Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
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SERGEI PARAJANOV — one of the fathers of Ukrainian national cinematography

SERGEI PARAJANOV — one of the fathers of Ukrainian national cinematography
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Sergei Parajanov


Today, the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Parajanov, one of the most enigmatic and influential directors of the 20th century.

Parajanov left an indelible mark on the history of cinema, presenting the world with a unique synthesis of visual poetry, ethnic culture, and avant-garde art. His works, such as «Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors» and «The Colour of Pomegranates», turned the perception of cinema as art upside down, emphasizing its depth and multi-layered nature.

Parajanov passed away, leaving behind not only a tremendous cinematic legacy but also an example of indomitable spirit and creative fortitude in the face of incredible challenges.

Sarkis Hovsepovich Parajanyan, who later became Sergei Iosifovich Parajanov, was born into a not quite ordinary family. His father was an antique merchant and passed on a lot of knowledge of this fine art to his son. But, according to numerous reports, in addition to this trade, his father kept a dating house with a paradoxical for such institution called «Family Corner», and his mother personally selected for this work girls.

However, if this information is from Parajanov himself, it is worth checking it well — to proclaim with the most serious look any fantastically entertaining absolute untruth, it was easier for him than for an ordinary person to cough up.

For example, he explained his poor school performance by the fact that since his father’s business could not be legal in the USSR, they were constantly searched, and his parents made him swallow jewelry before the searches and then put him on the potty and did not let him go to school until everything stashed away came up again. Some things add up — he really did not learn that well…

With such a profession, his father’s life in the Soviet state was not at all bright — he was often arrested and sentenced to imprisonment, but he always managed to get out early. Parajanov later joked that his father, as an exemplary Soviet worker, fulfilled the prison five-year plan in four years. That this property can be inherited, he then and did not think…

His life path Parajanov found not easy and not immediately. First, he went to study at the Institute of Railway Engineers — of course, not for long. Then, he ran away from there to the vocal faculty of the Tbilisi Conservatory, and in 1945, transferred to the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with the famous singer Nina Dorliak, wife of Sviatoslav Richter. But then he still moved from there to VGIK, in pupils to one of the maestros of the then Soviet cinema, Igor Savchenko.

By the end of his studies, Paradzhanov, for the first time, was seriously involved in the Ukrainian theme — his master put the movie «Taras Shevchenko».

Contemporaries recall that it was Parajanov who advised Savchenko to invite the then young and novice Sergei Bondarchuk to play the lead role. And when Savchenko suddenly died during filming, his students, including Parajanov, finished the movie for him, which he received after the release of the Stalin Prize of the first degree — the highest award of those times for a work of art.

He began independent work at the Kyiv Film Studio and made several films — both documentaries and feature films. But they have long been firmly forgotten — the movies obediently bent to the party line and had no other merits. Not all flowers bloom in early spring — some are waiting for the fall …

But his personal life was quite turbulent in those years. He married a Tatar girl, Nyagir Seraeva, but she disappeared just a month after the wedding. According to Parajanov’s own story, her slumbering relatives demanded a tribute from him, which he was unable to pay, and when she refused to part with him, they killed her by throwing her under a train. Those who remembered him in those days remarked that it was a great shock to him.

In Kyiv, he remarried to Svetlana Scherbatyuk, the daughter of a successful Soviet diplomat; they had a son. But everyone notes that as a husband, Parajanov was despotic; they often quarreled and reconciled and eventually divorced after six years. True, the relationship they maintained almost all their lives, sometimes even talked about getting back together, but in the end, it never happened.

In 1964, Parajanov’s creative destiny changed dramatically — the movie «Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors», based on the story by the classic of Ukrainian literature Mykhailo Kotsyubinsky, was filmed. It marked the beginning of a whole new direction in cinema — Ukrainian poetic cinematography. A lot of unusual technical methods were used — from the insertion of black-and-white fragments into the fabric of the color picture to the use of filters and infrared film.

The film was released in Ukrainian without Russian dubbing: Parajanov thought that this would better convey the unique ethnic atmosphere, but the masses of people — from the ideological control bodies to the opposition intelligentsia — saw completely different reasons for this extraordinary step. However, the movie was extremely successful, and in 1965 alone, it collected prizes at international festivals in Mar del Plata, Thessaloniki, and Rome. And much later, in 2010, Emir Kusturica declared that «Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors» was the best picture in the world made up to that time.

The film’s premiere at the «Ukraine» cinema was marked by the action of Ukrainian dissidents Ivan Dzyuba, Vyacheslav Chornovil, and Vasyl Stus — they protested against the arrests in opposition circles of intellectuals conducted by the KGB. Parajanov was not the least bit angry with them, moreover, he signed a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine protesting against the suppression of Ukrainian culture.

You see, there was not a gram of Ukrainian nationalism in him — he just understood the elementary thing that if you grab people by such a sensitive place as language, and even with unclean hands, it will not end well. They didn’t understand it then — maybe in a hundred years, they will appreciate it? As long as it wasn’t too late… And the authorities began looking at Parajanov through a magnifying glass with a very unfavorable eye.

Parajanov started shooting a movie about Sayat-Nov, a classic of Armenian literature, at «Armenfilm». Filming was going on amidst constant nagging by the controlling bodies, and Parajanov’s unusual language was more accessible to pick on than some trivialities. As a result, the film was allowed to be shown in the author’s version only in Armenia, and for distribution throughout the Union, it was remounted by Sergei Yutkevich, which, of course, Parajanov did not like much. At the same time, the film was given a new title — «The Colour of Pomegranates».

