Sergei Parajanov holding up a fragment of his father Hovsep Parajanov’s photo

Sergei Parajanov at 100: The Triumph of Imagination and Beauty

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most respected film directors in the world, Sergei Parajanov. His art is highly visual, and his movies resemble colorful paintings that move on the screen. Prominent Italian critic Ugo Casiraghi created a new term in the Italian language to describe Parajanov’s professional title: vizzionario instead of a movie director. The French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard noted, “In the temple of cinema, there are images, light, and reality. Sergei Parajanov was the master of that temple.”

In cinema, Parajanov became the most internationally acclaimed Armenian name, as Aram Khachaturian was in the field of music and Aivazovski in painting.

An ethnic Armenian, Sergei Parajanov was born in 1924 in Tiflis (modern Tbilisi), then the capital of the Georgian Soviet Republic, to father Iosif (Hovsep) Parajanov, and mother Siranush Bezhanova. Hovsep was buying and selling antique merchandise.

Los Angeles-based Armenian moviemaker Aleksander Atanesian provided some insights about Parajanov. Before coming to the United States, Atanesian lived in Georgia and Armenia, worked with Parajanov on many projects, and helped him in his household. “He was very educated. He could cite extensive passages from books he had read,” Atanesian noted in a Zoom-based interview.

Alexander Atanesian at left, with Sergei Parajanov

When Parajanov was a schoolboy, Joseph Stalin’s top police officer, Lavrenti Beria, wanted his son Sergo to be friends with him, as Parajanov’s talents were apparent at a very young age: he sang songs and drew paintings from early childhood. After graduating from school, Parajanov worked at a toy factory. During World War II, Parajanov performed for wounded soldiers at hospitals.

In October of 1948, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police (led by Lavrenti Beria by this time), arrested Georgian artists for allegedly backtracking from existing ideological principles. Parajanov was one of the persecuted artists, although officially, he was charged with homosexuality. He was convicted to five years in prison but was released soon after.

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His first films were in line with existing Soviet cinematography’s visions and standards. Later, Parajanov himself denounced those movies as ‘worthless.’ The big change took place in the early 1960s. In 1962, Russian moviemaker Andrey Tarkovsky released his famous film “Ivan’s Childhood,” more commonly known as “My Name is Ivan” outside the USSR. Tarkovsky was one of the first directors to look at the human cost of war in World War II instead of merely glorifying the combat experience as had been common before. Extensive scenes of Russian nature appeared in his film, making it more visual and less action-based.

Sergei Parajanov, left, with Andrey Tarkovsky (courtesy RadioVan)

As Parajanov acknowledged later, if not for this motion picture by Tarkovsky, there would be no Parajanov in the way we know him. Tarkovsky’s impact was tremendous, but Atanesian cautioned me about this: “It was not that Parajanov learned from Tarkovsky how to make movies. Rather, he saw that the existing norms of Soviet cinematography could be disregarded or could be modified profoundly. He understood that change was possible. And he did it, but did it his way.”

In 1964, Parajanov released “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors.” Also known as “Wild Horses of Fire” in the West, the film made Parajanov both highly recognized internationally and a target for attacks domestically. In 1965, at Argentina’s Mar Del Plata International Festival, the film was awarded the special jury prize for best production. It was screened at San Francisco’s festival and shown at New York’s Film Festival, where the flyer described it as “an avantgarde extravagant, sumptuous saga in color.”

When in 2021, Ukraine’s National Cinema Center released the list of the top 100 Ukrainian movies,  “Shadows” came on top. Per Parajanov, in the 1960s, the Soviet authorities didn’t like that an Armenian producer produced a film on a Ukrainian national topic. When his next movie on the Ukrainian subject, “Kyiv Frescoes,” was banned, he moved to Armenia.

His first film on Armenian subject was the motion picture “Children to Komitas,” which Paradjanov prepared for the United Nations International Committee Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). According to American author James Steffen, the movie focused on the pictures drawn by children and was dedicated to Komitas Vartabed, the famous Armenian priest and musicologist. The two other Armenian films of Parajanov bore Georgian-Armenian influence: one told the story of Hakob Hovnatanian, a 19th-century Tiflis-based artist, and the other one focused on Sayat Nova, the 18th-century poet and bard.

