experimental films

Get ready for a reverie: it’s Sergei Parajanov time

The visual poet of cinema produced such haunting masterpieces as ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’ and ‘Ashik Kerib’.

Very few filmmakers are able to give the sensation of truly original images and produce a feeling of newness at the level of conscious perception. At the same time, at the subconscious level, they produce déjà vu, the feeling of having seen the image before, thus sending the spectator into a state of reverie. Sergei Parajanov was one such filmmaker who was, through his poetic approach to literature and the image, raised cinema to the level of purified graphic art.

The Georgian director of Armenian descent (1924-1990) differed from the state-approved film in the former Soviet Union that was “national in form, socialist in content”. He instead focused on visual elements to distance the viewer through the process of ostranenie, or estrangement. Art for him was a means of experiencing the process of creativity.

Parajanov’s early work showed his interest in taking archaic subjects and tracing them back to their religious sources. His popular success First Lad (1958) used Socialist ideology as a form of mass entertainment. Ukranian Rhapsody (1961) was his first attempt at producing formalist cinema through its sophisticated approach to flashbacks, like in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. Flower on the Stone (1962) continued a refinement in his approach, through competent use of wide-angled lenses and expansive camera movements.

A Soviet poster for First Lad (1958).
A Soviet poster for First Lad (1958).

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) represented the first engagement with the personal-mythic instead of the historical, which transformed viewers by psychologically destabilising their consciousness. Parajanov used repeated visual compositions to create what James Steffen would call “visual rhymes” in order to capture the lives of the nature-loving Hutsul people of Ukraine. Although the film was critically acclaimed, Parajanov was accused of being an “egoist”, which he countered by pronouncing the Soviet authorities as being “afraid of art”.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

His masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates (also known as Sayat Nova) was completed in 1968. The film was revered by such filmmakers as Federico Fellini, who pronounced Parajanov “the magician of cinema”. Jean-Luc Godard declared that the film would satisfy even those who had walked for 10 miles to watch it.

Influenced by the miniatures of Georgian folk artist Pirosmani (on whom he would make a documentary sketch), the film was based the life on the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. Instead of making a traditional biopic, Parajanov captured the world inhabited by the poet through a characteristically graphic style and tableaux. The cutting of the silent films of Georges Méliès equally inspired the film replete with antiquarian images, as did the modernist Godardian jump cut.

The Color of Pomegranates (1968).

The Color of Pomegranates, with its distant compositions and asymmetric soundtrack, was also inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s materialist cinema, in which cinema was taken back to its material basis i.e. film stock, which was matched against the density of the images and sounds. For Parajanov, what remained important was to capture the childhood sensuality that informed the history of the Armenian people. Like in the films of Orson Welles, the Georgian maestro’s films intermingle past and present and lead into the future, whilst at the same time creating a sense of rapture.

Although Sayat Nova was a critical success, Parajanov was later arrested by the Soviet state in 1973 on trumped-up charges of “ideologically harmful opinions”, “politically illiteracy” and homosexuality. He had already been accused of stealing Hutsul antiquarian objects from a local church for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. In other words, his behaviour was thought to be of anti-Soviet character.

Sergei Parajanov featured in an Armenian stamp.
Sergei Parajanov featured in an Armenian stamp.

In the meantime, Parajanov worked on several unfinished films, such as Confessions, on his childhood memories through a form similar to the approach used by Fellini in ‎8½, and The Slumbering Palace, on the poems of Alexander Pushkin. After he was released from prison in 1977, he was exiled to his family home in Tsibilis and barred from making films. He would later describe his experience in prison as being “worse than death”.

Parajanov’s next film, The Legend of Suram Fortress, was produced in 1985 a few weeks after his exile ended. The movie was based on the 1860 novella Surami Fortress by Daniel Chokandze, thought to be the most important Georgian literary work of the 19th century.

As always, Parajanov, through the use of the epic style (like in the films of Ritwik Ghatak), translated the literary basis into a more poetic approach with his trademark tableaux compositions, which were more like still-life paintings than moving images. Like in the films of Robert Bresson, each shot formed a whole, with montage (juxtaposed images) being a combination of shots, each of which had their own logic.

The Legend of Suram Fortress.

His last film Ashiq Kerib (1988), based on Persian miniatures and shot in Azerbaijan, was more playful and formally inventive than his earlier works. With his later movies, the master engaged the moving camera than in The Colour of Pomegranates, recalling his experiments with camera movement in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Although derided as a film that encouraged the West’s fantasy of the Orient, Parajanov transposed a philosophical sense of the unveiling of the narrative that created an unusual film aesthetic – somewhere in between the worlds occupied by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Ashik Kerib (1988).
Ashik Kerib (1988).

In addition to making films, Parajanov also produced artworks. These alluded to visual puns that transformed mundane object into experiences of perceptional beauty, often using post-modern devices such as self-parody.

Condemned as a secessionist by Soviet authorities, the master produced a transnational cinema, influencing such diverse filmmakers as Derek Jarman, Makhmalbaf, Emir Kusturica, and the music videos of Tarsem Singh. He was often criticised for transplanting the ethnic basis of his roots and destroying their historical basis. His use of color takes the place of drama, allowing the film to be melancholic and meditative at the same time.

In Parajanov’s masterpieces, one notices a special interest in the relationship between man and nature and the resultant production of art, creating a singular resonance between sound, image and cumulative form.

King Heracle on the throne, by Sergei Parajanov.
King Heracle on the throne, by Sergei Parajanov.
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