’s feature-length documentary.


But he drinks vodka incessantly, and in the process renders himself both unintelligible and unreliable. And the quasi-destructive relationship he maintains with his needy mother determines that every time he sets foot outside the house, he will be called back by some health-related false alarm.


Yes, the mother/son double act makes for fabulous documentary: screwball, weird and invoking of bucketloads of pathos, but if it’s Levan’s return to the big-time you are holding out for, then be prepared for a long wait.


“I had known Levan for a couple of years already,” explains director Chelidze. “I knew him as a person who was always a little bit funny, a little bit strange, maybe going around with his guitar all the time, and I really became interested in him when I listened to his older music and saw footage of him being an active musician in the 1990s. I began to wonder how he came to be this person who I had known now for several years already… trying to understand his life, how he ended up being there.”


Much of the film is shot in the 40 square-metre apartment that Levan shares with his mother. The television is always on and there is always some form of dramatic tension driving the narrative. She sings a song of praise for Stalin, penned by her father. Levan hates it. She leaves the gas on all the time. It drives him to despair. He colours her hair while he is blind drunk. It’s a mess. He cancels a date with a girl because he must clean the apartment for his mother… and so on.


Nevertheless they co-exist, and there is a levity to their exchanges which plays in counterpoint to the debilitating effect that his choices and dependencies are ultimately having on his hopes for creative fulfilment. 


But how does one work, as a filmmaker, with such a potentially unreliable subject? 


“It was actually a huge stress, because on none of the days of the shooting did we know if Levan would actually be there, and if he was at home in what state he would be in,” says Chelidze. “But what balances this unpredictability of Levan is this really humorous relationship that he has with his mother. No matter how big the problem is that they are dealing with at that moment, they find a way to look at it light-heartedly, and so we took this light approach as well. We got used to it.”


The name of the film derives from one of Levan’s musical collaborations from the past, although he achieved fame in Georgia for his work with the band, Immoral. So how does Chelidze explain the sense of rudderless malaise that seems to blight his life now, and that of his mother?


“I think it’s not just a problem of Levan’s mother being so influential, but also of people failing to adapt to post-Soviet life, because many things changed,” she responds. “Many talented people like him were not able to realise themselves in these new times. Levan and his mother are both in their own way hanging onto the past. My understanding is that she reminisces about the times when she was told how to live and what to do. Whereas Levan was in the bands that were opposing the Soviet regime. For both of them, being part of the Soviet Union served a certain function.”


“After it fell apart and Georgia became independent they both became lost in this new reality and just had each other to hang onto,” Chelidze adds.


A bonus for Levan is that he will gain financially from the use of his music in the film. In addition, the Parachute Films team (which includes producer Elene Margvelashvili) are looking to help him put together a new album gathered from the 500 or so unreleased tracks that he has composed over the years.


“We have offered to show Levan the film but he hasn’t seen the whole thing,” adds Chelidze. “He has seen scenes from it. The agreement was that he wanted to see it with the audience in front of the big screen, together with his mother. We were supposed to have a national premiere at the documentary festival here in Georgia but it was postponed like everything else, so we are expecting for this to happen in the Fall.”


“But I think he is a also little bit afraid to see himself,” the director concludes.