Parajanov returns to Kyiv, but they do not let him make a movie — interfere as they can. However, he did not change his behavior; moreover, signing the famous «letter 139» and protesting against political processes, he demanded that his name be the first on the list of signatories! Chairman of the KGB of Ukraine, Fedorchuk, writes a special letter about him to the head of the Central Committee of the CPU, Shcherbitsky, and nothing good is said in this letter. Not surprisingly, he was soon arrested on charges of homosexuality — at that time, they were still putting people in jail for it.

The case unfolded with strange speed: an anonymous denunciation appeared, and less than two weeks later, several men confessed that they had not only committed homosexual acts with him — he had raped them (soon after the trial, one of these men, the son of a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, committed suicide).

The sentence was harsh: five years of strict regime — another «five-year plan» (he should not have joked about his father!). To serve it, Parajanov was sent to the Ladyzhinsky penal colony in the Vinnytsia region. Yes, and such years were in the «Ukrainian period» of his creative work, you can’t get away from it…


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In the colony, Parajanov has a hard time — people with such an article have always been outcasts among criminals … He is brought to a suicide attempt (fortunately, unsuccessful), and he falls ill with diabetes (the right place to get such a disease — prison), his packages are eaten by prison guards (well, who would feed a convict raw smoked sausage and chocolate candy). A brilliant list of world art leaders — Fellini, Antonioni, Bunuel, Updike, Truffaut, Visconti… a lot of other, no less loud names could be cited. But there is no result.

Lilya Brik helped, surprisingly enough — she persuaded her sister’s husband, Louis Aragon, to accept the Soviet Order of Friendship of Peoples and ask for Parajanov at Brezhnev’s reception. It worked, and Parajanov was released from prison a year early (again, «five years in four years»). In gratitude, he made a «prison bouquet» for Lili Brik out of barbed wire and his old socks. She put this bouquet in a vase given to her by Mayakovsky but put it far away — flowers, you see, smell of flowers, and socks — on the contrary…

It turned out that art helped him even in prison. There was no way to make a movie there, so he began to create unique collages out of literally anything — mostly out of garbage he found in the camp dump. Many of these collages are on display at the Parajanov Museum in Yerevan — find a chance to see them, it’s unforgettable! Some of this junk was brought to him by the convicts, who eventually respected him — you bet they only said that they had done this very thing with the Communists, and he got a sentence for it!

He also learned to scratch the foil caps from buttermilk bottles with a nail, turning them into beautiful likenesses of antique coins and medals — he called them «thalers». In prison, these thalers sent even to a psychiatric evaluation and received a unique conclusion of two words — «just talented». Fellini cast one of these «thalers» in silver and made them prizes of the film festival in Rimini, and then Fellini’s example was followed by the Armenian film festival «Golden Apricot».

Life was not easy for Parajanov after prison — he was not given productions, and scripts were not put. One day, he said: «No problem — I’ll go begging for alms, and I’ll be served!». And indeed — he went to the porch and stood with an outstretched hand. They gave him more than generously: he had collected 150 rubles in half an hour — a decent salary for an engineer! The beggars were dissatisfied — he was reducing their income. But he said: «Not bad money, quite possible to live»; gave them to the beggars, left, and more such experiments did not repeat. He lived by selling the antiques’ remains, which could not be enough for long.

But then his life once again changed for the better. True, not immediately — the investigator provoked him to give a bribe for the enrollment of his nephew in the university and, at the time of transferring the money, arrested him.

But while he was again in prison, almost all the prominent figures of Georgia began to petition for him to the Georgian party leader Shevardnadze, and the latter made an amazing decision for those times — limited to a suspended sentence and, moreover, gave Parajanov a job at the film studio «Georgia-film».

There, he shot his last famous films, «The Legend of the Suram Fortress» and «Ashik-Kerib», which won many awards at domestic and international festivals.

And then «reconstruction» began, and the last restrictions on international contacts ended. He meets Allen Ginsberg, Marcello Mastroianni, and Yves Saint Laurent in his house, receives prizes at festivals in Istanbul and Rotterdam, and visits Munich, Venice, and New York. At one of these festivals, he is not even allowed into the hall — too extravagant appearance; everyone should be in tuxedos! But he tears a sign «No smoking!» off the wall, clips it on his stomach, and bursts into the hall, sweeping away all the barriers!

But prison grabs him with its long arm for the last time — his health is hopelessly undermined. At the very beginning of filming his new autobiographical movie « The Confession», he begins to cough up blood. The diagnosis is worse than ever — lung cancer.

President Mitterrand offers him treatment in Paris, and this plunges him into even greater despondency — his friend Tarkovsky also went to Paris for treatment with the same diagnosis, and he could not be helped. Nevertheless, he goes to Paris, but French medicine is powerless. He returns from Paris to Yerevan and dies in the Republican Hospital the same day. He had not done even a small part of what he could have done.

But what he did is enough to be remembered in all three cities where he worked: Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Kyiv. The Tbilisi monument is the best, of course, where he seems to jump out of the ivy-covered wall of the Old City. The Kyiv one, on the territory of a movie studio, is not bad either. The Yerevan one is perhaps too pathosy, but the Parajanov Museum in Yerevan is an absolute miracle; don’t dare miss it!

And there are more Parajanov streets in Ukraine now than there were in Soviet times for not the most prominent party figures the first one appeared in Lviv back in 1993, and now there are them in Kyiv, Vinnytsya, Zhytomyr, Kramatorsk, Kryvyi Rih, Kherson, Dnipro, and even in the village of Rossoshentsi near Poltava. An asteroid was named in his honor; 1999 UNESCO declared Parajanov’s year…

It is impossible to enumerate everything, and rightly so it was not for nothing that the old German teacher from Tolstoy’s «Childhood» said: «Of all the vices, the most grievous is Ungratefulness with a capital letter!». It is helpful to us, and Parajanov does not care anymore…


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