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Monday, 8 March 2010

Sergei Paradjanov

The BFI should be warmly congratulated for their excellent Paradjanov (or Paradzhanov) retrospective. Saturday an excellent symposium was held at the NFT with a whole list of guests including the Ukrainian-Armenian director and friend of Paradjanov Roman Balayan, the film historian and curator Ian Christie, the film-maker and producer Patrick Cazals, the Georgian photographer Yuri Mechitov, the writer, lecturer and broadcaster John Riley and others. The Symposium was full of different 'takes on Paradjanov from the scholarly to the often hilarious personal recollections of Roman Balayan. Ian Christie entitled his introductory piece A Fortunate Man which is a rather strange thing to say about a film director who spent years in the prisons of the Soviet Union. He went on, however, to justify his argument by saying how this might be true. Fortunate to belong to a generation of directors and to have such great opportunities at studying under the great masters in the Soviet Union's State Cinematography Institute (in the workshop of Savchenko where Marlen Khutsiev also studied), fortunate in being the recipient of a powerful international solidarity campaign when he was jailed and being eventually granted his release, fortunate in the ability to create such unique masterpieces which in the conditions of the Soviet Union could still be made if left on the shelf (and would probably never get the funding in the West for such esoteric films). Ian Christie explained how he had begun his filmmaking career in the deadening atmosphere of the late Stalin period. VGIK was at that time a refuge for the greats of Soviet cinema who had been left almost unemployed by the film famine years at the end of Stalin's life.

The consensus is that there was two periods in Paradjanov's film career. He himself would have pointed to his viewing of Tarkovsky's 'Ivan's Childhood' as the dividing point. For Christie the earlier film by Kalatozov 'The Cranes are Flying' was also a significant moment. Yet a viewing even of some of his early films suggest that Paradjanov was able to express stunning visual effects in his films with their rather conventional Socialist Realist plot lines (my viewing of Flower on the Stone convinced me of his superb ability to deal even with black and white and his use of chiaroscuro to maximum effect). His Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors had a fantastically wide distribution and success both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Its use of folklore, its stunning use of colour and his unique way of using music and dance (which was his original orientation, Ian Christie reminds us) makes the viewing of this film a rare and unforgettable experience. Yet in 1965 he was to move even further along the route of being a uniquely visual filmmaker and the remaining rushes of Kiev Frescoes (totalling about 13 minutes) indicate that narrative was to be subordinate to the need to make every frame painterly and artistic.

Layla Alexander-Garrett who was the initiator and organiser of this festival and who had worked with Tarkovsky, contrasted the two artists who had become such close friends. It was, according both to her and Ian Christie, a meeting of opposites. Tarkovsky personified almost absolute restraint and Paradjanov a heady exhuberance. What some believe to be Paradjanov's masterpiece - Sayat Nova (aka The Colour of Pomegranates) was to be made in the most difficult period to work in- the late sixties when so many films were banned. Ian Christie stated that it is a mystery how he actually came to make a film like this at all. The answer, it seems, is that it was made in Armenia (the more distant from the centre one was, the less the iron-grip of control by film bureaucrats) and although it was reedited by Yutkevich most participants agreed that Yutkevich simply wished to preserve the film and was a strong champion of the film (who was according to one speaker the film's only champion at the time). Ian Christie spent some time talking about the international campaign in Paradjanov's defence (after being jailed on a veritable cocktail of charges) by filmmakers and argued that a lot of the campaign came through western Communist Parties and Louis Aragon's intervention with Brezhnev as well as the involvement of those film-makers such as Fellini and Bunuel who played a significant part in his final release from prison. The world cinema tradition that speakers placed Paradjanov in were alongside film-makers such as Pasolini and Jarman in terms of a queer sensibility, but Fellini was also mentioned.

Nouritza Matossian argued powerfully to place Paradjanov within an Armenian perspective (and she posited similarities with Arshile Gorky). His belonging to the Armenian community of Tbilisi also influenced him as did the naif art of Pirosmani (although it was hotly disputed whether one could call Paradjanov a naif or primitive artist). She also emphasised how his idea of epic narrative was what distinguished his style from any remnant of socialist realism. She argued that there were always elements of surrealism in medieval Armenian art and that the major aspect of Armenian art that distinguished Paradjanov from other film directors was his frontality (something that also linked him to Cezanne as well as the reliefs of the Armenian churches). He also used a double language of symbols and builds up a kind of ark of symbols in his work which makes his films so rich in meaning.

