Roman Gurenovich Balayan is a charming man, a prominent film director and a wonderful storyteller. He is use to the media’s attention and has mastered the art of giving interviews. Lately, he has been constantly attacked by the journalists who want him to share his thoughts and memories of Sergei Parajanov. For many years, he and Parajanov, who considered Balayan his disciple, were close friends.
On January 9, 2014, Sergei Parajanov would have turned 90 years old. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of his film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The art and life of Parajanov are equally incredible. He never fit the common standards, neither in his films nor in the reality where he had to exist.
His biography resembles a screenplay about the life of a genius in a socialist country, while his films seem like works of a man who grew up in a free society. Everything about Parajanov is a paradox.
His own life was very much film-like. His first masterpiece and everything that followed – the fame, the persecution – struck him like lightning. For years, he was imprisoned, and world-famous celebrities demanded his freedom. To his fans, Parajanov’s house was an object of pilgrimage. He traveled the world and never seized to amaze it with his extravagant behavior. And of course, he made incredible paintings and collages that are still glowing with his brilliance and infinite imagination.
How could such a fascinating character live his life with complete disregard of common sense and socially acceptable behavior, how could he break the laws of socialist realism and make art despite any circumstances?..
To celebrate Parajanov’s anniversary, a feature film called Parajanov was made. Roman Balayan, who served as a creative director, suggested the title Lover of Beauty. He said, “I imagined a completely different title for this film. Not Parajanov, but Lover of Beauty. A story about Parajanov is not just about contemplating beauty, it’s about living within it. There is a reflection of beauty in every frame of his films, in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, The Color of Pomegranates, and others… In his art, beauty has its own laws, its own story. Parajanov always got offended when I told him that The Color of Pomegranates can be watched from any point, from the end, from the middle, even backwards. And that’s what makes it phenomenal! This man created beauty, and beauty held him prisoner. Maybe, it is the source of all his triumphs and tragedies.”
Parajanov is showing at movie theaters and is available online. Interviews with Roman Balayan about this film are also available on the Web, and we highly recommend that you read them. We decided to use Roman’s idea and called our conversation about Sergei Parajanov Lover of Beauty because these two words tell more about the master than dozen of essays.
Roman Gurenovich, how did you meet Sergei Parajanov?
We met through my college classmate. For a long time, I had refused to be introduced to him but everyone kept saying that his film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was a work of a genius, and finally, I agreed. We came to his house, and I hated him. After watching Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, I began to respect him… And then we were friends forever. I admired his levity, his constant improvisations, and even constantly calling himself a genius. It’s hard to believe but it worked for him.
He considered you his follower, but did you think he was your mentor?
He had a fantastic influence on me. I imitated him in my short films, my student works, even my thesis. However, I may well be his only admirer who managed to escape the tremendous impact of his cinematic style. My films may be not much to look at, but at least they have nothing to do with Parajanov’s vision.
Some say that a man’s character defines his destiny. What was the fundamental quality of Parajanov’s character, what was his driving force through life?
He was like a child who didn’t play enough when he was little. His natural vitality and inner freedom kept him going through the hardest times. Such a spoiled, eternal child.
I called him a ‘dangerously free spirit’. He could go on forever rhyming ‘communists-fascists’, or say whatever came to his mind, but he was never a dissident. Mark Donskoy called him a ‘cinematic troublemaker’, and that was a more accurate description. He lived the way he wanted. He didn’t walk on the ground; he flew above it, above the routine.
Are his art and his personality two parts of a whole, or do they exist in parallel worlds?
The true Parajanov, the scandalous clown, was very different in his films. Shadows and other works that came after it were a confession of a very lonely and sad man who didn’t fit in life. That’s why his afterlife rattles much louder and seems like much more fun.
His early film Kiev Frescoes somehow reminded me of Dali’s paintings. We know that Parajanov was a very extravagant, eccentric man, which is also reminiscent of Salvador Dali. What did he think of surrealism?
“Sur” (short for “surrealism”) was his favorite expression. He used it all the time, often inappropriately. However, he didn’t think his own art was related to surrealism.
In your opinion, how was his art related to Italian and French cinematography?
He adored Fellini more than anyone else.
