Ashik Kerib

Vikki Riley


1988 USSR 78 mins 35mm

Source: FA Prod Co: Georgia Film Studio Pro: Dir: Sergei Paradjanov, Dodo Abahidze Scr: Giya Badridze based on the story by Mikhail Lermontov Phot: Albert Yavuryan Art Dir: Shota Gogolashvili, Nikolai Zandukeli Music: Djavashir Kuliev performed by Alim Gasimov

Cast: Yuri Mgoyan, Veronika Metonidze, Levan Natroshvili

To the virgin eye, watching a film by the unrivalled Armenian genius Sergei Paradjanov is like peeping into an exotic precious jewel box with strangely perfumed narcotic powers. Mystical, trance-like and ecstatic in their ability to transcend time and earthbound logic, his films were cast out into the Western world in the mid-sixties to be lauded as other worldly cinematic masterpieces of Modernism, as Eastern European poetic allegory, perfect examples of the avant-garde tableaux vivant. They are of course, all of these things and more. It's difficult to imagine what Peter Greenaway or Derek Jarman or even Pasolini, in his North African period would have come up with had they not seen Paradjanov's first major international success Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), a film whose Ovid-like story is repeated in Ashik Kerib. In Shadows, a man denied his true love and passion, is banished from his native land. In his wandering he encounters his country's past through the legends and oracles presented to him by hermits, poets and other survivors of tyranny and oppression. A pure eroticism of continual surprise and sensation is created in episodic fragments where things, people, clothes and facial gestures are meticulously arranged inside an imaginary window frame with the only rule of sequence or narrative effect being a bold jump cut (or leap) from one unexpected great moment to the next.

Where Shadows was shot in the Ukranian language his next film, The Colour of Pomegranates (1974) was in Armenian. Like all his films it is unashamedly precise in its use of ancient folklore in authentic settings (in Ashik Kerib there are several long takes of wooden mosques which may now have been bombed, one suspects) and often uses music to stand in for dialogue or any element of plot. So aesthetically beautiful, unhostile and poignant in their depiction of an autonomous, rich cultural identity the Soviet state quickly shelved all prints at home but perversely allowed its export to film festivals abroad as an example of local genius, sending the director to languish away for a decade in a Siberian labour camp for homosexuality and related crimes. During that time he was determined to remain a living artist in order to survive and combat the assault on his talent, founding an art movement in the camp he called Fleurism, using dead flowers as his materials. Tarkovsky, to whom Paradjanov dedicated Ashik Kerib as a kind of religious sacrament, once asked him how he could improve his film making: "You lack one year of Soviet maximum security prison" he replied.

Not surprisingly, Ashik Kerib is a film that could only have been made from the promises of clear skies which fell upon the Soviet republics during Gorbachev's Glasnost period. The Romanian writer Andrei Codrescu, in writing about all art before this time, said that the difference between the poetic and the political is only three letters, and those letters belonged to the State. For an artist like Paradjanov who got to make only four films in twenty five years, the poetic became a vocation of refining the art of metaphor, association an entire grammar of meaning outside of power and institutions of culture.

Ashik Kerib is essentially a heterosexual love story in the context of an imposed tyranny which brings about emotional loss, enforced economy, the destruction of beauty ancient artefacts, holy places, nature itself and creates all kinds of physical handicaps. The story transpires in a place where people become deaf, blind, spiritually dead souls wandering in the wilderness. Ashik himself is an amalgam of characters both real and mythic: the subject of a story by the great Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov who himself had been exiled to the Caucusus and the ashug of sixth century Islamic, Turkic and Persian Azerbaijani culture who with his saz toured the countryside attending peasant social events, telling stories and blessing harvests and weddings. In the tradition of eastern fairytale, Ashik is also a hero in the tradition of a Sheherezade, who, for a thousand days endures near death at the hands of philistines and traitors, in the name of love and the very idea of the ideal.

What is so powerful about Ashik Kerib's direct tale of oppression, echoing Paradjanov's own ordeal as an artist cruelly punished for his love of pure art, harmony and peace, is that it is amazingly naive and childlike, to be read to some degree as a child would see and hear, with visceral pleasures and sad moments which inevitably resolve themselves as happy endings. The film is a symphony of faces, eyes, composed emotions which stare back out of the screen like the icons and paintings which are inter-cut into the main action. Everybody looks like a living doll immortal vestiges of pain, desire, longing and hope icons of humanity held in long excruciating takes as if one could out-stare an image on the screen; the heartstrings viewer commune with tragedy and elation. This is where Paradjanov's cinema departs from any similarity with other gay directors, his faces are not sexualised, he just believes, as all children do, that dolls are people and vice versa.

Where critics sometimes refer cryptically to the poetic symbols at work in his films, and those of other former Soviet directors, as allegorical codes or political messages, Ashik Kerib naturally smashes this very Western notion about surrealism as some kind of predestined magic tool. If Ashik Kerib has an antecedent then it would be Dovshenko's Earth (1930),(1) itself savagely edited by Moscow and criticised for its Ukranian nationalism. Earth, like Ashik Kerib is full of shots of faces from the fields dappled with sunlight, soft cheeks next to rosy skinned fruit, leaves shot for the sake of beauty and tenderness, a socialist humanism that advocated utopian love and freedom for the peasant and his or her folkloric past as glorious. In Ashik Kerib ancient myths and Christian legends abound: a lamb is slaughtered, a lion threatens, Ashik's mother goes blind with despair, fruit turns black in the hands of evil, white doves accompany Ashik through his darkest hours, a flying horse returns him home. It is a vaguely animist universe where everything takes on mystical meaning, particularly animals, a pantomime world of the blessed where Ashik and his love, Magul "have rare beauty and crystal hearts", where instead of a money, rose petals make do as a dowry. The wicked sport long knives to cut up women and in one truly bizarre scene, an evil Sultan keeps a harem who fire kalishnikovs as Ashik enters. Suddenly the film yells out the time, 1988, and it comes as a shock.

This mix of crushingly contemporary chronicle and eternal fable is unlikely to be repeated now that those nations whose own destinies entranced somebody like Paradjanov are themselves falling to those who persecute bards and painters. As for the imagery, it has already been snipped by the censors. The West would never have allowed a film maker like Paradjanov to succeed but on our TV screens in the becostumed elegant other-land of multicultural poses, SBS regularly steals more than a few scenes from Paradjanov for their station promos.

From Cteq

Vikki Riley is a freelance writer and critic now based in Darwin, Australia.