Sergei Parajanov Interview|
Ron Holloway, Kinema, 8 December 1995
This interview formed the basis of our
documentary portrait Parajanov, A Requiem (1994). The American spelling
of “Parajanov” is used, instead of the British-French “Paradjanov,” to
differentiate the documentary from a dozen others made on the
Armenian-Georgian director. The interview took place on 1 July 1988 in
his hotel room on the morning before the world premiere of Ashik Kerib
at the Filmfest München. Parajanov was always aware of the tasks facing
the cameraman; accordingly, he would shortened or lengthened his answers
to keep the interview flowing. His last speech on the stage of the Carl-Orff-Saal
is added because he was actually speaking to the camera on this
Since Parajanov makes
frequent references to his films, I have included a brief bio/filmography
at the end of the interview. On occasion, I have inserted extra
production dates, first names, and term explanations in the text to
prevent needless reference delay. However, the reader should be aware
that Parajanov often speaks in visual terms; thus, certain words - “artistismus,”
“pathology,” “cardiogram,” “biblical,” “plastic” - have special meaning
to him alone. Also, his references to the “Soviet Avant-Garde,”
“Socialist Realism,” and “Socialist Neorealism” contradict definitions
in both Soviet and Western film lexicons; in my opinion, his viewpoints
are more accurate and reliable indices of the times.
Lastly, this interview
was originally planned as the first half of a 90-minute documentary. The
second half was to chronicle the shooting of Confession at his home in
Tbilisi, a project he delayed until June of 1989, and then was not able
to complete. We view this interview as complementary material to our
57-minute documentary Parajanov, to which the subtitle A Requiem was
added for the screenings at the Los Angeles and Venice film festivals.
Ron and Dorothea Holloway, Berlin, 8
Sergei, how did you become a film
I believe you have to be born a director.
It’s like a child’s adventure: you take the initiative among other
children and become a director, creating a mystery. You mold things into
shape and create. You torment people with your “artistismus” - scaring
mother and grandmother in the middle of the night. You dress yourself up
like Charlie’s Aunt, or as (Hans Christian) Andersen’s heroes. Using
feathers from a trunk, you transform yourself into a rooster or a
firebird. This has always preoccupied me, and that is what directing is.
A director can’t be
trained, not even in a film school like VGIK (Soviet All-Union State
School for Film Art and Cinematography). You can’t learn it. You have to
be born with it. You have to possess it in your mother’s womb. Your
mother must be an actress, so you can inherit it. Both my mother and
father were artistically gifted.
What was your diploma film at VGIK about?
It was a short children’s film:Moldavian
Fairy Tale (1951). After (Alexander) Dovzhenko saw it, he said: “Let’s
see it again.” For the first time in the history of VGIK, the
examination board decided to watch a diploma film twice. (Rostoslav)
Yurenev, now a successful film and art critic, said: “Parajanov has
copied Dovzhenko. It is monumental and epic. Parajanov has seen
Dovzhenko said: “You
loudmouth! Sit down and listen to me. He hasn’t seen Zvenigora .” Then
he said: “Where are you, young man?” I stood up, and he asked: “Tell me
the truth, have you seen Zvenigora ?” I said: “No.” “See, that’s just
nonsense!” Yurenev wasn’t very well known at that time. He was a slim,
slightly built young man, who ran from director to director.
Probably, my diploma film
was pretty close to what I was prepared to bring to expression as a film
But your diploma film is lost…
No. It’s at home.
Then why isn’t it shown here in the
I simply forgot it. Only Andriesh, the
longer version was shown here - not to children, unfortunately, but to
an adult audience.
What was it like in the courses conducted
by Alexander Dovzhenko and Igor Savchenko?
Dovzhenko and Savchenko were enemies.
They were always fighting, didn’t get along. Both were talented,
prominent, exceptional. One worked in the style of the Polish painter
(Jan) Matejko, experimenting with Renaissance styles. The other depicted
an apple, an old man, death, a stork that comes and flies away - his art
drew upon his epic childhood. And the clash of this aesthete with that
archaic god-of-the-prophets provoked conflicts in Dovzhenko’s studio.
Savchenko died young: he
was only 43 years old. And lying in his coffin he looked like an old
man. We have now survived him by 20 years. His students are older than
their teacher was: (Vladimir) Naumov is 60, and I am 64. We’ve outlived
him by 20 years. The loss of Savchenko grieved Dovzhenko to the depth of
his soul. He took charge of our examinations and signed our diplomas. He
was very generous. He was particularly enthusiastic about (Alexander)
Alov and Naumov and the late (Felix) Mironer.
It appears that VGIK was
packed with talent at that time.
There were several interesting people
among us - including, of course, Dovzhenko. I grieve for the dead, my
fellow students. Four are no longer with us. We recently gathered
together, set four empty plates on the table, lit four candles, and
thought of our friends who have left us: Alov, who spent his life
filming with Naumov; Mironer, who made with (Marlen) Khutsiev Spring on
Zarechnaya Street (1956); Grisha (Grigori) Aronov; and Seva (Vsevolod)
Voronin. Four friends have left us, and who knows who will be next.
