Though his name is not widely known today, Sergei Parajanov has been called one of the greatest masters of 20th century cinema. Parajanov was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1920s USSR, Georgia to an ethnically Armenian family. He studied film at the highly respected Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, Russia. Yet while he would go on to win countless international awards for his films, Parajanov’s unique aesthetic and perceived subversions didn’t conform to the Soviet Union’s standards - for cinema or its citizens’ lives. Parajanov’s work was blacklisted and the director was sentenced to five years in a Siberian hard labor camp on hyped up charges of homosexuality and trafficking art objects. Due to Soviet pressure to stay away from cinema, over a decade passed between his acclaimed pre-prison 1968 masterpiece, “The Color of Pomegranate,” and his aptly titled 1980 “Return to Life.”
Though Parajanov was withheld from his love of directing, he still found creative space behind bars. In fact, his creative work flourished. Parajanov later told his friend Andrei Tarkovsky, “what you are lacking is a year in prison; your talent would deepen and grow more powerful.” Parajanov’s prison years were remarkably prolific and he threw himself into creating collages and assemblages of dolls and other found objects. “When I fell into the worst possible prison conditions, I understood I had a choice: either I would go under, or I would become an artist. So I began to draw,” Parajanov said of his time in prison camp, “I turned to graphic art.” Parajanov “left the prison richer” with over 800 works, a hundred novellas, and six screenplays, all created in the course of just four years and eleven days. Thanks to friends in the art world (including Louis Aragon, Elsa Troilet, Herbert Marshall, and John Updike) who lobbied for his release, Parajanov was freed eleven months and 18 days before finishing his five-year sentence. Yet it would take another few years before the political climate softened enough for Parajanov to fully resume directing.
Even before his stay in prison, Parajanov was interested in still images and collage. Drawing may have saved him in Siberia, but it was also a crucial part of his artistic process and film school education. When asked about his training and whether he sees himself as a filmmaker or a graphic artist Parajanov replied, “I'm a graphic artist and a director who seeks to shape images. Savchenko, our mentor, encouraged us to sketch our thoughts - and give them plastic form. We all had to draw our thoughts at the film school.” While Parajanov did create a handful of narrative films, he is most well remembered for two things: his opulent displays of beauty that visible broke from socialist realism and his treatment of film as a predominantly visual narrative rather than a narrative one.
“A collage is a compressed film,” Parajanov later remarked. The statement touches on film’s ability to distill a story or idea into a collection of images, but nowhere does this resonate more truly than Parajanov’s work. A collage is a compressed Parajanov film. Or perhaps a Parajanov film is a wildly elaborate collage. Many of his films, especially those featured in this collection, have no dialogue, no visible plot, no narrative arch to speak of. His films are a surreal unfolding of still lifes, a clashing of silent images presented in close detail.
His 1967 “Hakob Hovnatanyan,” for example, is a short documentary uncovering the art of Armenian portraitist Hakob Hovnatanyan. There is no narration, no timeline, and no mention of Hovnatanyan beyond the opening title. Parajanov lets the images speak for the painter. The documentary opens with tight shots of everyday household objects: open books, cards, coins, a quilt. Then he cuts between shot after shot showing close details of Hovnatanyan portraits: a series of men’s painted hands with decadent rings, a series of female hands holding rosary beads, shot after shot of painted eyes and painted bosoms. With the exception of a sliding rug, a horse-drawn carriage, and two boys playing, there is almost no motion in the entire film.
Even in films that feature more movement, such as “Kyiv Frescoes” and “Arabesque on a Pirosmani Theme,” Parajanov’s films take on a distinctly collage-like quality. Unexpected and surreal images collide in a single frame. A seashell spins a confetti-filled air. A boy in fake wings winds a machine next to a man leering behind two female portraits. A painting of a cavalry cuts to a woman holding a scroll cuts to a giraffe. His films are saturated with lavish, shifting images. He doesn’t need words. His images make statements for themselves. "I think the absolute best filmmaking would be for the deaf and dumb. We talk too much, there are too many words,” Parajanov once said, “We're drowning in words, so many words. Only in ballet do we see pure beauty, pure pantomime. That is what I am aspiring to."
Parajanov used to boast that he was the only Soviet filmmaker to be imprisoned under Stalin, Brezhnev and Andropov. This fact alone is testament to the incredible power of an image. Parajanov had this effect, in many cases, not because of words wielded against the authorities but because his imagery went against the Soviet standard. It implied there were other stories, stories beyond the glorification of the laborer, stories of other cultures, of decadence, and surrealism. Parajanov stated in an interview, “Directing is fundamentally the truth as it's transformed into images: sorrow, hope, love, beauty.”
The incredible thing about collage is that you can always tell what pieces didn’t originally belong together. It’s always clear that something has been cut up, played with, and transformed. And it’s the space in between knowing what was there and what it’s become that the truth of a collage and all its apparent differences resides. You know something is going against the grain, but here the images are, working together. In this way, Parajanov may be right about collage and film. Both can combine images that, side by side, are unexpected and unexpectedly beautiful. Perhaps this was the greatest threat Parajanov could have posed to soviet realism – a mere picture that something else could be beautiful.
Sergei Parajanov on IMDB
“Sergei Parajanov: Interview with Ron Holloway” at University of Waterloo’s Kinema
“A Dangerous Pursuit of Beauty, in Life and on the Screen” at the New York Times
“Dionysus in Georgia” at Bright Lights Film Journal
The Parajanov-Vartanov Institute website
“Paradjanov the Magnificent” at Frieze magazine
The Sergej Parajanov Museum website
Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O’Brien in Burbank. They’re works in progress.