By Taline Voskeritchian
On July, 20, after an extended struggle with diabetes, heart trouble, and cancer, Sergei Paradjanov, one of the Soviet Union’s greatest film makers, died in Yerevan at the age of 66, three days after his return from Paris where he had undergone unsuccessful chemotherapy treatment.
A native and long-time resident of Tbilisi, Georgia, Paradjanov was born in 1924 of prosperous Armenian parents who suffered the horrors of the Stalin years. His father was frequently jailed, and his mother was often forced to sell the family belongings in an attempt to make ends meet. In a 1988 interview, Paradjanov recounted how his mother would make him swallow her jewelry when she heard the KGB at her door. Paradjanov studied music in Tbilisi and later enrolled at the Institute of Cinematography in Moscow where he worked with the Ukrainian film maker Savchenko and the pioneering Russian director Kuleshov. His diploma project in 1952 was Moldavian Fairy Tales Which set the course of Paradjanov’s later great films of the 1960s and 1980s_Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Nran Guyne (The Color of the Pomegranate), The Fortress of Suram, and Ashugh Gharib. Paradjanov drew the content of these four great films from the “remote” regional cultures of Moldavia, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, whose apparent opaqueness he not only celebrated in a highly ritualistic and densely sensual style, but also used an a vehicle for the development of an original film aesthetic based on the premise that film is primarily a visual not dramatic art.
Paradjanov first experimented with this idea in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in 1964 after a decade of making what he after described as “mediocre and worthless” films in Kiev. He attributed his radical departure from the earlier action-packed style to a personal tragedy which propelled him to think of film in a totally new way. At the core of this approach was Paradjanov’s concept of “film plastics” through which he tried to use the medium of film as visual artist. This meant that film would be liberated from the influence of the theater and become a truly contemplative art similar to sculpture or iconography, for instance. While the film community, especially in Europe, recognized in this concept the imaginative energy of a remarkable artist, the Soviet bureaucrats attacked Shadows and Paradjanov’s later works for its “formalist” and “decadent” qualities.
Shadows constitutes part of a short-lived but powerful renaissance in Soviet film. Produced in the mid-1960s, the films of what came to be known as the “Dovzhenko school” rejected the artistic and financial domination of the Moscow film bureaucracy and turned to local themes and means of production. Of these films Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966), both made in the Ukraine, were the pioneering examples of a genre in Soviet film which not only irritated the bureaucracy but was also perceived as obscure, “anti-Soviet,” and “nationalistic.” Like Shadows and later Nran Guyne many of these films were either shelved or censored. Only in the past five years have Soviet viewers been able to see these films in movie theaters in their country.
Shadows garnered more than 15 international prizes and became one of the most illustrious examples of the regional cultural revival of the 1960s. It also demonstrated Paradjanov’s great devotion and empathy of the lore of the Ukraine. He would demonstrate the same impulse for the cultures of the Caucasus in his later work. Although Shadows was received enthusiastically by the Soviet press as an example of an emergent regional culture, it was swiftly dropped from circulation and Paradjanov was not allowed to leave the USSR to receive any of the prizes. In a recent interview, Paradjanov attributed the difficulties which the film encountered to the fact that he originally short it in Ukrainian and refused the dubbing of Russian subtitles as an act of “vulgarization.”
The years between the completion of Shadows and the making of Nran Guyne in 1969 were marked by slanderous rumors and repressive measures against Paradjanov and other who protested the imprisonment of Ukrainian intellectuals. Whenever he could, he would continue to speak out on behalf of colleagues, as he did for Tarkovsky whose exile to Europe and death in France he characterized as one of the greatest losses of Soviet cinema, and for Ardavazt Peleshian, whose difficulties with the cultural bureaucracy publicized in his interviews.
Professional envy at the success of Shadows and the increasing interference of the government in the arts hampered Paradjanov’s efforts at making new films. Finally in 1968, he received permission to make Nran Guyne which had as its subject the life of the eighteenth century Armenian ashugh Sayat Nova. Although the film was funded by the Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani film studios in celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Sayat Nova, its focus was unequivocally on Armenian culture. In one of his interviews in 1980, Paradjanov said that the Armenian studios were fully supportive of his project and that he had complete freedom of access to the original artifacts which he displayed in the film.
Nran Guyne was completed in 1969 and shown in Yerevan and other cities of the Caucasus. Once it caught the attention of the censors, the authorities insisted on modifications. Paradjanov refused. The film was edited against Paradjanov’s wishes and finally withdrawn from circulation. The authentic version of the film was either destroyed or shelved.
Much can be said about Nran Guyne. It is and artistic, national, and aesthetic milestone a work which takes the idea of film as a visual and contemplative art to its limits. The cultural objects and traditions of Armenia and the Caucasus appear to the viewer in their fullness and purity, as though they were in a museum, displayed in the language of sound and form. While Nran Guyne reaffirms Paradjanov’s love of the archival it also confirms his extraordinary abilities to view the old and weathered objects of history in an astonishingly contemporary ways, as though the viewer were seeing and hearing them for the first time. The film’s mixing of traditional and modernist elements is also enhanced by Tigran Mansurian’s score which introduces into the film elements of contemporary music. The score works autonomously alongside the images, sometimes in harmony with the visual components and sometimes in dissonance with them.
Had Paradjanov been a traditional film maker, he would have made Sayat Nova an imposing hero and constructed his film around the great moments of the artist’s biography. Instead, he interprets Sayat Nova as a transparent figure through whom flow the culture and the experiences of life; his presence radiates and resonates the reflections and echoes of sight and sound. The result is a complicated work of many layers and overtones, where dualities are woven into a seamless web of incantation, song, image, and icon.
