Sergei Parajanov: exploring the poetic potential of the cinema in the Soviet Union
December 5, 2012 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Georgian-born Armenian, Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990) was a controversial director in the Soviet era. At first he followed the state mandated style of Socialist Realism, but in 1964 he broke out into his own style with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (YT), a dream-like film that combines expressionistic camera techniques, ethnography, and the logic of folktales. The film won almost every, award in sight on the 1964 film festival circuit, but it was also of the restrictive Soviet approach to the arts. The film was banned by authorities, but Parajanov did not return to realism, and instead paid tribute to the Armenian troubadour Sayat-Nova ("King of Songs" in Persian). The Color of Pomegranates (1968) is a film that sought to portray Sayat-Nova through images inspired by his life and poetry.

Though Parajanov had fled Moscow and filmed Pomegranates in Armenia, he continued to face constant harassment by government officials, who finally forbade him from making films for the next 15 years. IMDb lists his next directorial credit as a documentary short called Return to Life in 1980, with scant additional information available there or elsewhere online. Wikipedia currently states that The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984, YT clip) was his first film after 15 years of Soviet censorship. In 1988, Parajanov released his final complete film, Ashik Kerib (YT, no subtitles).

Sergei Parajanov died in 1990, at the age of 66. Shortly after his death, a short documentary was put together from clips and images: I am Sergei Parajanov! (24 minutes; Vimeo). There is a longer documentary released by Kino (possibly part of the 4 movie DVD set), in 6 parts on YouTube: 1, 2, 3, 4*, 5, 6

* I get a "blocked due to copyright" message, but I'm not sure if it's viewable elsewhere
posted by filthy light thief (9 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The link to The Color of Pomegranates in the OP is a low-quality video with English subtitles on Here is a better quality video on Vimeo, but without subtitles.

This post was inspired by the music video of Juno Reactor's God is God, which features clips from Pomegranates.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:02 PM on December 5, 2012

I was born in the USSR but discovered Parajanov 12 years ago, as a high-schooler in the American South, via, of all things, the music of System of a Down, who got me into a brief phase of learning random stuff about Armenian culture from the Internet. My school offered a class in film analysis (which really should've been called "Freewriting About Alfred Hitchcock"), and we each had to show & "teach" a film. I made them all watch "The Color of Pomegranates", which had changed my life a couple weeks earlier. I think I had one friend left in the class after that...

Parajanov is one of the greatest artists who ever lived, so thank you for this amazing post.
posted by geneva uswazi at 10:52 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

My father was a friend and occasional collaborator of Parajanov. Once, in the late 80s, he came out to a picnic with my parents and me. When my father introduced me to Parajanov, he decided that he absolutely must give me a present. Since he didn't have much on him, except some clothing that he was carrying in a backpack, he dumped out his belongings in to a plastic bag and gave me his backpack (which was pretty nice, as far as backpacks go). My father later told me that this incident was a pretty typical example of Parajanov's generosity.
posted by epimorph at 11:52 PM on December 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

Parajanov's house in Yerevan has been turned into an awesome museum full of his paintings and compositions, like his suitcase turned into an elephant. His films are full of color and life; a real genius.

Ashik Kerib is notable for its ethnic diversity; an Armenian director making a film is set in Azerbaijan, telling (in Azeri) the story of a wandering bard (ashiq) of the time, would be practically unthinkable these days. Adding to the mix is the fact that (I believe for budget and production reasons) the film's numerous intertitles are all written in Georgian! The result is the film is an almost-mythical capsule of the Caucasus.
posted by Theiform at 12:31 AM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh yes, the Parajanov museum is so much fun.
Thanks for the great post!
posted by k8t at 1:37 AM on December 6, 2012

Nice post. My main frustration with these films (and the Mosfilm channel on Youtube): no subtitles. Some of them are worth a look because of the visual artistry, though, even though you might not have any idea of what's going on.

Maybe when I retire (hah) I'll learn Russian; that's my plan for Yiddish, too.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:07 AM on December 6, 2012

Color of Pomegranates is an incredible spectacle. The Senses of Cinema link, above, is right on about its connection to Méliés and other early-film pioneers, both in its locked-down camera and its sense of film as a kind of icon-making, an act that creates something that never existed before as well as records– a real "magic lantern show." Those who like a little more plot should definitely check out Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors; the wedding/honeymoon section alone is worth the price of admission.

It was tragic and foolish that the USSR crushed him when his award-winning work was bringing them much needed hard currency, on trumped-up charges of homosexuality (a crime that was mostly enforced when they wanted to silence someone) and icon forgery (a charge that has some ironic resonance considering the nature of his work). A number of Western artists petitioned the government to let him work again.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:49 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Heh, I was introduced to Parajanov by Curt Cloninger's sandbox site (warning, autoplay). Something about that imagery that just makes you say "I HAVE TO KNOW WHAT THAT IS."
posted by en forme de poire at 7:38 AM on December 6, 2012

My main frustration with these films (and the Mosfilm channel on Youtube): no subtitles.

1. Most decent video stores should have a copy of Ashik Kerib with beaucoup subtitles, and possibly Color of Pomegranates (if they have Forgotten Ancestors, then fall in love with that place). Netflix probably should also, although I don't know if they have it on demand.

2. Subtitles don't help. If you think of his movies more as poetry than prose, as an amazing wash of visuals that your weak human brain can only begin to decipher, that helps.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:37 AM on December 6, 2012

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