Lasha Tskvintinidze in The Drummer (dir. Kote Kalandadze, 2022)
Kote Kalandadze is a respected member of Georgia’s alternative music scene, the frontman of groups Nebo SSSR and Lady Heroine – and now a filmmaking pioneer. Since his experimental first feature Teen Spirit in 2021, he has written, produced, and directed a raft of documentaries and fiction titles set in the subterranean subculture of rock music, throwing light on a world that is often neglected in favour of Tbilisi’s more chic dance parties and gallery shows. His new fiction feature The Drummer, which is screening in competition at this year’s Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan, sees Kalandadze growing in ambition and in stature as a filmmaker. Lasha Tskvintinidze stars as Niko, a desperate musician from the wrong side of the tracks whose dreams of self-expression through rock music are continually dashed by the harsh realities of his everyday life: a demeaning factory job, a catatonic live-in grandfather, and a preening frontman determined to put him down at any opportunity. When he falls in with charismatic drug dealer Kogo (Gogi Dzodzuashvili), he sees a way out of his misery – while also putting everything he has achieved thus far at ever greater risk.
We spoke with Kote about his dual career as musician and cineaste, life as a Nirvana fan in the nineties, and the social value of alternative music in a country like Georgia. His producer Elene Margvelashvili joined us on the call, offering help with translation as well as her own informative comments.
You’re best known as a musician. How, why, and when did you make the transition to filmmaking? Was it a long-term plan?
Kote Kalandadze: I’ve always wanted to watch films about the Georgian underground, but there weren’t any. I don’t remember exactly how it came to my mind, but I wrote a script – that was the first film I made, called Teen Spirit. It’s an experimental film, a feature made without any budget, about one day in the life of this marginal, underground society. At first, I wanted to see those characters in other people’s films, but there was zero interest from other directors, so I decided to do it myself. All the films I’ve made so far, as a producer, writer, director – there are four or five of them – they are all somehow related to the Georgian underground music scene: The Drummer, the documentary Dead Souls’ Vacation, Better Than Dog, a short documentary. It’s my way of visualising this world and my experiences.
So, the music came first for you, and filmmaking was just another way of expressing it?
Elene Margvelashvili: Georgian music has been very important for Georgia’s cultural direction. It was one of the first places that brought an alternative way of living after Georgia gained independence. It’s about a lifestyle, about the people who formed these subcultures. And it’s about trying to lead the kind of life that you want. Georgia didn’t have that during the Soviet Union. Now, all round the world people are fighting for their [right to be] different, and in Georgia it’s the same. In Georgia, musicians were the first to introduce this spirit of independence.
KK: Not many people mention this, but I think it played a big part in changing the mentality of society, [making it] more progressive. These days, many things are established, in terms of fashion and lifestyle. Torn jeans are OK today – but it was really a problem in the nineties. You could get killed for wearing an earring, there were several cases like that.
Torn jeans are OK today – but it was really a problem in the nineties. You could get killed for wearing an earring.
Tbilisi has a range of vibrant artistic scenes, which in my experience are heavily dependent on collaboration. Are the music and film scenes very distinct, then?
KK: There aren’t many points of intersection. I don’t know why. They are closed communities. We call the cinema people “kinoshniki” [a Russian word meaning cinephile]: it’s like a caste.
EM: Even theatre and film don’t cross over much. It’s strange: you have the same actors working in theatre and film, but “film people” don’t know “theatre people” very well. In Georgia there’s little sense of the “creative industries”, it’s a new topic. People don’t understand that films and music can bring in money. So, from the side of the government, we’re not encouraged to talk to one another, to have events, conferences. Most collaborations happen on a very personal level. Kote asked his friend who’s a musician [Gogi Dzodzuashvili] to play the drug dealer in The Drummer and also to write the soundtrack: that’s how the crossover happens. Our films are about music, and that helps, but otherwise it’s strange.
Are there any aspects of this film that are particularly personal, if not autobiographical?
KK: The idea first came to me when I was searching for a drummer for my band. I auditioned several guys, and I noticed one similarity: they were quiet before they sat at the drums. When they started playing, that was the moment I saw the character of the drummer who speaks only when he plays his instrument. Plus, there was the fact that these guys were shady, always going out to talk to someone, selling drugs, buying drugs. That’s where the idea came from. As for my personal experience, the opening of the film was something [that happened in] my life. And not only my life. Being a music fan in the nineties was really tough because you couldn’t find people who shared the same taste in music. The first scene is about that. [When I was younger] I saw two girls from my window wearing Nirvana t-shirts, and I ran out trying to find them. They were nowhere to be found, but I found a sticker on a tree that said: “you are not alone”.
I think I had that Nirvana t-shirt as well.
EM: I think it was easier for you to get hold of!
Lasha Tskvintinidze in The Drummer (dir. Kote Kalandadze, 2022)
Was there a particular way you wanted to capture the performances and rehearsals?
KK: I didn’t want to make the film very realistic. I wanted to make it a fairy tale. Tbilisi is not represented via popular streets and districts, but with places that many Georgians don’t know exist. I wanted to show that this music is hidden. It’s [the same] with the rehearsal rooms and the gig venue…
EM: They’re staged, they don’t represent the reality. [They’re like] Underground fairy tales.
KK: When I want to show reality, I show it in documentaries. For my interests, it’s [better] not to show things directly, but to make them somehow more beautiful – or worse, more ugly.
Could you explain a little about the literary figure that recurs in the stories that the drummer writes, the Ronin? Obviously, the figure of the ronin has its own cinematic tradition, but what did it mean in the context of the drummer’s story?
KK: Those Ronin stories [that he writes] bear some similarity to his own life, but with a difference. In the stories, the character is more idealistic. It’s his alter-ego. [The Ronin] does the same as Niko does in real life, but he does them like Niko wanted to but couldn’t. He lets the Ronin do those things [for him] in his stories.
He can only talk when he plays the drums, and he can only act through his stories. It’s self-actualisation. But as he goes through that process, he puts himself at greater and greater risk.
KK: That’s right.
When I want to show reality, I show it in documentaries. [In fiction] it’s better not to show things directly, but to make them somehow more beautiful – or worse, more ugly.
At the end of the film, this whole other aspect is introduced: it becomes almost a genre film, a thriller, with the crime plot, the corrupt policemen, and so on. How does that relate back to the story about creativity? Or was it intended as a comment about Georgian politics?
KK: Unfortunately, those kinds of guys, like Gogo and the police [are involved], because music is related to drugs. The inspiration came from real people that we often see at concerts: you never know who they are, but they’re very shady, very cinematic in a way. I wanted to show that when you have no income as a musician, when you are really vulnerable, in this underground world, it’s very easy for these guys to take advantage of you. Usually they are older than you, charismatic, interesting people. They know music, they know films, topics you’re interested in. They’re able to get people’s trust.
So, it serves more as further comment on the music scene, rather than as a broader political point?
KK: It’s the country as a whole. It’s not just the music scene. If the police are corrupting one area, they corrupt everywhere else.
EM: In Georgia we have a very draconian drug policy. It’s been a tool for controlling people. We’ve had cases of planting drugs on people who have political experience or who have attended public protests. It was also a way of showing this: it’s very easy to control people in a country like Georgia where the laws give you that opportunity. It’s easy to ruin people you don’t like.
Watch The Drummer on Klassiki as part of our partnership with the Golden Apricot International Film Festival from 9 – 30 July.