Hannah Walters was introduced to the work of the filmmaker and artist Sergei Parajanov by College of Arts & Sciences Senior Lecturer Ivan Eubanks, who screened Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates in his undergraduate Russian and Soviet film class. Lacking a coherent plot, the film is essentially a succession of haunting, symbolic tableaux reflecting the life of eighteenth-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. Like her classmates, Walters was mystified and confused. But she was also intrigued by Parajanov the man, a flamboyant, rebellious ethnic Armenian born in Soviet Georgia in 1924 whose provocative art—a stunning rebuke to the Socialist Realism of the USSR in the 1960s—had him sent to the gulag.
A short paper about Parajanov’s lavish, surreal use of Christian imagery in Pomegranates became the seed for a project endorsed by Boston University’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in which Walters, with Eubanks as her mentor, mined the colorful, tormented life and politically charged times of Parajanov, who died of lung cancer in 1990. That research culminated in a chapter titled “Cultural Autonomy and Political Risk in Sergei Parajanov’s Film, The Color of Pomegranates,” which will appear in the forthcoming book Winning Revolutions: The Psychology of Successful Revolts for Freedom, Fairness, and Rights.
We caught up with Walters and Eubanks while Walters was on a short break from a Washington, DC, internship with the Smithsonian Institution.
Tell me about your introduction to the work of Parajanov.
HANNAH WALTERS: You watch The Color of Pomegranates and you wonder what just happened to you, because it’s really cryptic. You’re so used to a plot, and there really isn’t one. But then in that same class Professor Eubanks showed the biographical documentary Parajanov Requiem and that explained a lot. I was also taking a history of the Caucasus class with [Associate Professor of History] Simon Payaslian, so I had learned how important Christianity is to this culture, and I kept seeing all of the Christian motifs in Pomegranates and thought, “Wow, that’s really true.” And I wrote a short response about that.
What stirred your interest in the man himself?
WALTERS: I remember thinking the film must have been very aggravating to a very secular Soviet government. I became interested in Parajanov because he was so charismatic. Requiem showed a couple of snippets of him talking, not in English—it was subtitled—but you could kind of feel him. He was very electric.
“He really believed in people’s rights and really thought that this artistic expression was going to help people. And I only got to learn that once I started researching him and reading his speeches, his words.”
And the short response to the film grew into a research paper?
WALTERS: I knew that at the end of the film class there was an option to either take an exam or do a research paper. I really like doing research papers and Professor Eubanks really likes to read research papers….
Ivan Eubanks: If they’re good, yes.
WALTERS: If they’re good! And he commented on my short response and he seemed to really like where I was going with it, so he encouraged me to do a research paper on it. And as I continued to take the class, we saw later films that had to do with the Soviet Union and how they related to their territories in the Caucasus region—and by this I mean Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, the southern Caucasus. I guess that’s how I got into it.
Is Parajanov beloved by today’s Armenians?
Eubanks: Yes. There’s a Parajanov museum in Armenia. Not only had he been sent to prison, but even when he was out, he was not permitted to make films until pretty much toward the end of his life. So there was a good 10- or 15-year period when he really couldn’t make any movies, so he did little sculptures, he would make dolls, he would make collages, he would draw. He did a lot of creative work outside of film; a lot of that is in his museum.
Hannah, have you visited Armenia?
WALTERS: No. And that was a challenge for me when studying the Caucasus. I was majoring in environmental policy and history, so I was taking the history class. The reason I took it is because my advisor kept encouraging me: “Oh, take one of my classes about Armenia, take one of my classes about the Caucasus.” So I did it on a whim, and it was a really challenging class because it’s a culture I’ve never really encountered. It’s hardly taught in universities. I didn’t even know what Azerbaijan was until I took the class.
Or how to spell it.
WALTERS: Yes, exactly. Actually, my first day in his class Professor Eubanks asked, “Does anyone know where the Caucasus Mountains are?” And I guessed southern Europe, which is totally wrong; they border Europe and Asia.
Does anyone get Pomegranates on the first viewing?
Eubanks: Every time I’ve taught it to undergraduates, they always hate the film, almost universally.
They hate it because there is no narrative arc to it?
Eubanks: Yes, it’s frustrating. But I actually liked it the first time I saw it.
That’s got to be unusual.
WALTERS: Yes. It’s hard to be engaged when watching that film, I think. I was watching it the other night and even after seeing so many parts of it, I started seeing all these new things. It’s hard to remember the sequence of what happens because it’s all so random. You can pause Pomegranates at any point and you’re guaranteed that whatever you’re looking at is probably full of at least a hundred symbols.
How many times have you seen it?
WALTERS: Three or four times, uninterrupted. But I’ve seen certain parts of it over and over, probably a dozen times. I guess the reason I like Parajanov is because he’s not being phony at all—at least that’s my impression. He’s not kidding. He really thinks all of this is beautiful; he really believes in it. And it wasn’t just some sort of fluffy, artistic idea, like: “Oh, we’re going to have this foot step on some grapes and it’s going to mean…” He really believed in people’s rights and really thought that this artistic expression was going to help people. And I only got to learn that once I started researching him and reading his speeches, his words.
“You can pause Pomegranates at any point and you’re guaranteed that whatever you’re looking at is probably full of at least a hundred symbols.”
Was he a bit of a martyr for his art?
