Sergei Parajanov

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience last Thursday of seeing Mikhail Vardanov‘s new documentary Parajanov: The Last Spring at–of all places–the Hollywood Entertainment Museum just down the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was a slightly surreal experience watching the passionate, contemplative film about the life of the persecuted Georgian-born Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov projected on a screen perched between Roman costumes from Ben-Hur (1959) on the left and a life-sized statue of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) on the right. Nevertheless, the screening room was packed with Armenian and Russian Americans and friends, and the documentary was a poetic and personal meditation on Parajanov’s last days as he was dying of cancer in 1990.

The screening inaugerates a modest, two-month-long exhibition (December 4 through February 2) entitled “Sergei: Parajanov: A Celebration of Life,” consisting of Parajanov’s personal collages and some photos borrowed directly from the Parajanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia–it is only the second time this work has appeared in the US.

Parajanov was born in 1924 and after graduating from the Dovzhenko film studio in Kiev, made a string of conformist films from ’51-’62 that exemplified the Soviet aesthetic of “socialist realism.” According to Galia Ackerman’s introduction to Seven Visions (1992), Parajanov’s small script collection, these films were predominantly “in keeping with the spirit of then contemporary Soviet cinema, and are rife with anti-capitalist and anti-religious clichÈs.”

In 1964, Parajanov then stunned critics and audiences with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a baroque and free-wheeling adaptation of Romeo and Juliet-like Carpathian folklore involving two lovers separated by quarreling families and their tragic fates amid everyday village life and religious ritual. Visually stunning (the opening sequence involves the camera riding atop a falling tree), it was condemned for its brash formalism in a time when Kruschev had attacked abstract art, bringing an end to the post-Stalinist cultural “thaw” of the late-’50s and early ’60s. The film was quickly removed from Soviet screens and precipitated Parajanov’s extended battles with Soviet authorities. Kiev Frescos was cancelled mid-shoot because of its “bourgeois subjectivism and mysticism” (Ackerman) and Sayat-Nova (The Color of Pomegranates) (1969) was immediately banned and later released in a drastically re-edited form.

Parajanov’s scripts were then rejected, one after another, until 1973, when he was arrested for dubious charges including dealing in foreign currency, speculating on art works, stealing icons, being homosexual, and inciting suicide. He was sentenced to five years of hard labor in the Dniepropetrovsk gulag, but international activists (including Louis Aragon and John Updike) petitioned and convinced the Soviet authorities to release him after four years. (Vardanov’s documentary provides moving footage of demonstrators carrying a large Sayat-Nova puppet at a late-’70s Cannes Film Festival protest.) In 1982, he was again arrested, ostensibly for attempting to bribe an official, but after serving 11 months in jail he was declared innocent.

After fifteen years of professional exile, Parajanov finally resumed his career with The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985) and Ashik-Kerib (1988). He died while filming The Confession, rare clips of which are also included in Vardanov’s documentary.

Thankfully, Parajanov’s remarkably idiosyncratic and subversive work is available on VHS and DVD in the US. Although the Kino videos lack the visual luster the films deserve, their Color of Pomegranates DVD includes the documentary Sergei Paradjanov: A Requiem (1994), which constructs a basic overview of Parajanov’s life and work through clips and interviews. From the interviews provided, Parajanov comes across as a gregarious and lively fellow, brimming with passion and creativity, quick to wax poetically or lavish adoration on those he respected–Andrei Tarkovsky being among them.

It came as a shock to me, then, to see Parajanov in Vardanov’s documentary, aged and passive and near death–his different personas in the two films are startling. But Vardanov’s film is also more personal (he was close friends with Parajanov for 30 years) and more poetic than informational. It includes shots of Parajanov sleepily taking notes at a recording session, montages of clips from Parajanov’s “tableaux-style” films with his own intricate art works, letters and sketches from prison, everyday footage of the filmmaker sitting at his home and gazing at frolicking children.

After the film, I walked through the exhibition gallery and gazed at the collages and sketches on display. Below is one such example, another can be found here at, a website devoted to Tarkovsky.

Like many of his later films, I found Parajanov’s art work to be somewhat thematically inscrutable to my Western eyes but visually very striking in its formal elements and colors. The amount of detail and quality of textures–in particular, his sketches of fellow prisoners (whom he drew and taught to draw) with their tired eyes and five-o’clock shadows–offer a mixture of keen observation and empathy.

Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors should not be missed (though for the record, I understand the Ruscico DVD import has a painfully remixed soundtrack), and I’d encourage more adventurous viewers to check out his later tableaux films as well. A major Soviet-era filmmaker, Parajanov (whose 80th birthday will be celebrated in 2004) and his work stand as a testimony to the indomitable artistic spirit. “unites Maestro’s friends, family, fans, and colleagues around the world in preservation of the name and art of Sergei Parajanov.”