Nothing is uncomplicated about Parajanov, from the spelling of his name to deciding which former Soviet republic he belonged to. Given that he famously described himself as ‘an Armenian, living in Georgia, and imprisoned in Ukraine’, it is perhaps brave of the Ukrainian Institute to include Swan Lake: the Zone in its Film Days at the French Institute. But it is a welcome decision, since the film has rarely been screened, and this realisation of a scenario by Parajanov offers the most devastating insight into his years of imprisonment in the country where he originally became a filmmaker.
After an international campaign to secure his release from what was clearly unjust detention, Parajanov managed to direct only one feature film, Ashik Kerib (Azerbaijan, 1988). But he claimed to have survived among the prison inmates by what he described as ‘the mission hearing their confessions’, which he said provided material for ‘a hundred novellas and six screenplays’. The only one of these to reach the screen would be Swan Lake, entrusted to Yuri Ilyenko, who had become a director after serving as cameraman on Parajanov’s breakthrough Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964). As with Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), there was international support on hand to help bring a work by another persecuted Soviet filmmaker to completion, in this case also from Sweden and from Canada, as well as Ukraine. By a grim irony, the film appeared in Cannes, where it received the International Critics award in May 1990, just two months before Parajanov’s own death, and a year before the USSR itself collapsed and died.
What to expect from a film conceived and made in such extreme circumstances? The swans in the first part of the title are flying in a wedge formation above the Donets steppe, watched by a mass of prisoners, confined in a hard-labour gulag or ‘zone’ – until one of these escapes under cover of a thick polluting mist. What happens to this symbolic escapee is the thread that runs through a series of startling, largely unexplained images, faithfully realised by Ilyenko in the vivid style familiar from Shadows, Colour of Pomegranates and The Legend of Suram Fortress.
Parajanov described his script as springing from ‘about the criminal milieu, and the isolation that makes people pathological, mentally and sexually, just to survive’. But rather than try to see it as a psychological drama, shot through with allegorical overtones, it’s worth remembering the extraordinary era in which it was made. During five years of Gorbachev’s perestroika, with taboos crumbling and a pent-up determination to show the truth, many Soviet filmmakers had moved far from the confines of socialist realism, and were producing extraordinary work, often challenging and some of it baffling.
Characterised as ‘crazy cinema’ by the Russian critic and writer Mikhail Iampolski, this period at the end of the ‘80s has yet to be adequately reassessed. So a chance to see one of its typically strange achievements, by two filmmakers who had both sacrificed comfortable careers, shouldn’t be missed. Viewers in 1990 were better prepared for the unexpected, in what would prove to be the final months of the Soviet era. But given the rich history of Soviet Ukrainian cinema, with its defiantly avant-garde tendency, Swan Lake: The Zone makes a fitting monument to the end of that era – not least in the historic irony of the actual monument that forms its central image.
Ian Christie has written and lectured extensively on Soviet and Russian cinema, and contributed to many film programmes and exhibitions, most recently ‘Revolution: Russian Art, 1917-32’, Royal Academy 1917, and a series of exhibitions of Eisenstein’s graphic work at GRAD and Frieze, London; Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz; and the Villa Medici, Rome. He is currently co-editing The Eisenstein Universe with Julia Vassilieva.
Swan Lake: the Zone will be screened Sunday, 8 December, 7pm, at Cine Lumiere, French Institute in London, to be followed by a talk with Ian Christie, moderated by Marina Pesenti, Director of Ukrainian Institute London.
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