WALTERS: I think martyr is actually a really good word for him. I also think he had a unique ability to adopt a people not of his blood. So, he made his first film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, in Ukrainian, a language he learned in the two or three years he lived there with his Ukrainian wife, and there were riots in Kiev the night it premiered—nationalist riots against the Soviet Union in Ukraine. I think he was good at igniting frustrations that were already brewing. In the film he’s bringing up what I found were so many cultural symbols that were independent of the Soviet Union that perhaps the Soviet Union didn’t want people to remember. At the time it was so important for people to be united as a proletariat. They wanted everybody to be Soviet.
Can you give some examples?
WALTERS: In The Color of Pomegranates, there is all the Christian imagery, for example. Armenia was the first official Christian kingdom, and that was always a source of pride. The Soviet Union, was generally secular. But there were times, as I learned in Professor Eubanks’s class, especially during World War II, when they loosened that because they wanted to boost morale. If you allow people to practice religion, morale is better.
Eubanks: Their official approach to religion was complicated. It was not officially outlawed, but you could be severely persecuted if you were caught observing your religion.
Since you came to this with a totally open mind, did it surprise you how politicized something like language could be, and how provocative this strange little film could be?
WALTERS: As time went on, it became mind-boggling just how much he was doing in this 90-minute film. Within just a couple of minutes he is breaking so many rules and he does it in such an extensive manner. It’s in Armenian and I think there are moments of Persian in there as well. That he did not make it in Russian was really important.
In spite of the post-Stalin thaw, it was risky to assert those cultures?
WALTERS: I think so. When the Soviets divided up lands in the Caucasus, for example, they disregarded a lot of cultural barriers. There were people who were just sort of mushed together, so there were all of these conflicts and all of this resentment and it can only stay repressed for so long. I think once they started releasing the valve during the thaw, then they had to try to regain control and that was in 1968, a couple of years after the thaw started. That’s around when Parajanov’s films were coming out and Parajanov really didn’t seem to care. I remember reading his interviews about how much trouble he got into after Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and then he does The Color of Pomegranates, which is even more bold because it’s about Armenia, and instead of a tiny little clan in the Ukraine, he focused on this entire nation that could have a lot of power if politicized. I was thinking, “Are you sure you want to do that? You know, you’re already in trouble.” But he was really bold. And then his other two films, he really just keeps upping the ante.
Eubanks: Ashik Kerib was a Turkish folk tale.
WALTERS: Right, and that’s after he had been imprisoned for four years in a Siberian labor camp.
Was it ego or was he just an extremely moral person? Do you admire him?
WALTERS: I guess I do. Certainly I think there was some ego involved, but I think he really believed in the artistic mission and what that could do for people.
“It became mind-boggling just how much he was doing in this 90-minute film. Within just a couple of minutes he is breaking so many rules and he does it in such an extensive manner.”
Was Parajanov on the radar in this country among the avant-garde and other people while he was making films?
WALTERS: To probably a very small group because there were Americans who petitioned for his release.
Eubanks: John Updike helped to get him out of prison. And filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Martin Scorsese, they knew about him, thought of him as a martyr and wanted to help get him out of prison.
So tell me about his imprisonment. The charge was homosexuality?
WALTERS: It was homosexuality and a couple of other what I would see as petty charges.
Eubanks: He got charged with bribery one time. He got arrested in 1948 for homosexuality, but then they dropped the charges, let him go. Then he got arrested again. When he went to prison in the 1970s, it was almost the same thing, but then at the trial they tried to accuse him of rape.
Did it increase his defiance, the imprisonment?
WALTERS: He seemed unfazed. Obviously he wasn’t; it was a horrible experience, but he came out of prison having created a lot of art. He said that creating art in prison was very influential for him. He said that many prisoners confided in him and it inspired him to write screenplays and he said he wrote many in prison.
Do you find yourself defending this inscrutable film to people?
WALTERS: I admire him as a man. I think that he was very different from other people, so I don’t think that every Armenian is going to go see this film and be like: “Armenia!” I think it depends on the person. I read that an Armenian scholar went in, saw it, came out, and just was gushing about it, loved it. Parajanov, in one of his speeches said, “Armenians, they don’t understand it, but they go see it and they feel it.” He thought the essence of the film would appeal to people. I think that’s one of the things I like about him, his ideology about what he thought his art was doing. It was not about all the little facts, all the little details; he put so much work into all these symbols to create a greater feeling.
Tell me about the wonderful treasure hunt aspect of just having a subject you’re passionate about and learning more and more about this man.
WALTERS: A treasure hunt is a really good term for it because there’s not much scholarship on him. I couldn’t just Google him or even just go a scholarly database and type in “Parajanov”. First of all, he spells his name three different ways, depending on the language, so that in itself is difficult. I located his own account of what the films meant, at Boston College. It was a hunt. I liked that. It was an adventure. And then the more I found of his personal accounts, his own essays and speeches, that was really cool. One of the best sources I found was a scholastic journal called the Armenian Review.
How did your paper get in the anthology?
WALTERS: Well, I was looking to publish it somewhere and Professor Eubanks was suggesting venues. Then he connected me with an editor and I started corresponding with the editor myself, and he approved it. He asked me what doctoral program I was in. I was like, “I’m a rising senior!”
Has the publication changed anything for you?
WALTERS: It changed everything. I got wonderful internships with the Smithsonian and National Geographic.
Based on this?
WALTERS: I think so. As I’ve understood, it’s rare for undergrads to write and publish something. It was very reaffirming. I really liked corresponding with an editor and figuring out the publication process; I found that to be really interesting. I’m still very open as to what I might do. I would like to go to graduate school, but what I’ll do with it… I might edit, I might teach, I might research. I might do all of it. I don’t know.
How does it feel to be in the company of those other scholars in this anthology?
WALTERS: I’m pretty proud of it.
Eubanks: You should be.