Most of Parajanov’s films have a distinct ethnic flavor, like his early work Moldavian Fairy Tale, his Ukrainian film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, his Armenian tale The Color of Pomegranates, his Georgian works The Legend of Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerib. Is there a specific reason for it? Was it just a coincidence, or a trend of that time when “national” movies were easier to get approved by the officials?
They weren’t ethnic, they were about human existence. His main characters were the elements: air, water, earth, fire, and wind; and people ruled by the elements. In his understanding, the term “national” referred not just to the plot but to what these people wore, how they ate, moved, who they worshiped, whether they had faith. Parajanov himself did not believe either in God or in Devil. He was God and Devil combined.
Why did he start making collages in jail? Was it because he needed to release his creative energy and collages helped him to survive, or was it his long-time hobby?
In my personal opinion, collages were the only art form that gave him absolute freedom. This is how he saw the world, his true character, his uncontrollable temper. No one managed to tame that mustang.
Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was shot 50 years ago and made him famous as well as marked the beginning of his troubles. Why?
At the Shadows premiere, Ivan Dzyuba, a wonderful man, took the podium and announced that in Lviv, certain people were arrested for supporting nationalism. Parajanov was assumed to agree with him, and that was how it all started.
Did the masters of Soviet film understand and accept this work? I’ve heard that Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky were not very excited about it at first.
Yes, I’ve also heard that they didn’t accept it in the beginning. Tarkovsky was more impressed by The Color of Pomegranates. I don’t understand their reasons. However, I suppose that later they did welcome it.
The premiere of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors coincided with a new wave of political arrests in Ukraine. What was Parajanov’s take on it? Was he a dissident?
He was the first to sign the protest letters, and that made him even more of a persona non grata with the government. I know for sure that he never considered himself a dissident but he was very understanding of their convictions.
Was there a time in his life when he was in favor with the government, or was he always in confrontation with it?
He was always in favor with the intelligentsia but never with the officials.
For such a freedom-loving individual as Parajanov, imprisonment must have been devastating. You visited him in prison and met with him after his release. Did he change during those years? And if he did, how?
I think I mentioned it somewhere that after our visits, it seemed like it was him who visited us. He was making jokes, and we were sad because we thought that he did it on purpose. His sadness showed only in his letters. It is unlikely that prison changed him; it is much likelier that he changed prison. This is probably why each year, they transferred him to a different facility.
Parajanov was very attached to Ukraine and understood it very well. He worked, loved and lived in Kyiv. However, his arrest and imprisonment left him feeling wronged by specifically Ukraine, not the USSR. Why?
I am convinced that he loved Ukraine and died loving it. He was simply hurt that his Ukrainian friends either couldn’t or weren’t brave enough to protect him from incarceration.
Parajanov is a world-renowned director but his art is not for the masses. It is understood and appreciated among the inner circles, the enlightened ones. As they say now, just like Tarkovsky, he made his films for the elite. They are not for everyone but without them, cinematography would go into an ice age. So what is happening now that artists no longer have to be creative against all odds? Is it no longer worth it, and the creative process has stalled?
Now, it feels like a dead end everywhere you look, both in art and in politics. There are films but there is no hope; Cabiria doesn’t smile anymore in the finale. It’s like in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, she just had to smile at that cyclist in spite of what was going on with her. He was looking at her in such a way that she just had to. Maybe it’s false hope but it doesn’t matter. We just don’t have it anymore…
Parajanov’s films are unique rather than ingenious. He cannot be imitated, it would still look fake. Parajanov is a natural disaster, an earthquake, a meteor shower, and so on…
Sergei Parajanov once said, “All my life I have been driven by jealousy. I was jealous of beauty and became charming; I was jealous of intelligence and became unpredictable. I was jealous of talent and became a genius.”
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a feature film based on the story by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky. Dovzhenko Film Studios, 1964. Audience in 1964 – 8.5 million. The film is dedicated to Kotsiubynsky’s 100th birthday.
1965 – the British Academy Award (unconfirmed).
1965 – Mar del Plata Film Festival, Critics Grand Prize and Special Jury Award for photography, special effects and art direction.
1965 – Salonika International Film Festival, Gold Medal
1966 – All-Union Film Festival in Kiev, Special Jury Prize.
1991 – Shevchenko State Prize of the Ukrainian SSR for S. Parajanov (posthumous), Y. Ilyenko (cameraman), L. Kadochnikova (actress), G. Yakutovich (production designer).