Tirana International Film Festival

The first International Festival in Albania for short film,
fiction, documentaries, animation and experimental

December 04 - 10, 2004
Deadline for entries September 30, 2004


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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 occasion.

                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 December 1995       



Sergei, how did you become a film director?


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 Zvenigora. (1928).”

                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 director.


But your diploma film is lost…


No. It’s at home.


Then why isn’t it shown here in the retrospective?


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 last war.

                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 talent.

                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 of etiquette.


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 bard?


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 tragedy.


                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 Ukraine?


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 down categorically.


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 Silver Peacock.

                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 accessories.

                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