Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


Sergei of Tbilisi: The Life of one of Armenia's greatest film makers
David Somerset

Parajanov Museum Homepage

Leon Trotsky believed that the evolution of art in the future (of the newly formed Soviet Union) would follow the path of a growing fusion with life:

". . . with the collective group life . . . but one must have a little historical vision, at least, to understand that between our present day economic and cultural poverty and the time of the fusion of art with life, that is between the time when life will reach such proportions that it will be entirely formed by art, more than one generation will have come and gone ."

Sergei Paradjanov (1924 - 1990) was a visionary film maker, revered by Soviet contemporaries such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Kiri Muratova and Leonid Alekseychuk. His resolute integrity combined with a delight in the creative possibilities of cinematic art. Born to Armenian parents he lived in Tbilisi, in Georgia but worked throughout the Caucasus, despite sustained intimidation and imprisonment from Soviet bureaucrats. This region, strategically and precariously situated at a cross-roads between Asia, Europe and the Middle East is renowned for its resilience in the face of invasion and violent misrule. Armenia is described as a 'theatre of perpetual war' by 18th century historian, Edward Gibbon. Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin has for much of its history has been little more than a collection of warring petty princedoms.

Yet within this troubled region ancient Christian and Islamic nations have developed. During most of Paradjanov's lifetime, the Caucasian countries were under Soviet rule and experienced relative stability. Paradjanov made films distinct to each country in which he worked; the Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. His starting point was to understand the spirit of the people and their culture. Although not setting out to make political films, his exploration of national identity was viewed with suspicion by an insecure Soviet bureaucracy. On a creative level the revolutionary form and style of his films scared those who wished to impose a set standard of judgement for artists known as socialist realism. This demand is contrary to the principles of artistic expression. Unfortunately it is so often demanded in one form or another, by those either governing or marketing 'the film industry'.

Sergei Paradjanov said that he had always been partial to painting and had long become accustomed to perceive the frame as a canvas "I know that my directing tends to dissolve itself in painting and that is most likely its first weakness and its first strength". The use of colour in each of his films shows a fascination and sensitivity with a visual tradition. Deep red in the Armenian Colour of Pomegranates or the black silver of the ancient chiseled daggers and snow capped peaks of Georgia in Legend of the Suram Fortress. Mediaeval miniatures, tapestries and bas relief's become the inspiration for a visual style. Yet he was not merely imitative. Instead he adopted the sensibility of their creators, exploring and creating anew their language of symbolism and metaphor.

In the opening to Colour of Pomegranates, a paean to the martyred 18th century poet, a dagger lies next to a cut pomegranate that bleeds its red juice in the form of Armenia, the life and suffering of its people; it is also the colour of the robe of the young poet, Sayat Nova, a symbol of the enduring inspiration and hope of the Armenian people. The dagger illustrates war and death as the essential and contrary aspect of the Armenian identity. In the final section of the film, the sylvan muse of the poet appears at his death. She is resplendent, crowned in foliage and dressed in a magnificent gown of verdant green. Her presence evokes an ancient pagan Armenia as she pours wine onto the chest of the poet. She is, perhaps, the Goddess Anahit, its patroness and protector. Nature and fertility still triumph over the transient suffering of its people.

Titles at the beginning to Colour of Pomegranates introduce the film:

"This is not a true biography of Sayat Nova, the great 18th century poet - we simply wished through the medium of film to convey the image of his poetry. Mediaeval Armenian poetry is another of the most remarkable triumphs of the human spirit ".

The film begins with a sequence of visual and musical magnificence, a metaphor for the growing poet. The youth climbs onto a monastery roof, carrying a large book and finds himself surrounded by many other books drying in the wind. The rustle of their crisp pages makes them sound as though in chorus. After a series of illuminations from an Armenian Gospel we see the child poet lying on the rooftop amid the cupolas of the monastery with open arms. In this visionary sequence, the growing poet is initiated into a language and literature that have immortalised its people:

"Holy are three ends: love the pen,
love letters, books,
love . . . ."

It is interesting to note that The illuminated Gospels, created in the monasteries of Armenia in the 10th and 11th century are striking for their representation of strange folk traditions and the local accents that combine with their more familiar Byzantine Christianity. Through these religious writings a unique Armenian poetic and literary voice was sustained and immortalised. In the final part of the film, a builder listens to the song of the dying poet as he constructs a church wall with cylindrical vessels. Its sound will be thus preserved for all times in the clay. As the poet is silenced, his song resounds. He dies but the troubadour's song will be there for future generations.