For Yuri Mechitov Paradjanov was the first successful post-modernist. Roman Balayan was a great racconteur of Paradjanov tales. Balayan as he said wanted to prove that a genius was also a human being. He explained Paradjanov's love of inventing stories (believing that the truth was too boring), his absolute need for spectators and suggested that he would have made a wonderful circus clown. He told the story of how when Tonino Guerra visited Paradjanov and told him that he was a genius, Paradjanov replied that there was no need to tell him because he already knew and that Tonino Guerra should shout out loud in Italian to his neighbours from the balcony that Paradjanov was a genius. Paradjanov was not satisfied with Tonino Guerra's first attempt and told him to shout louder which poor Tonino Guerra consented to do. Balayan emphasised Paradjanov's love of company. He stated that Paradjanov had not a book in his house but loved going to the opera and although he never generally watched films he went to see a film by Pasolini (Oedipus Rex, I believe) 17 times. Yet Paradjanov's lack of books ignored the fact that he had written 20 wonderful scripts that it was hoped would be translated into English one day.

Elisabetta Fabrizi noted that Paradjanov's central goal was to achieve in film what visual artists had achieved with the flat surface of canvas. She points out his links to both Pasolini and Fellini and argued that Paradjanov was the most complete example of art giving shape in filmic language. She also explained how he created a different kind of temporality in his films and his use of the visual allowed him to transcend reality. She also tried to place the influence of the Russian icon on the film. How icon art was about abstraction and frontal and not like Renaissance Art an imitation of life. In Paradjanov's films each object brings its own reality to the film and is a protagonist for what it represents. She also tried to show how it reflected Persian miniatures in his construction of space in the film. Actors in his films represent type and not real characters. It was emphasised how Paradjanov worked consistently with Sofiko Chiaureli who might play up to six roles in the same film.

John Riley showed Paradjanov in the context of the collage art of Dadaism, Surrealism and Pop Art and the use of found materials. He also relates this to musical influences (of a mainly western orientation) but emphasises the notion of polystylism which was, for Riley, a part of the aesthetic style of the time. He gives the examples of collage films like Romm's 'And nevertheless I believe' with its found footage as well as Khrzhanovsky's 'Glass Harmonica'. He then talks about how Paradjanov uses the idea of asynchronicity that was first trumpeted in the joint statement on sound by Pudovkin, Eisenstein and others. The influence of Eisenstein the participants argued was a very important but undocumented influence.

Other interventions by Patrick Cazals on the bestiary of Paradjanov and Daniel Bird on the state of copies of Paradjanov's films. Alas, Bird's contribution highlighted some worrying facts about how badly preserved these copies are and how little cooperation there has been between film archives and studios in different parts of the former Soviet Union. Paradjanov's dispersal was illustrated in the form of a joke about why he was imprisoned. He stated that he was an Armenian born in Georgian who was jailed by the Russians for being a Ukrainian nationalist!


  1. Thanks for the account of the symposium! I wanted to attend but was unable (I live in the US).

    I agree that "The Flower on the Stone" is a visually striking film, even though it's anti-religious propaganda. From what I understand, he did not shoot all the footage for it. The film's first director Anatoly Slesarenko was jailed after the lead actress Inna Burduchenko was killed in a fire during the shoot. She played the young woman whose father is head of the religious cult. Paradjanov agreed to take over the film and finish it. So the question I still have is how much of it is Paradjanov and how much is Slesarenko's

    One of the main reasons why Paradjanov was able to make "The Color of Pomegranates" was because it was about the poet Sayat-Nova, whose 250th birthday had just passed. The Soviets widely celebrated him as a symbol of internationalism and the brotherhood of the three Transcaucasian republics, since he wrote poems in Armenian, Georgian and Azeri Turkish. (Actually, the largest number of his poems are in Azeri, though his Armenian poems are usually considered the greatest artistically.) Goskino USSR supported the project on the grounds that it was supposed to educate peole about the poet; Paradjanov went in a very different direction and got in trouble for it.

    The Armenfilm studio officials allowed Paradjanov to do practically whatever he wanted during the shoot. I believe this was because they were hoping he would create an international success like "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," which raised the profile of the Dovzhenko Film Studio in Kyiv.

