BY RAMONA DU HOUX
August 8, 2013
UPDATE: Botso has won the Audience Choice Award at the Waimea Ocean Film Festival, winning the award in every festival that has the award. The film won it, overwhelmingly, in Maine.
Botso: The Teacher From Tbilisi had its worldwide premiere during the 16th Maine International Film Festival (MIFF) and was overwhelming voted the winner of the Audience Choice for Best Film.
“Botso’s story is an amazing example of human resilience, how someone can turn something horrific into something positive,” said Tom Walters, the co-producer and director of the full-length documentary.
For anyone who loves to learn about how someone overcame tremendous obstacles life put in his path, Botso’s story is sure to inspire. For anyone who believes in the power of teaching music and art, Botso’s story will touch your soul.
“I was able to see dad in prison; he was in a small cell, and he was holding my mom’s hand,” recalled Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli, 91, in the film. That day took place in 1936, just before Stalin had his father, celebrated Georgian actor Platon Korisheli, executed as an enemy of the people. “That’s where he told me everything he wanted to tell me for the rest of my life. He said to me, ‘When you go to bed each night, ask yourself: ‘Have I done enough today?’”
Botso was 14.
That last meeting helped Botso endure years of suffering at the hands of both the Soviet Army and Nazis during World War II and also gave him the determination to maintain an infectious passion for humanity, the arts, and life.
“Botso makes you appreciate life on a whole other level,” said Walters.
The documentary visibly moved the MIFF audience. In the post-film question period, comments about the life of the musician, sculptor, and beloved teacher ranged from “He’s a sage and inspiration to us all” to “If we all could live by his five principles, the world would be better off.”
Those tenets Botso said he needed to survive were: love, family, friends, work, and the arts.
His mother, a concert pianist, along with her husband, encouraged Botso’s talents.
After his father was killed, Botso was forced to dig ditches for the Russians. He escaped only to become a German prisoner of war, where he said music gave him back meaning in his life. When Botso gathered prisoners together to sing a song in the prison camp, a guard discovered that his prisoner spoke German and Russian. Botso was sent to Germany as translator, which helped to spare his life. Just before the war ended, Botso was sent to what was soon to become an Americanized zone of Salzburg, West Germany.
He never forgot how music saved him during the war years in prison. When he immigrated to California, he found that instilling love and passion for music in students was to become his mission. He soon became a music teacher, as well as a celebrated sculptor and conductor.
In the Georgian language, “Botso” (pronounced BOAT-zo) means “little steer.” The nickname was given to the musical sage in his boyhood schoolyard.
“Most Georgians are tall, but I was stocky and a little chubby, so I used to attack them with my head first,” said Botso. “The name stuck to me.”
Botso has a natural talent of storytelling and punctuates hard issues with just enough humor to balance out his telling of the tragic situations that he had to face.
Filmed partly in Georgia, viewers witness the strong cultural connections that are a part of Botso’s soul and have obviously contributed to his unique way of teaching.
“Botso brought a European sensibility to a little fishermen town [Morro Bay],” explained writer and co-producer Hilary Grant. Morro Bay’s population was less than 4,000 when Botso first began to teach.
Walters and Grant, in collaboration with the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony and Aspect Studios, began to chronicle Botso’s life only after Botso agreed to do the documentary with the condition that all the profits would go toward music scholarships for children.
Some of the most compelling examples of the progress his students made are during film segments of a young student who plays a song while Botso instructs. Then the same student is seen years later playing a piece with so much emotion and clarity the scenes brought tears and sighs to some in the audience. What started out as a three-month project turned into eight years of dedicated work.
Walters said the final edits and mastery should be credited to co-producer David Thayer and editor Randi Barros.
“It’s been a labor of love,” said Walters. “Botso taught my daughters, and I really just wanted to give something back.” They attended Mission Elementary School where Botso taught a strings program and one of them went on to play violin for a symphony.
“It’s estimated that he taught ten thousand students throughout his career,” said Grant. Botso also inspired some of the world’s premier musical artists.
As a teacher, his wit, charm, and understanding made his students want to go the extra mile for him.
“He’s why I think I was lucky enough to become a musician,” said Kent Nagano, former music director of the Los Angeles Opera and music director of Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the Bavarian State Opera. “He established an intensive music school within the California public school system. It’s extraordinary that so many professionals have come from that little orchestra.”
From age seven, Nagano was Botso’s clarinet student.
Another student in the film said that Botso treated them all like they were professionals, not as kids, but as adult equals. Watching him teach, viewers witness how he took the time to make sure each pupil knew how important real emotion is to playing music successfully.
“There was some magic in him,” said cellist Nancy Nagano, who led the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony, founded by Botso in 1965. “He had something perfect to inspire kids to want to play music.”
Rodger Anderson, a former mayor of Morro Bay, played the French horn, and he credits Botso for instilling a work ethic that he still abides by.
Botso imparts lessons for life and his way of being and working with nature. The film is a great tribute to him and to the value of music and art education. Botso continues to teach and work in his sculpture studio.
“I can’t imagine him doing anything else,” said Walters.