Interview with Martiros Vartanov of the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute

Armenian Film Society recently spoke with Martiros Vartanov, founder of the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute, about the upcoming Criterion Collection release of Sergei Parajanov's seminal classic The Color of Pomegranates, as well a Mikhail Vartanov’s debut The Color of Armenian Land.

Armenian Film Society: Can you talk about your background?

Martiros Vartanov: My favorite story to tell is that Andrei Tarkovsky once inscribed and sent his child’s drawings from Russia to Ukraine to the imprisoned Sergei Parajanov who annotated and forwarded them to Armenia to the blacklisted Mikhail Vartanov with the blessing of my birth. 

AFS: How did the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute come to be?

MV: After both Sergei Parajanov and Mikhail Vartanov had passed away, I felt compelled to establish it to continue championing their legacy. Their films were deteriorating in the former Soviet archives, forgeries of Parajanov’s artworks were being impudently manufactured, exhibited and sold in US and Europe, and everyone in a position to do anything about it was saying that they were doing their best, but very little meaningful and substantial work was actually being done.

With zero budget, we stopped the sale of many forgeries, and the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute, in collaboration with other organizations, was instrumental in resurrecting some Parajanov and Vartanov films, but it’s not at all good enough — way more must still be done.

AFS: The institute has recognized many great artists in the past. Can you talk about the goal of the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute Awards?

Jean Vigo died at 29 in 1934 — 77 years later, the 2011 Parajanov-Vartanov Institute Award was presented to his 80-year-old daughter Luce Vigo to honor her father’s censored and butchered 1933 masterpiece Zero for Conduct, and it might be the only award it has ever received. We thought that it was meaningful and cinematic. That was one goal.

AFS: Can you talk about your relationship with Mikhail Vartanov and his influence in film?

I Will Wear Your Beret Papa was the title on my first photography exhibition, in Spain, a month after his passing. That describes it completely. 

But I know you want more.

I am his greatest fan, though with time I think there will be many more people claiming this title. 

Mikhail Vartanov’s camera was rolling on the set of Parajanov’s masterpiece Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates), Artavazd Peleshyan's masterpiece The Seasons and — let me make an extraordinary claim — the most “popular" Armenian film of all time, The Mulberry (1979). But because Vartanov’s early films were suppressed, his reputation rests almost entirely on his rarely seen masterwork Parajanov: The Last Spring (1992), which has been praised by Francis Ford Coppola, Fellini’s screenwriter Tonino Guerra, and Martin Scorsese. 

Vartanov’s early films are essential and it’s great that the Criterion Collection is releasing his censored and suppressed 1969 debut The Color of Armenian Land — which hadn't been seen in 43 years when it premiered in 2012 at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival’s Parajanov/Vartanov retrospective. Now The Color of Armenian Land — structured through Martiros Saryan’s silent commentary, and featuring Parajanov (imprisoned in 1973) and Minas Avetisyan (assassinated in 1975) — can been seen by general public 49 years after it was made on the same Blu-ray/DVD as Parajanov’s restored Sayat Nova. Both films were scored by composer Tigran Mansurian. When Vartanov’s artistic freedom was restored 20 years later, he responded with MInas: A Requiem (1989) and Parajanov: The Last Spring (1992) — completing a trilogy.

I would love for someone to help me find artists Arto Tchakmakchyan, Martin Petrosyan and Robert Elibekyan, who are also in Mikhail Vartanov’s The Color of Armenian Land as very young men and not as well known at that time — they are all in their 80s now and are icons of Armenian art.

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AFS: What can you share about your father's friendship with Sergei Parajanov?

MV: “When I think of you there (in prison), I don’t want to live…for I know you have come into this world to counterbalance mediocrity and swinishness ” wrote Mikhail Vartanov to the imprisoned Sergei Parajanov. 

“You possess everything an artist needs — mind, kindness, principles, freedom… perhaps you’re the only friend who compels me to live…” responded Parajanov to Vartanov. 

That’s my answer.

AFS: What is your relationship with The Color of Pomegranates? How and when did you first see the film?

MV: I have childhood memories of seeing glimpses of it here and there, but when the credits rolled for the restored version at the 2014 Festival de Cannes world premiere, it was the first time I had tears. I don’t know if it’s because I worked on the restoration or because I felt it was so deeply unfair that Sergei Parajanov and Mikhail Vartanov didn’t see it.

AFS: Martin Scorsese strongly advocated for the restoration of The Color of Pomegranates. In what way do you think he helped bring the film to a larger community?

MV: When I introduced the US premiere of the restored The Color of Pomegranates at the Academy at LACMA series in Hollywood, I told the audience what Martin Scorsese had said a few days earlier at the North American premiere at TIFF. Scorsese said that there was no other film like The Color of Pomegranates, then he paused and said that they say that about many great films, but that this one really was unlike anything ever made. Scorsese's passion — and George Harrison’s widow Olivia Harrison's generosity through their Material World Charitable Foundation — were the most important factors in getting it restored, shown at great festivals and now released on Blu-ray/DVD by the preeminent American distributor Criterion Collection.

AFS: What can you share about the great influence Sergei Parajanov has had in cinema, that many people might not be aware of?

MV: Mikhail Vartanov wrote that “Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein, the world cinema hasn’t discovered anything revolutionary new until (Parajanov’) The Color of Pomegranates.” He also wrote that “The art of Parajanov is inimitable” and Parajanov himself had said “whoever tries to imitate me is lost” — nevertheless, many famed, as well as countless unknown artists, have tried to imitate him because he is so inspiring. 

Parajanov's influence is wide ranging from fashion to music to art and cinema, and it is being noticed more and more. In the past, it was less noticed, for example, when superstar Madonna restaged scenes from The Color of Pomegranates ("Bedtime Story" music video for MTV) only a few people knew where it came from. Now I often get emails “did you know that Madonna…” — sure, we wrote about it on Parajanov.com over a decade ago.

AFS: Your film, The Last Film, is also featured on the Criterion Collection release. How did that film come about?

I studied screenwriting at UCLA Film School and didn’t want to graduate without making a film, but a film that would also stand the test of time, which is nearly impossible to do, especially, I feel, on video. So, I used an old hand-cranked Bolex movie camera and black and white 16mm Kodak film and asked one of my favorite people from childhood, Taguhi Vardanyan, to tell (off camera) about her first — her only — and her last film. She had only an hour to spend with me and that mad rush turned into my first film. 

It’s a film about a film where they are making a film, so it’s like three films in one, if you pay close attention, which is hard to do because it is so short. 

That’s why I’m happy it’s on a Criterion Blu-ray/DVD and people can watch it over if they like it. I fell off my chair when I got an email telling me that my strange experimental black and white grainy weird first film, entitled The Last Film, became a semi finalist at the 41st Student Academy Awards.

AFS: Can you talk about what you know of Andrei Tarkovsky's relationship with both Mikhail Vartanov and Sergei Parajanov?

In addition to my favorite story above, I know Mikhail Vartanov met Tarkovsky a couple of times, including once at Sergei Parajanov’s place in Georgia when they celebrated the Old Russian New Year together. I am retelling Mikhail Vartanov’s recollections in my upcoming — very slowly upcoming — book, Boy With a Movie Camera.

For more information about the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute and its ongoing dedication to study, preserve and promote the legacy of filmmakers Sergei Parajanov and Mikhail Vartanov, visit their site.