After the completion of Nran Guyne, Paradjanov immediately began work in Kiev on a film about the St. Sophia Cathedral and Cave Monastery and the destruction of the ancient frescoes by the Soviet authorities. He was stopped from continuing his work in 1971, the footage of the film was reportedly destroyed, and Paradjanov tried to commit suicide. His arrest came in 1974 after he refused to testify against a member of the Ukrainian national movement. The charges leveled against him included trafficking in icons, forgery of currency, violating women and children, and homosexuality. “I don’t know why I was arrested,” said Paradjanov in an interview in 1980. “I was undesirable, I disturbed the whole world. I was accused of being a criminal, a thief… They searched the innermost parts of my body. They accused met of being a homosexual and they judged me on this `crime.'” He was condemned to five years of hard labor in the Ukraine. His release in 1978, which came in the wake of a concerted pressure from the international community of film makers, artists, and intellectuals, did not secure his freedom to make films. He was arrested again in 1982 and spent four more years in jail. “I was set free on New Year’s Day,” said Paradjanov in a recent interview. “I found myself in a very dirty airplane… When I arrived to my house in Tbilisi, I found out that my mother had died. I am the only Soviet film maker to have gone to jail during the regime of three different Soviet leaders Stalin, Brezhnev, and Andropov.” The fifteen-year stretch between 1969 and 1984 silenced Paradjanov, wasted his extraordinary talent, depleted his health, embittered his spirit, and put an end to the hopes of `cultural revival which were associated with Shadows and Nran Guyne. “I was unable to work for fifteen years,” added Paradjanov. “Great masters such as Eisenstein and Tarkovsky have lived similar fates.”
The relative freedoms brought by glasnost and perestroika allowed Paradjanov to make two more masterpieces after his release from jail in 1984: The fortress of Suram and Ashugh Gharib. Based respectively on a Georgian folk tale and a short story by Lermontov, Suram and Ashugh Gharib show the consolidation of Paradjanov’s aesthetic principles and refinement of his visual language. Neither shelved nor edited. These two works received critical acclaim in the West. At the time of his hospitalization several months ago, Paradjanov was at work in Yerevan on his newest film The Confession, a film set in a Yerevan cemetery.
After 1984, Paradjanov was finally able to travel to the West and enjoy the pleasures of his new-found freedom. At Rotterdam airport he was unable to hold back his tears. His visit to the grave of his mentor, colleague, and friend, Tarkovsky, for whom he had often spoken out, in Paris turned into an emotional event. Conversely, Paradjanov sometimes used his long-hoped for freedom in controversial and sometimes offensive ways, managing to elicit strong reactions form Armenians, Turks, and Azerbaijanis about sensitive political issues. His disclosures about his personal life contributed to the controversies which he created everywhere he went.
Paradjanov’s loyalties were always to the imagination and only derivatively to self-promotion, politics, or nationalism. He flamboyantly crossed the long-established and often rigid artistic, national, and sexual divides of social and political life. The price he paid for such transgressions was high, but the rewards which he gained were more abundant. The Ukrainians, Armenians, and Georgians all claim him as a major force in the revival of their culture. Like Sayat Nova, he was an artist fore the whole world, though his meager output was often misunderstood, exploited, and bruised. Had he produced the 23 scripts which lie in his drawers today, Paradjanov would have undoubtedly revolutionized not only Armenian film but world cinema as Sergei Eisenstein had done earlier in the century. He often talked about making films about David of Sassun, Komitas, and Joan of Arc.
Shortly before his death, in a characteristic act of generosity. Paradjanov donated his large collection of hand-made art objects to Armenia. Although plans are under way for a Paradjanov museum in Yerevan, and an exhibition of his collages, dolls, and tapestries is on display in the Armenian capital, the rehabilitation of Paradjanov has so far been carried out in a way which does not do justice to his courage, abundance, and freedom of spirit. He was named People’s Artist of Armenia in May 1990, after his illness had reached an advanced stage, and he had lost consciousness. Perhaps the changing political situation in Armenia will allow for an honest and dignified rehabilitation. Many questions still remain unanswered. A scholarly, artistic, and political rehabilitation will not only benefit Armenia as it moves into a democratic era but also inspire a new generation of artists to explore uncharted domains.
Paradjanov’s death came in the wake of political change in Armenia and coincided with the convening of the first freely elected Armenian Supreme Soviet seventy years. The news was announced at the July 21 inaugural session of the Armenian legislature where a moment of silence was observed. Reports from Yerevan said that the political leadership was divided as to how best to honor Armenia’s greatest film marker. While some wanted to pay their respects to the cultural dissident, in the end a more restrained commemoration was agreed upon for fear of disturbances.
The funeral of Paradjanov was somber, ritualized, and emotional. He was laid to rest in the Pantheon of Armenian Artists and Scientists on July 25. The Supreme Soviet interrupted its meetings on that day so that members could participate in a commemorative ceremony at the Armenian Museum of Folk Art in Yerevan. In the evening, after Armenians from all walks of life paid their respect at Paradjanov’s open casket in the Opera Theater, a crowd estimated at more than 50,000 followed the funeral procession as it wound through the streets of Yerevan. As a group of duduk players performed the music of Sayat Nova, mourners interred the casket with their bare hands, and covered the gravesite with flowers. This was the final spontaneous gesture of love by the Armenian people to an artist whose works were inhabited by troubadours and acrobats, magicians and musicians, fools and dreamers.