As a painter Paradjanov was fascinated with the appearance of a people. Eisenstein spoke of the concept of typage as the casting of a face that would represent a particular people and their way of life. Paradjanov discovers a living reflection of the characters seen in their painting and sculpture. He goes far beyond surface superficial appearance and explores the inner sensibility of the people. Paradjanov describes its importance in the process of making a film in a discussion about his 'Ukrainian' film, Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors:

"When I listened to Shepherds playing on the Jew's harp, for a long time I couldn't tell a sad from a happy one (song). That hurt the Gutsuls (Ukrainian people) very much. And only with time did I succeed in catching one (mood of their song)" Empathetic understanding with a people enables him to work with them as performers. He recalls the rehearsal of a funeral scene. Once it had been set up the Gutsuls were asked to carry the ceremonial coffin. They refused, at which the director asked a nearby member of the cast to act as the dead man. Still, the Gutsuls refused to perform . "Finally the tractor driver, Peter, having just gotten off work, lies down in the coffin, folds his hands, closes his eyes . . . and a mournful wail seizing you by the throat resounds through the meadow".

Paradjanov's distinctive non-actors perform with stylised movements and gestures, as if participating in a religious ritual. Like the mystery plays an elaborate symbolism illustrates their national mythologies. Pier Paolo Pasolini recognised myth as a product of human history and believed that once formed it became absolute, no longer typical of any specific period of history but typical of all history, metahistorical. Like Armenia, Georgia has struggled continuously for survival. Today, the break up of the Soviet Union and the intrusion of overseas investors pose the biggest threat. In the Suram Fortress, emblems of both the ancient and the modern coexist. Guards brandish 20th century weapons and oil tankers pass on distant horizons. The image invokes their troubled 'metahistory'. Myth becomes history, reality and prophesy.

There are other strong literary influences throughout the films but rarely is he interested in merely adapting a story line. Instead, an understanding of their spirit and context in a wider culture informs the development of his work as an artist. Ashik Kerib is a short story by the Russian poet, Mikhail Lermontov, who fell under the spell of the people of the Caucasus during his period of exile. An uncanny resemblance to certain crucial aspects of Paradjanov's own life and work. Sayat Nova, an 18th Century poet is the subject of his Armenian Colour of Pomegranates. He left home to find work in the petty princedoms of Georgia and possessed extraordinary powers to communicate in Azeri, Armenian and Georgian. Like Paradjanov he too was an elaborate stylist,

Paradjanov has often been viewed as a sacrifice to the artistic censorship in the Soviet Union. Though he completed a remarkable body of work he did so at great cost, suffering many years of imprisonment on trumped up and humiliating charges. Distinctions between 'national' and 'nationalist' were continued long after the Brezhnev era by the Western press, when this was no longer a pejorative term in the Soviet Union. As for his condemnation for not conforming to the prevalent norm of 'socialist realism'. Kiev born writer and film maker, Leonid Alekseychuk extends the debate:

"Socialist Realism is not only a Soviet phenomenon. Now more or less dead (he was writing in the 80s) as a suffocating administrative structure in its country of origin, socialist realism is rampant in the West as a bureaucratic philosophy of art. Despite their differences, the totalitarian ideological watchdogs and the money grubbing show business sharks have remarkably similar anti-artistic goals ".

The perceived threat and consequent control of freedom of expression were recently raised in our own national institution, the BFI. As a prelude to a screening of his film, Freethinker, a couple of years ago, Peter Watkin's, radical film maker and exile offered an analysis and indictment of the audio visual mass media of Western capitalism. He observed firstly, an extreme centralisation of power within the broadcasting authorities and film establishment. As a result, film culture bares little relevance to the life and experience of its audience. Secondly he notes its use of a limited language form, which he termed the monoform; formulaic entertainment's that are churned out for a passive audience. Watkin's believes that the film and television media should begin with a community of people, their history and culture. As an artist, these are beginnings for Paradjanov and his work becomes part of the evolving understanding and expression of a people. The initiation of his films in an ancient and living culture begs the question 'Where our own doth lie ?'.

David Somerset is editor of fiba

© 1998