Sergei Parajanov is undergoing a revival. Considered one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, Parajanov’s evocative films and irresistible, rich aesthetic have been embraced by both a new generation of Armenians for whom he remains a cultural jewel on the highest peak of Armenian artistic expression and excellence, and by European and American artists from Lady Gaga to Atlanta-based band Mattiel who have drawn inspiration from his groundbreaking style in their own recent work.
Born Sarkis Yossifovich Paradjanian in Tbilisi, Georgia to parents of Armenian descent, Parjanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates,” is his best known film. Made in Armenia in 1969, the film is a magnum opus about the life of Sayat Nova, the celebrated Armenian troubadour beloved for his songs.
But before Parajanov made “The Color of Pomegranates,” he lived, made films, and fell in love in Ukraine.
“Everyone knows that I have three motherlands,” he said in a 1988 interview. “I was born in Georgia, worked in Ukraine, and I am going to die in Armenia.”
It was in Kyiv where he made a film that would one day come to be known as the best movie in the history of Ukrainian cinema, changing the course of his life forever.
The 1965 Parajanov film, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” based on the book by Ukrainian author Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, tells the story of Hutsuls, an ethnic group living in Western Ukraine and Romania. With its exploration of ethnic identity and ritual, the film is considered a “Romeo and Juliet tale of young lovers trapped on opposite sides of a Carpathian blood feud.”
Childhood sweethearts Ivan and Marichka persevere despite a shocking rift that divides their families. Intent on marrying Marichka, Ivan Leaves town to earn a dowry, but once he departs, he endures a series of tragedies that test him to the brink.
Parajanov’s first major work, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” earned him international acclaim, with one critic calling it “a cinematic masterpiece” that blows the audience away “with its multi-layered imagery.”
Roger Ebert, who reviewed the film in the Chicago Sun Times in 1978 praised Parajanov, saying he had a genuine gift. “He has the kind of heedless energy you glimpse in some of the early work of Martin Scorcese,” he wrote, adding that the film is a “treasure, a repository of costumes, masks, superstitions and beliefs, courtship customs and the sufferings of short lives with too much work in them.”
“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was Parajanov’s ninth film he made in Ukraine. Ten years before its release, he met and married Svetlana Shcherbatiuk. The couple had one son, Suren, named after Parajanov's close friend, cinematographer Suren Shakhbazian. Parajanov’s son Suren recently passed away in Kyiv, just a year after his mother’s death.
In a 1988 interview with film journalist Ron Holloway, Parajanov spoke about the impact the film had on him. “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.
It was after “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” that “tragedy struck” as Parajanov called it.
Soviet authorities had been on Parajanov's tail for years, and the film did not do the outspoken filmmaker any favors. It broke away from the favored and approved socialist realism style developed in the Soviet Union which depicted Communist values and instead focused on ethnic and religious symbolism and cultural identity.
His follow up project, Kyiv Frescoes, was banned by Soviet authorities during pre-production. Only 14 minutes of the surviving screen test remain.
Finally in 1974, he was arrested in Kyiv, and sentenced to five years in a Ukrainian prison after he criticized Soviet authorities and the state of cinema during a speech in Minsk, Belarus.
The charges? “Business with art objects,” “learning towards homosexuality,” “incitement to suicide,” and “black marketing.”
His arrest had mainly to do with his outspokenness and his influence among Ukrainian artists and intellectuals “which the authorities viewed as a threat during the ongoing political crackdown in Ukraine,” writes James Steffen in his book, “The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov.”
When Holloway asked Parajanov if it was “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” that led to his arrest, he answered:
“I was an Armenian in the Ukraine, dealing with Ukrainian issues. I was awarded 23 gold medals for Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors -- the first in Mar del Plata, the last in Cádiz. I was known and recognized in the Ukraine. The Ukrainians loved me. My wife was Ukrainian, my son was Ukrainian. But this was not liked in certain circles. I was arrested and imprisoned for five years. A harsh sentence.”
Unlike other non-Russian films made during the Soviet Union which underwent a standard procedure of being dubbed in Russian, Moscow agreed to release “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” in the original Ukrainian and Hutsul dialect it featured. In 1978, after protests and petitions by friends, he was released, but not permitted to work in a film studio. It was during his imprisonment where he created the drawings and collages now displayed at at the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia,
In 1982, he was once again imprisoned. Author Leo Hamalian wrote to the New York Review of Books of the news.
"I am deeply grieved to report that Sergei Parajanov has been arrested again by Soviet authorities on the charge of receiving in Tblisi (where he is under house-arrest) guests whom he should not have been receiving," he wrote. "Le Monde speculates that the arrest may have been the result of the great success his film, Sayat Nova, banned in Russia, is having in Paris theaters."
After his release, he created the award-winning films "The Legend of Suram Fortress" and "Ashik Kerib," his last completed film in 1988 centering on Azerbaijani culture. His time in prison had led to a serious deterioration of his health and two years later, he passed away from lung cancer in Yerevan. He is buried in the Komitas Pantheon.
Over 50 years later, the film’s impact is being felt in Ukraine. Last year, “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors” was named the best film in the history of Ukrainian cinema. In 2013, Ukraine nominated Serge Avedikian's and Olena Fetisova's biopic "Parajanov" for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.
“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” currently holds a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is still being watched and reviewed. “Whatever passes before [Sergei Parajanov's] camera - men, women, children, animals, crucifixes, candles, fire, snow - is rendered so vividly that other films look like vague shadows by comparison,” a 2019 review from Australia’s The Age said.