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Two Weeks in the Caucasus 

Georgian Monk Builds Stairway to Heaven

Creating the Original Score

Production Timeline

Call to Action

Welcome to The Stylite Newsletter

 

This marks the first issue of a quarterly newsletter that will follow the progress of our documentary, The Stylite from development to release.        

 

Featured in this issue is writer/director Stephen Riehl's research trip to the Republic of Georgia in September, Director of Photography Temo Bardzimashvil's photo essay about Fr. Maxim and Composer/Sound Designer Shawn Kelly's approach to the original soundtrack. 

 

 In addition, you can review the production timeline and the packages we have available for donors.  Also if you haven't seen it yet, the new trailer is available on YouTube.

 

Thank you for your continued support.

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Two Weeks in the Caucasus   

 

"Somewhere over the Midwest approaching the Great Lakes en route to London, the odyssey has begun." 

 

This first sentence from my workbook for the Stylite project written while flying to London on my way to Georgia calls this project an odyssey.  It's an apt description for something that has drawn me halfway across the world.  Yet, I embarked on this project before I ever heard about Fr. Maxim or Katskhi Pillar.  I have long been interested in the ascetic lifestyle, in the history of religion, and the nature of spirituality in the modern world.  I also have a love for different and ancient cultures and as a family friend put it when I was explaining the project to her, "maybe it's also a homecoming."  Perhaps she's right, as I myself live a relatively sequestered life.

 

After about 25 hours of flying and waiting for connections I arrived in Tbilisi around 11pm where our Director of Photography Temo Bardzimashvili was to meet me and take me to my Hostel.  This was the first time we met in person although we had been corresponding regularly about the project for almost a year.  Over dinner, beer, and some amazing Caucasian dumplings called Khinkali we became fast friends and began discussing our plan for the next two weeks.           

 

Temo is a native of Tbilisi and a photojournalist whose photo essay about Fr. Maxim inspired me to sideline a fictional piece about a modern day Stylite I was developing for the story of this monk who really hoped to do it.  He showed me around the ancient part of Tbilisi and we took some footage of possible places to shoot the ambitious prologue for The Stylite.  After four days we prepared to travel the three hours or so by car to Katskhi village where we were to spend the next five days in an old rundown dacha owned by some of Temo's rock climbing friends.  We were happy to have electricity and a roof over our heads.  Although, during a rainstorm our first night we found that while there was a roof it was very leaky.  Luckily none of our equipment got wet.

 

After settling in we decided to go to the pillar and introduce ourselves to Fr. Maxim.  The sun hung low in the sky, it was brilliantly clear and the pillar stood out as if it were cut from the sky. Temo and I approached the pillar on a rocky and wooded trail.  Above us, like a vision, the imposing column seemed to float above the trees.  It wasn't hard to imagine the pilgrims that walked the same path as we, stepped on the same stones, perhaps even leaned against the same ancient tree to rest a while on their ascent towards the pillar.  I could feel a certain lifting from within which was probably not unlike what our counterparts may have felt when they traveled this path almost a thousand years before.  We made it to an iron gate, a relatively recent addition, and walked in.  You still have to walk up a steep incline from the gate to make it to the base of the pillar and by the time we made it to flat ground we had to rest a bit.  I saw a monk sitting on a chair under an eave of the monastery.  Temo said that it was Fr. Maxim so we went up and he introduced him to me.  I was expecting a stern monk peering at us in disapproval because we were not living as he has chosen to live.  But instead we were greeted by a huge smile, a kiss on the shoulder, and offered bread, meat, cheese, and some excellent Georgian wine.  He was open to us shooting some preliminary footage around the pillar as well as on top, but he was initially reluctant to let us film much else.

 

We spent the next five days shooting everywhere from the cliffs and caves that overlook the pillar to the heavily wooded area below.  The monks gradually began to warm to us and we were invited to eat with them, film their services, and even stay at the monastery. Unfortunately we never took them up on their offer to stay as we were usually somewhere in the canyon shooting well after sunset.  We do plan, however, to stay there during principal photography.

 

We ascended the pillar twice during our time there and each time I felt a strong sense of peace, even presence, but my experience was that of an outsider.  The reality is that living in such a way takes remarkable discipline.  At the top there is a small chapel with an icon of St. Simeon and a small iconostasis.  A narrow window lets in a sliver of light that collects on the floor and near the door is a wooden box holding the bones of the previous Stylite which were found in the remains of the ancient church twelve years ago.  Behind the chapel there is a small oak tree with a bell hanging from its twisted trunk and about ten to fifteen feet across from the chapel is the hermitage, a simple room with a bed near the far wall.  There are attached rooms which are presumably for supplies or perhaps even the rare visitor. On the other side, and about twenty feet below the top is a cave.  It is thought that there might have been a Stylite living in this cave as well or it might have been a place where supplies were stored.  It is remarkable that they have been able to remodel these buildings at the top and downright amazing that they were first built over a thousand years ago.

 

After gathering about six hours of footage and four interviews we packed our things and headed back to Tbilisi.  I was on a plane a few days later headed to Baku, Azerbaijan the first stop on my way back to the United States.  The trip was overwhelming as simply walking through old town inspired a number of short film ideas.  As for the pillar, my impressions are hard to put into words. This is why I believe we must make The Stylite and it must not be a traditional documentary but one that presents interiority through audio/visual poetry in an intimate way.  

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*Georgian Monk Builds Stairway to Heaven
By Temo Bardzimashvili (as published by EurasiaNet) 

 

NOTE: This article by Temo Bardzimashvili as published on EurasiaNet in August 2010 was the inspiration for the project.  Writer/Director Stephen Riehl happened upon it while researching Stylite asceticism for another project he was developing.

