'Botso': Film Review

Botso Tree Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Laemmle Theaters

Botso Tree Still - H 2014

This affecting documentary throws a well-deserved spotlight on its inspiring subject

Tom Walters' documentary profiles Wachtang "Botso" Korisheli, a beloved 92-year-old music teacher who survived oppression at the hands of both the Nazis and Soviets during World War II

As subjects for documentaries go, Wachtang "Botso" Korisheli is awfully compelling. The now 92-year-old musician, sculptor and music teacher to generations of students spent his formative years under extremely trying circumstances. Growing up in the Republic of Georgia as the son of a locally famous actor, he was once warmly greeted by Stalin, who put his hand on his shoulder and asked him if he was a good student. Not long afterwards, the Soviet dictator had his father killed and buried in a mass grave.

Only 14 years old at the time, Botso — his nickname means "young steer" in Georgian — had the opportunity for a final, 20-minute jailhouse meeting with his father, who used the opportunity to instill a deeply ingrained philosophy of living in his son. Botso's mother was sent to a prison camp, and died before they could ever be reunited.

He later dug ditches for the Nazis on the front lines before eventually making his way to Poland, where he was captured and forced to serve as a translator for the Russians. After the war, Botso emigrated to the U.S. with a single suitcase of possessions, winding up in Hollywood, where he became Oscar-winning actress Janet Gaynor's piano teacher and even lived for a while in her beach house.

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Botso eventually became a music teacher at an elementary in the small coastal town of Morro Bay, Calif., where he's worked for decades. Along the way, he found time to pursue an alternate career as a sculptor, as well as founding the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony in 1965.

Tom Walters' affecting if bare-bones documentary takes a clearly reverential approach to his subject, who remains vital and articulate even at his advanced age. His lengthy interviews are interspersed with tributes by many of his former students, including Jerry Folsom, former principal French horn player for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and multiple Grammy-winning conductor Kent Nagano.

One of the clearest testaments to Botso's educational gifts are scenes in which he's seen teaching young children still struggling with the rudimentary aspects of musicianship, with cuts to five years later when the pupils demonstrate impressive pianistic skills.

Climaxing with moving footage of a concert in which his former students reunited to perform in a tribute concert, Botso is a deserving homage to a life well lived.

Production: Aspect Studios
Director: Tom Walters
Screenwriter: Hilary Grant
Producers: Tom Walters, David Thayer
Executive producer: Joanne Storken
Director of photography: Simo Nylander
Editors: Randy Barros, Tom Walters
Composer: Martin Davich

No rating, 82 minutes