We were chosen by
Savchenko, a gifted man. He loved and idolized us. And he inspired us.
He waited for the day when we would perform a miracle. He was very happy
when Khutsiev and Mironer signed a contract with GLKVK (Soviet All-State
Film Distribution agency) for their first screenplay, Spring on
Zarechnaya Street (1956). He drove with them in his “Mercedes” down
Gorky Prospekt with the top down. They bought new socks, Khutsiev said.
Savchenko made them take off their ragged socks, right there in the car.
They threw them out of the car, and put on new ones. Not only were they
students, but filmmakers with money too.
Alov and Naumov
co-directed Restless Youth (1958) and Pavel Korchagin (1957), also The
Wind (1958). They pioneered the Avant-Garde.
What is film direction for you? Real
life? A dream? A mystery?
Directing is fundamentally the truth as
it’s transformed into images: sorrow, hope, love, beauty. Sometimes I
tell others the stories in my screenplays, and I ask: “Did I make it up,
or is it the truth?” Everyone says: “It’s made up.” No, it’s simply the
truth as I perceive it.
Your first films were made in a realistic
vein. What made you change your style?
I could work pretty much to my own
satisfaction in those days. The times were realistic: the generation,
the background, the canvas on which I worked.
I worked and suffered,
under three despots. The despots were in the Kremlin. And today
perestroika is seeking to become the cardiogram of the times. Perhaps,
one day, a book will appear dealing with all those years, something like
a cardiogram. As Stalin was on his way up, he lowered the price of
socks. And people were content: socks were two kopeks cheaper. Every six
months he would drop the price of socks and undershirts. But the price
of bread didn’t change. A cardiogram…
The Soviet films of that
era - and not just mine - are like a cardiogram of terror. They are
cardiograms of fear. The fear of losing your film, the fear of starving.
You feared for your work.
Are you a filmmaker? Or a graphic artist?
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. For the entrance examination we were
brought to a room and told: “Draw whatever you like…”
Are you pleased with the reception your
graphic work received here at the Filmfest München?
I’m very happy they are showing some of
my work here in a workshop exhibition: my style of wall-exhibition, some
wall-plates. I brought along about 20 works - not very many, but enough
to form an opinion. Among these is one with a bouquet of flowers, a
collage dedicated to the mothers of Munich who lost their sons in the
war. It’s a bouquet of flowers placed upon a mirror - a rather uncommon
motif. For mothers who, like Soviet mothers, suffered terribly in the
I’m taking some pictures,
some really remarkable pictures, back home with me. I was invited to the
Greek Orthodox (Ukrainian Uniate) church here in Munich. I attended the
service and talked to the priest - and on the wall of the clubroom they
had a small exhibition of drawings by children. They had drawn the royal
couple: Prince Vladimir and Princess Olga. All the drawings dealt with
this theme: wonderful, primitive drawings. They break the rules of
Socialist Realism. Even Prince Vladimir is shown the way he was: lame
and short-legged. They are delightful drawings. They are my best
souvenirs from Germany, these children’s drawings.
What do you mean by “artistismus”?
I can’t help it: I idolize Lenin. As a
director, I have to admire his artistismus: his artistic impulses, his
abilities as a speaker. His brain was magnificent, gigantic like that of
a prophet. The world wasn’t large enough for him. His artistismus once
compelled him to climb onto a armored car, as if it were a stage. He
stood there like a monolith; he was a born actor. I appreciate
artistismus, artistic talent. Politicians, friends, anyone can have
I don’t like sleepy
people. Brezhnev tried to act on my behalf, he tried to set e free, but
he was asleep. We need gifted speakers. We like artistismus. We like
politicians who speak without using notes. We like it when their wives
stand by their sides. But certain circles dislike it if a woman stands
at a politician’s side. An intelligent and gifted woman. Our leaders
were not used to that; they used to hide their wives away. These women
were monsters, pathological monsters. I know what I am talking about.
Look how lovely and
attractive the foreign minister’s (Eduard Shevardnadze’s) wife is,
although she’s only present and never says a word. She comes from the
Caucasus. This woman knows how to wear a hat. As a director I pay close
attention to things like that. A hat is a sign of quality, of
artistismus, an indication of artistic leanings. Above all, it’s a sign
What does Socialist Realism mean to you?
Socialist Realism can’t really be
defined. It’s not an encyclopedic concept. It exists only in our books.
How can Socialist Realism be used as a label for films such as (Sergei
and Georgi Vasiliev’s) Chapayev (1934), for (Grigori Kozintsev and
Leonid Trauberg’s) The Youth of Maxim (1935) or The Vyborg Side (1939),
for (Mark) Donskoy’s Rainbow (1944) or She Defended Her Country (1945)?
What about our stirring documentaries? Was that Socialist Realism? That
was our film renaissance to shake the world!