 

 

Come summertime, getting away from it all is the dream that haunts everyone. One Georgian Orthodox monk, though, has come up with a plan for a lifetime of escape atop a 40-meter-high rock column in central Georgia's Imereti region.

 

In pagan times, the towering Katskhi Pillar, located about 10 kilometers from the mining town of Chiatura, was thought to represent a local god of fertility. With the arrival of Christianity in Georgia in the 4th century, it came to represent seclusion from the hurly-burly of ordinary life.

 

A church was first built atop the rock between the 6th and 8th centuries -- no one knows exactly how or why. Stylites, early Christian ascetics who prayed and fasted on top of pillars, used Katskhi for their devotions until some time in the 15th century, when Georgia was struck by domestic upheaval and invasions by Ottoman Turkey. The remains of one unknown practitioner today lay buried beneath the church.

 

Father Maxim, a 55-year-old native of Chiatura, says that he has dreamed of living atop the Pillar, like the Stylites, since he was young. "When my friends and I used to come up here to drink outdoors, I always envied that monk who used to live there when I looked at the pillar," he recalled.

 

In 1993, Father Maxim took monastic vows, and two years later decided to move to Katskhi. After spending one winter in a grotto beneath the rock column, he received money from a "friend from Tbilisi" to build a new church on its top. The Georgian Orthodox Church's local eparchy, or regional administration, allegedly granted Father Maxim permission to erect the structure on the site.

 

Amidst an ongoing religious revival in Georgia, Father Maxim's mission easily found supporters. More and more people now come to Katskhi to donate money or building materials for the church's construction -- a generosity that makes the overall cost of the project difficult to estimate, he claims. Many local villagers also volunteer to work on the site for free.

The labor involved, though, can require a head for heights, as well as for matters spiritual. Scaffolding runs halfway up the column; an iron ladder reaches to the top. Builders use ropes to lift heavy construction materials from the ground.

Following the example of the first Stylite, Simeon, Father Maxim does not allow women on the site -- a ban also practiced at pagan shrines in Georgia's mountain regions of Tusheti and Khevsureti.

 

Work on the project should be largely finished by the summer of 2011.

 

Before that date, Father Maxim hopes to secure a blessing from Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II that would allow the monk to live on top of Katskhi alongside his newly built church. "They told me they allowed me to come here, but not to live up there," he recounted, laughing. "They told me I was too young then. Now they'll probably tell me I'm too old."

 

The Patriarch's office could not be reached for comment.

But if the blessing ever comes, Father Maxim knows what he will do -- climb up Katskhi, pull the ladder up after him and live apart from the world's tumult, once and for all.

 

 

UPDATE: Earlier this year the Patriarch visited the site and gave Fr. Maxim his blessing to live at the top but due to some local church politics he is still unable to do so.  He hopes and prays however, that the local administration will eventually allow it.

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Creating the Original Score

 

I was drawn to this project by the solemn act Father Maxim hopes to carry out in the face of the modern world.  Initially I didn't know what a Stylite was, but the idea of a person withdrawing in contemplation resonated deeply within me. 

 

As we discuss the story in our production meetings, I'm excited by the prospect of creating the presence of the off camera traveler drawn from the city to the pillar through creative sound design and musical cues.  I'm especially interested in working with Caucasian instruments and musicians to help bring authenticity to the score.

 

Currently, I'm working on an album which will be more like a musical workbook as I begin experimenting with the different themes in the film.  Although these preliminary songs will not be part of the original score, they are my first steps in that direction.  The hope is that the listener will hear within the soundscape the musical journey that I'm taking as I flesh out the sound design for The Stylite.  These and all songs that I create during this process will be made available to donors.

 

Thank you for your interest and support.

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Production Timeline 

 

 

With the footage shot during the research trip in September we are currently working to put together a short documentary to build interest for the feature length film.  This short documentary will be premiered at our upcoming fundraising events and will also be submitted to film festivals to help spread the word about the project. 

 

We are currently applying for a number of grants that we plan to use with money raised through grassroots fundraising to begin principal photography. 

 

Production will begin immediately upon receipt of major funding.  It is tentatively scheduled to begin in early 2012 and projected to last a year.  The production schedule calls for approximately 60 shooting days spread out over four two week production trips to the Republic of Georgia.  Changing seasons are a central metaphor to the film so it is important that we capture this.  As the production will be spread out over the course of a year and not completed in one continuous block, editing will be done between production trips.  Our hope is to finish the film by the end of 2012. 

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Call to Action 

 

It has been said that filmmaking is like building a house, this might be true for a studio backed film, but with a truly independent film like this we must first build the tools before starting the house.  In other words, the "film making" happens at the end and we ask that you help us to reach that end.

 

Although we are pursuing grants from various organizations and film festivals our grassroots fundraising is key to helping us with development, preproduction, and marketing.  Currently we offer five donation packages:

 

Basic ($25 donation)-Limited Edition DVD with personalized thank you letter from principals and Special Thanks Credit

 

Bronze ($50 donation)-Basic Package, with framed 11x17 poster signed by principals

 

Silver ($100 donation)-Bronze Package, with exclusive invitation to pre-release screening

 

Gold ($500 donation)-Silver Package with copy of Official Soundtrack and Very Special Thanks credit

 

Platinum ($1000 donation)-Gold Package with Associate Producer Credit

 

We accept donations of any amount as every bit will help, but if you are unable to donate money towards the project we ask that you donate a bit of your time.  Please help us to spread the word by telling your family and friends, by blogging about the project, and sharing it on your social network sites. 

 

Thank you for your continued support.   

 

 

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