In 1962, Sayat Nova’s 250th anniversary was celebrated in Armenia; an avenue was named after him in a central part of Yerevan. The Armenfilm studio commissioned a film on Sayat Nova from Parajanov, released in 1969 under two names: “Sayat Nova” and “The Color of Pomegranate.” According to the British Film Institute, the film “represents a fine entry point into a world to be luxuriated rather than rationally understood.”

Haghpat Monastery, where many scenes of “The Color of Pomegranates” were shot

In this film, Parajanov gravitated even farther from an ordinary movie-plot that commonly exists in almost any film. “He didn’t like plots,” remembers Atanesian. In the opening part of the film, a textual disclaimer says: “The film does not attempt to tell the life story of a poet. Rather, the filmmaker tried to create the poet’s inner world.” “Far from a typical biographical telling, the film recreates Sayat-Nova’s inner torments through dreamlike compositions and medieval allegories,” noted the British Institute. References to Sayat Nova exist in Madonna’s Bedtime Story, Juno Reactor’s God is God, and Lady Gaga’s 911.

In “Sayat Nova” and other films, Parajanov used allegories and symbols to replace scenes that otherwise could contain violence. In “Sayat Nova,” an arrow fired from a bow of a Muslim soldier hits a Christian icon that falls. In his later film, “The Legend of Suram Fortress,” a massive escape of hundreds of panic-stricken sheep on the slopes of Georgian mountains serves as a precursor for an expected clash between soldiers in that area. One of the movie’s characters says that war is the greatest of all disasters. Parajanov’s philosophy was against violence; therefore, he applied picturesque and visually attractive symbols whenever he needed to include battles in his motion pictures. Parajanov’s famous statement, “I will revenge the world with love,” summarizes his way of thinking that was against destruction.

Acclaimed Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, left, and Georgian architect Victor Djorbenadze, center, visiting Sergei Parajanov, at right (photo Wikimedia Commons)

Between the 1960s and early 1980s, along with the international recognition, the internal pressure against Parajanov intensified. In 1973, Kyiv’s regional court convicted Parajanov to five years of imprisonment for alleged homosexual relations but set him free after four years. French poet Lois Aragon personally asked Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to release the director free. As Parajanov noted later, the fabricated charges against him were so ridiculous that an immigrant Russian artist promised to use the judge’s verdict in one of his comedy shows at the Comédie-Française theater in Paris. In 1988, in one of his last interviews with Russian and Armenian reporters in France, he claimed that the help of French, Georgian, and Armenian people made his early release possible.

Armenian movie director Henrik Malian, whom together with Frunzik Dovlatian Parajanov called his “brothers in art”

In 1982 Parajanov was arrested again, though he was set free soon after. As a result of state persecution, Parajanov did not create any new films in the 1970s and early 1980s. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Parajanov’s motion pictures were finally returned to Soviet viewers. He was awarded a car and some other compensation. His last film, “Confession,” remained unfinished. Shortly before that, as if foreseeing his imminent demise, Parajanov noted that the years spent in prisons shattered his health, and every morning he woke up alive, he was happy.

“However, the years spent in prison were my best years,” added Parajanov. I became the priest of the prison. The convicted criminals came to me for confession, and I memorized many stories that could serve as features for a film.”

Zaven Sargsyan, left, with Sergei Parajanov

By the late 1980s, Zaven Sargsyan, a friend of Parajanov, got some funds from the government of Soviet Armenia to buy the artifacts created by Parajanov and began transferring those pieces of art to Armenia. Sargsyan, a former government employee, also convinced the Soviet Armenian leaders to build a house for Parajanov. Overlooking the beautiful Hrazdan gorge in Yerevan, the house was still under construction when Parajanov passed away in 1990. The building became not the house but the museum of Parajanov. Sargsyan was its founder and director.

Sergey Parajanov was buried in the Komitas Pantheon, next to the graves of Aram Khachaturian, William Saroyan, and other notable figures. Atanesian says Sargsyan’s role in resettling Sergey Parajanov in Armenia and establishing a museum as it is now cannot be overestimated.

An Armenian stamp honoring Sergei Parajanov

The video segment below includes an interview with Atanesian, a small segment of the interview with Parajanov, and Tarkovsky’s statement about Parajanov.

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