Sergei Parajanov:  Temporary Rejected, Contemporary Alive
Arts & Culture

Sergei Parajanov: Temporary Rejected, Contemporary Alive

Earlier this year,  the world celebrated the 95th anniversary of Sergei Parajanov, one of the greatest Armenian filmmakers, an artist who lived and worked in different parts of the Soviet Union and became a legend during his own lifetime. Today, his House Museum is a must-visit location in Yerevan, and in other parts of the world people are still watching his films and looking at his artworks. But do we really understand him? Program director of Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival Karen Avetisyan tries to explain Parajanov’s phenomena.

Text: Karen Avetisyan


“500 visitors daily and 45 000 in 3 months”, - summarized the museum management, wanting to share hastily the enviable numbers after finishing up the visitor count.

March 17 saw the conclusion of the Parajanov with Sargis exhibition in Istanbul’s Pera Museum: 40 screens, 76 works – collages, photographs, mosaics, storyboards, costumes, which traveled from Yerevan’s Parajanov Museum to Istanbul on the eve of Sergei Parajanov’s 95th anniversary, thus bringing to life the largest Parajanov exhibition of the last 30 years outside Armenia.

Aside its artistic value, the exhibition was also significant in the historical

- political context of near total absence of diplomatic relations and historic animosity between Armenia and Turkey.

The cultural dialogue is living its separate life, guided by its obsession of mutual understanding, which is more unappeasable and impatient, than the patient, cautious and prudent steps of the governments. Thus, the cultural Istanbul is also consistent with its treatment of the artist, who back in 1989, exactly 30 years ago, received the Istanbul International Film Festival Jury Prize for his film “Ashik-Kerib”.

Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia



Just two months before the exhibition in Istanbul, the same consistency and admiration was expressed by another festival in another city close to Parajanov – Rotterdam. Thanks to the efforts of the local festival, the Armenian National Film Center, and film restoration expert Daniel Bird, “The Temple of Cinema: Sayat Nova Outtakes” exhibition was implemented, where the unused restored footage of the film “Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova)” was presented through installations.

The same Rotterdam, where years ago Parajanov was venerated with the inclusion of his name in the “20 filmmakers of future cinema” list alongside David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, Martin Scorsese and other great directors. The very same Scorsese, who assumed the restoration of “Sayat Nova” and, while presenting the film in Toronto International Film Festival, said: “You are going to witness images and visions “pretty much unlike anything in cinema history”. The name of the program “Temple of Cinema” is a reference to another great master – Jean-Luc Godard, who famously said, “In the Temple of Cinema there are images, light, and reality. Sergei Parajanov was the master of that temple”.

And just two months before Rotterdam, Berlin’s Arsenal cinema organized the exhibition of Parajanov’s artworks and a large retrospective consisting of 10 films, while two years before Berlin another Arsenal – Kiev’s Mystetsky, had carried out another big exhibition dedicated to the film with which 50 years earlier Parajanov had entered the world cinema temple – “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”.

Along with understanding the context of “parajanovesque” time and space, reevaluating his heritage and introducing it to younger generations, the exhibition’s main goal was to put forth a big and ambitious question: “Who are we, Ukrainians”? Once again, the search for the self, the source and national identity had made Parajanov the addressee of these intricate and sacral questions.

Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia



In 1961, famed American literary critic Wayne C. Booth coined the term “unreliable narrator”, which in literature was used to indicate Faulkner’s, Akutagawa’s, Palahniuk’s and others’ characters who violate the unwritten agreement between the author and the reader (or viewer) about presenting reality.

Parajanov himself was some “unreliable narrator” who was reshaping reality and adapting it to his own vision, which for him was truer and more reliable than any historic document. For him, the myth itself was a document, regardless of whether it was a folklore, a fairy tale, historic review or something born in his own head.

Myths of all types were fated to become “documents” in Parajanov’s ethnographic gallery. And that documentary status conveyed such clear and impeccable reliability that even today Parajanov is often viewed as a compass in the search for the national genome, ethnic code and even national idea. However, Parajanov had neither a God, nor national affiliation, nor a Motherland in the sense that these terms are widely understood. His national was above-national, while his affiliation was oriental cosmopolitan.

Though it was Parajanov with his “unreliable” storytelling that managed to create films directly intertwined with the issue of identity for Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, in which one can hear Ukrainian and its Hutsul dialect, Armenian, Georgian, Russian, and Turkish, in a unique way his films are viewed in the context of “national cinema” in the above-mentioned countries up to nowadays.

It seems that he was right about saying: “If I end up in Africa, I will probably make the best film about some African tribe and tell them things about themselves they themselves didn’t even know”.

Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia



It is both natural and a bit paradoxical that while being so international, he continues to be misunderstood. Namely, The Color of Pomegranates – the epitome of Parajanov’s aesthetics, made the director the pride of Armenia, but at the same time it remains the most complex, uninterpretable and indigestible film for Armenians.

An ambivalent process took place as a result – Parajanov was rejected and sanctified at the same time.  A key function in the mutual understanding between the saint and us, mortals, is carried out by Yerevan’s Sergei Parajanov Museum. However, although it has a leading position in the number of visitors, it doesn’t make the digestion process easier, instead acting more as a spectacle space and unique vault and treasury, which the whole world uses today in an attempt to make Parajanov a topical point in the contemporary art discourse by bending and analyzing and approaching him from various angles. And because of this international approach, the two Armenian film geniuses, Parajanov and Peleshyan, are successfully and harmoniously finding their place in the colorful palette of contemporary art mainly abroad.

And that process has started long ago – in the hot times of pop art and video art, when one could notice various Parajanov references, homages (at times – rip-offs) not only in the films of Derek Jarman, Mohsen Mackmalbaf or Emir Kusturica, but also Madonna’s “Bedtime Story”, REM’s “Losing My Religion” and Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby” music videos.

The process goes on as researchers continue to find endless direct or unconscious references, for instance, in David Bowie’s “Black Star” and in the first season of the cult TV series “True Detective”, while world-famous avant-garde electronic musician Nicolas Jaar records an alternative score for “The Color of Pomegranates”.



So, who is Parajanov today, if not a true modern multimedia artist - mostly uninterpretable but, nonetheless, through sheer magnetism assembling around him a dense mass of people in museums in Istanbul, Berlin, Rotterdam or Yerevan, just as throughout his life he did in his house in Kiev or Tbilisi: a man, who spent his whole life turning myths into documents. He himself has become a myth, which continues to give life to new “documents” on and on – magnificent and impressive as the ones mentioned above, or modest and transient as the one you just read.

Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia