Monday, April 19, 2010

The films of Sergei Parajanov

"Parajanov made films not about how things are, but how they would have been had he been God" – Alexei Korotyukov
"Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein, the world cinema has not discovered anything revolutionary new until The Colour of Pomegranates" – Mikhail Vartanov

Although now routinely called one of cinema's greatest masters, the Armenian director Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990) is still fairly obscure, even in film circles. Fellini, Godard, Antonioni and Tarkovsky all called him a genius yet his films remain difficult to see.

So the recent Parajanov season at London's BFI and Bristol's Arnolfini was a rare treat indeed. I went to see Shadows of my Forgotten Ancestors and, the following week, The Colour of Pomegranates (red, in case you're asking). It was interesting watching these films consecutively. Shadows of my Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Ukraine) is all fluid, often spinning, dizzying, camera movements, with dazzling colour, extraordinary folk music and a fairly simple doomed love story at its core.

Watching The Colour of Pomegranates (1968, Soviet Union) the following week, it's hard to believe it's by the same director. For a start, the camera is static and there's no plot or dialogue. A series of beautiful tableau's about a poet's life (Sayat Nova, the original title of the film), it's so dense with ritual and symbolism that any understanding of it is virtually impossible, and perhaps not necessary. This is art after all.

What unites both films is a singularity of vision, richly detailed, extraordinary visuals, costumes, mise-en-scene, music and scenes of ancient rituals, superstitions and magic which seem completely alien to most western eyes.

Along with the films there were talks by two people who worked with Parajanov and Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian director (whose films I thought were impenetrable until seeing Parajanov's). The Tarkovsky connection is an interesting one. Parajanov had started his film career making fairly conventional films and documentaries in the 'social realist' style which he later dismissed as 'rubbish' and altered the course of his film-making for good, after a viewing of Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood. They would later become great friends.

Layla Alexander-Garrett (who was interpreter on Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and acted in Jarman's Wittengenstein) gave a talk before Shadows of my Forgotten Ancestors. After making The Colour of Pomegranates, Parajanov was imprisoned for five years on trumped up charges by the Soviet authorities, who disapproved of his 'subversive' film-making. "No film-maker – not even Tarkovsky – suffered as much as Parajanov*", she said gravely.

The film-maker Levon Grigoryan, who worked with Paradjanov on The Colour of Pomegrantes, gave talks and answered questions before and after the film and showed extracts from his documentaries about Paradjnov, including some banned footage from The Colour of Pomegranates (a pretty innocent scene with a naked woman was one) and a short documentary about Parajanov's drawings (drawn "with Biro," he stressed at least twice through a giggly translator) made whilst in prison.

Asked what Parajanov was like to work with, he replied "Awful. Like a nightmare". Then, a shrug, as if in explanation, "But he was an artist". He also admitted to understanding little of The Colour of Pomegranates, and when he asked Parajanov about it during its making, he would offer no answers.

Oh, and he also stressed, "Don't believe anything you read about Parajanov on the internet".

* But perhaps Roman Polanski?

Some of Parajanov's films have been released on DVD by Artificial Eye; Shadows of my Forgotten Ancestors is coming out on 10 May. There's also an NTSC boxed-set of his films available from Amazon.

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