  2. Thanks very much for the comment on this and my other post. You filled me in on a lot of information about which I hadn't known. Although I had seen Paradjanov's 'Colour of Pomegranates' a number of years ago and 'Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors' more recently, I was surprised just how interesting his early films were too (I have just watched his 'First Lad' and also found some fascinating aspects to this film). I remember watching his 'Ukrainian Rhapsody' at the Moscow Museum of Cinema five or six years ago and would like a fresh look at this film too.
    I didn't know much of the story behind the making of the film 'The Flower on the Stone' (in fact at the Symposium very little was said of the early Paradjanov) but I noticed doing a quick serach that Slesarenko worked on Taras Shevchenko (which I remember Ian Christie saying was also Paradjanov's first significant cinematic experience) so it appears that Pardjanov must have known Slesarenko.
    It seems that Paradjanov could be deemed 'fortunate' in working at studios outside Moscow or Leningrad where I imagine the pressure would have stopped any 'Sayat Nova'-type project in its tracks much earlier. The actual 'politics' of film studios in the USSR is an interesting subject which I know very little about. I would love to know if there any good accounts (whether studio by studio or more general historical studies of the Soviet film bureaucracy in the 60s and 70s)in either English or Russian.
    Thanks again for filling me in on some important aspects of Paradjanov films.

  3. You're welcome!

    I have no doubt that Paradjanov knew Anatoly Slesarenko, since the studio wasn't that large and all the filmmakers knew each other. They regularly commented on each others' works in the studio's Artistic Council meetings. Also, there was undoubtedly a great deal of socializing among the members of the Union of Cinematographers at the Dom Kino in each republic and at places such as the studio dining hall.

    You raise a good question about literature on the "politics" of film studios in the USSR. There isn't that much which is really systematic, as far as I can tell. Valery Golovskoy's _Behind the Soviet Screen_ is a good, if anecdotal, account of Soviet film production during that period. For film censorship during that period, I recommend V. Fomin's _Kino i vlastʹ: sovetskoe kino, 1965-1985 gody : dokumenty, svidetelʹstva, razmyshleniia_ and other, similar collections of documents published Materik. That's how I learned about the Goskino production and censorship files which I was able to access at RGALI. I'm not sure if the actual files are open to researchers any longer, since things have changed a great deal in the last few years. Generally, I'd like to find out more about the everyday culture of the film studios in the USSR and how that shaped production practices. There's still a great deal room for research in such areas, I believe.

  4. Thanks very much for this comment too. Your posts are real gems of information for me. I will definitely read the Golovskoy book when I get back to the UK as, I'm sure it will fill in a number of holes in my knowledge of that time. The Fomin book I have heard of and hope to find it this time while I'm here in Moscow. I tend to move from one area of Soviet film to the next & haven't yet settled on one area I'd like to concentrate on. I guess that's because I have got to know Soviet film here in Moscow and it was a question of being able to watch a large amount of films from different periods at Moscow's Cinema Museum (when it was running) and now and again at Ilusion which shows films that tend to have been popular classics but not necessarily always artistically significant films.

    I am hoping at some point to do some research in the archives though without as yet any major links with an academic institute I find myself concentrating on a rather more eclectic approach to Soviet film with mainly secondary material and simply try to slowly improve my general knowledge of Soviet film and Soviet culture.

    RE: anecdotal evidence about archive material I heard that some files had been declassified recently at RGASPI relating to Mezhrabpom documents- this is obviously 1920s/1930s material but I guess it is one positive sign.

    One area of study I would like to concentrate on more at one point is on several Mezhrabpom directors- specifically Barnet of whom surprisingly little seems to have been written possibly due to the fact that he left so few written documents. I know that recent scholarly articles on Barnet have been written by Evgeny Margolit but otherwise there seems to be only the Locarno retrospective booklet and the Kushnirov book to go by. An alternative line of study is a study of sports films that was suggested by a Sport and Media Professor acquaintance at Brighton University. In that connection Paradjanov's 'Pervij Paren' would most definitely be a film I'd like to find out more about

  5. Have you visited NIIK in Moscow? I recommend that you do so if you haven't already. They have a good library, and the staff was very friendly when I did research there. They could also give you some tips on archival research. Probably you could get permission to do some work at NIIK if you can provide institutional affiliation (where you lecture at in England) and show them some of your publications.

    The Soviet sports and media topic sounds like something worth pursuing - it would be a fascinating window into Soviet culture. Actually, "Pervyi Paren'" was the biggest box-office hit of Paradjanov's career - more so even than "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," which was an art film and thus had a more limited audience despite its critical acclaim. The Soviet critics didn't care for "Pervyi Paren'," but it's still fun to watch.

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