INSIDERS Series: Nouritza Matossian, an insight into Parajanov’s ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’

INSIDERS Series: Nouritza Matossian, an insight into Parajanov’s ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’

19 November 2018

Juan de Lara, Asia House Arts Programme Manager

Writer, film-maker, broadcaster and human rights activist, Nouritza Matossian writes and lectures on the arts, contemporary music, and history. She broadcasts on the BBC and contributes to several newspapers and magazines, including The Independent, The Guardian, The Economist, and The Observer.

Matossian wrote the first biography and critical study of the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001). She is also the first writer to research and reveal the identity and traumatic story of the American Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, in her biography, Black Angel, A Life of Arshile Gorky (1998). Her book inspired director Atom Egoyan’s award-winning movie Ararat (2004), with the lead character based on Matossian.

For many years,  Matossian has researched the life of Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Parajanov (1924–1990). One of the greatest masters of cinema, Sergei Parajanov had many legendary fans such as Fellini, Scorsese, and Tarkovsky—at various times these other great filmmakers have called Parajanov a “genius,” a “master” and a “magician.” Parajanov’s unmistakable films are rarely watched, often admired, and usually regarded as some of the most important movies of the 20th century.

As part of Asia House’s INSIDERS Series, Matossian spoke to Juan de Lara, Asia House Arts Programme Manager.

We are very excited about your upcoming talk and screening on 29 November at Asia House: “Unravelling Parajanov’s Masterpiece: The Colour of Pomegranates”. Why does Parajanov remain an important and influential figure?

I am excited too. I never tire of seeing this film and particularly with a new audience responding with surprise and pleasure in the hall. Sergei Parajanov’s cultural inclusivity makes Asia House a particularly appropriate venue. This film is my Number 1 Desert Island film. And if the electricity failed I would shut my eyes and run it in my head. I can think of no other 20th-century artist who transformed every obstacle and attack—personal or political—into an aesthetic challenge and succeeded in forging phenomenal art of truth, beauty and universality. Parajanov transformed the art; the very processes of film in his own image. He was a master of many different art forms, which he deployed without rules. His personal experience of tragedy and persecution gave his myths even more depth as well as humour.

When was your first encounter with Parajanov’s work and what impact did it have on you at the time?

I was a student in the 70s when the banned film—clandestinely smuggled from the USSR—was screened for an invited audience of Armenians at the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington.

In spite of the faded print, I was astonished by the shock of the images with Armenian symbols and resplendent art, while trying to understand their meaning. The characters metamorphosed in tableaux vivants before me with a rhythm and certainty which brought tears to my eyes. I stayed rooted to my seat, not believing what I had seen. All around me people left and the cinema usher had to eject me. I don’t recall how I got home. I had found one of the great loves of my life. An epiphany which overturned my entire understanding of cinema. No other film has ever had this effect on me.

The Colour of Pomegranates has been described as ‘a cinematic Holy Grail’ and ‘a hallucinatory mash-up.’ How would you encapsulate this movie?

Parajanov was born in 1924 to Armenian parents in Tbilisi, and then lived in Moscow and Ukraine. He spent all his life as an Armenian in exile, speaking other tongues and mastering the arts of the world. When he came to face-to-face with his own culture in the Soviet Republic of Armenia—the over-arching myths, tenacious religion, even his mother tongue, which he did not speak—it was the call of something deep down inside him, in his very guts and life blood. I have felt this myself. I believe the turmoil unpacked extreme emotion, this coming home, this recognition of himself drove him to find a new unfettered form. For me this film is an elegy to Armenia, stripped of all film conventions; Parajanov’s own inner Armenia where he finally came home.

Does the poetic imagery and symbolism within the film go deeper than reflecting the life of the main protagonist, poet and musician Sayat-Nova? 

The poet’s life gives structure and development, the trunk and branches—but all else is pure Parajanov, with his wit and daring, his love of things ancient and ravishing, his ambiguity and symbols, epic heroes and heroines, and the entire history of Armenia (all despised by the Soviets).

He freed himself from the forms and narratives, the propaganda, and the poverty of the socialist realism in Soviet cinema against which he protested. He suffered so much in prison—and out of it. He must have felt safer in Armenia and delighted in the treasures and images he found. But how to make a film about a troubadour whose language is imagistic and compressed in poetry? I believe Parajanov took images—fish, bread, carpet, shell, tapestry, illuminated Bible—and composed them into cinematic poems each redolent with its own history. Time had to stop still; the camera also stopped moving. He counter-balanced polarities, dualities, the male/female, black and white, living and dead.

Parajanov was incarcerated on several occasions. What affect do you feel this had on his persona and on his work?

Parajanov was imprisoned in labour camps three times on heinous trumped up charges for a total of four years and five months. They destroyed his health and caused his early death in 1990. For most of his life he was persecuted and banned from making films. He spoke openly about his views, he suffered; but was not bitter.

If he couldn’t shoot film he made collages, costumes, hats, sculptures, figures, props, miracles out of broken glass and china. Even in prison he collected rubbish by sweeping the prison yard for material, he drew portraits of the inmates and counselled murderers and matricides. Nothing could stop him practising his art and vision with any means at hand. He is a martyr to the humanity in art. At the end he himself entered the realm of myth.

You have spent many years researching his life and work. Was there anything you discovered in your research that surprised or delighted you, and that was new knowledge on the director?

So many new things, every time I speak with someone who knew him. For instance Sophiko Tchiaureli who played Sayat Nova, as man and woman, told me in Tblisi that gave her no script to learn. He told her what would happen each day, made her costumes, dressed her, did her hair, her make-up before she went on camera and did the same for every actor. She played six different parts in the film. He worked through the night making more costumes to prepare the next day’s shoot. Name a director who does that today.

If you had the chance to meet Parajanov in person what would have been the first or the most important question you would have like to ask him?

Amena Sireli Varbed, dearest Maestro, what can we do to make your life easier so you can produce the scenarios you’ve written and visualised, that you are still longing to make?

Nouritza Matossian will be presenting Unravelling Parajanov’s Masterpiece: The Colour of Pomegranates on Thursday 29 November 2018 at Asia House.