But the Personality Cult
put a halt to it. We had to extol to the heavens the Imperium, the
regime of the evil despots. Talented directors sold their souls making
such films: (Mikhail Chiaureli’s) The Vow (1946) and The Fall of Berlin
(1949), were submissive works by court artists. The time has come to
condemn them outright.
Why did Mikhail Chiaureli, who was
recognized as an exceptional Georgian filmmaker, become Stalin’s screen
Some artists could sell themselves, as
Chiaureli and (Vladimir) Petrov did. Others were in official positions.
They were the “brain-power” people who filled offices, like (Mikhail)
Bleiman and (Grigori) Zheldovich did. Although talented, they
nonetheless ran our cinematography into the ground - and our leading
film personalities along with it.
So the great (Sergei)
Eisenstein died with only an iota of his potential fulfilled. The great
(Mikhail) Romm died, intimidated and shattered. Even Donskoy, the
founder of the school of Soviet Neorealism, who made Rainbow and The
Unvanquished, could not develop his potential. That’s a terrible
Socialist Realism as a
term is well known, but Soviet Neorealism…?
There are no books or journals or
conferences dealing with those times. Everyone is silent. And it may all
be forgotten by the next generation. Or an enthusiast will write about
it, drawing upon this period in the archives. Should I ever open my own
archive, you will find there three prison sentences stripping me of my
freedom. And a court condemnation of me as a surrealist who sees the
social structure as a chimera. As if I were a chimera perched on top of
Notre Dame, with a huge snout and massive hooves, who looks out over the
city of Paris. I was such a chimera, who looked out and envied the
coming of a new day.
Why many films did you make in the
I had made eight films in the Ukraine. My
ninth film was Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964). That’s when I
found my theme, my field of interest: the problems faced by the people.
I focused on ethnography, on God, on love and tragedy. That’s what
literature and film are to me. After I made this film, tragedy struck.
What happened at the office of the Soviet
film ministry when they saw Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors?
When officials saw the film, they
understood it broke the principles of Socialist Realism and the social
rubbish that ruled our cinematography at that time. But they could do
nothing because it was too late: two days later, (Mikhail) Kotsyubinsky
had his jubilee. It was his centenary. So they said: “Okay, let him go
ahead and show his film.” The film was released. They could ban it later
on. And then they would somehow be finished with the whole affair.
But when the
intelligentsia saw it, they were moved. The film caused a chain reaction
of unrest. The ministry asked me to make a Russian version. The film was
not only shot in the Ukrainian language, but it was also in the Gutsul
dialect. They asked me to dub the film in Russian. But I turned then
Then you left the Ukraine to make Sayat
Nova in Armenia…
I like that film very much. I am proud of
it. In the first place, I am proud that it didn’t win a Golden Lion or a
That’s one thing. The
other is that I had to make the film under the most difficult
conditions. I had no technical prerequisites, no Kodak material, no
processing of the film stock in Moscow. I had absolutely nothing. I had
neither enough lighting, nor a wind-machine, nor any possibility for
special-effects. Nevertheless, the quality of the film is indisputable.
The results were the
appearance of a primitive realistic milieu, like in a typical village or
the average steppe. Little turkeys made to look like little turkeys…a
fairy tale molded from a real situation…different ways to give the
impression of “hyper-realism.” If I needed a tiger, then I would make a
tiger out of a toy - and it would have more effect than a real tiger
would have. A rag-tiger to frighten the hero would be more interesting.
Would you agree that Sayat Nova is a
“film of the Caucasus”?
I think Sayat Nova is like a Persian
jewelry case. On the outside its beauty fills the eyes; you see the fine
miniatures. Then you open it, and inside you see still more Persian
It’s like this: My hero’s
mother made 15 Kurdish skirts for us. She’s a Kurd who works, who cleans
the streets, who works as a housekeeper. These frilled skirts are first
drawn over the head and then draped over the arms. The effect is like a
Pasolini film. I don’t want to hide that; I want to underscore it.
Your Sayat Nova does appear to have been
influenced by Pasolini.
Many like to imitate whatever is
fashionable. But as soon as they begin to imitate something, it turns
out that they are poor and miserable creatures reduced to beggary.
However, one does follow
in another’s footsteps. If someone said: “Your films resemble those of
Pasolini, then I’d feel larger than life. I could breathe easier. For
Pasolini is like a god to me, a god of the aesthetic, a master of style,
one who created the pathology of an epoch. He surpassed himself in
costumes; he surpassed himself in gestures. Look at his Oedipus Rex
(1967). I believe it’s an absolutely ingenious work. His actors, his
feeling for femininity, for masculinity…
Pasolini is not just a
god. He’s closer to God. He’s also closer to the pathology of our
existence on earth, to our generation. I have just seen his 1001 Nights
(1974). For me, this is a powerful interpretation of the bible. It’s
struck from the same composition, molded from the same plastic form, as
found in the bible.
Do you admire Fellini’s films?
The magic in Fellini’s films surprises.
His incredible gift for fantasy is astonishing. But it only goes in one
direction - towards mystificatio