Towards the end of the Kinofestival, the critic doubts. Is he not at risk to confuse the USSR with the city of Moscow and Moscow with the Press Bar of the Rossia Hotel? He is delighted therefore to enjoy the ritual gift offered by the festival: a few days in a Soviet Socialist Republic. The study trip to Armenia which, despite our efforts, was met with an ever more formal "niet" (for reasons that we were only suspecting), gets, in extremis, the green light. A big fish had intervened in our favour. Four persons would go to Yerevan, invited by the Association of Armenian Filmmakers, to see film, churches, war memorials, to drink local wines and cognacs and take a look at the Mount Ararat. In Moscow, a soviet friend, a true connoisseur of good cinema, had told me: if you go to Armenia, ask to see the movies of Arthur Pelechian, he’s a wild man, a bit mad, but an exceptional filmmaker.
In Search of Arthur Pelechian
In the USSR, thank god, there are not just functionaries and dissidents. Arthur Pelechian, an Armenian filmmaker living in Moscow, works. On documents, on Armenia, on the cosmos and on the theory of montage.
Yerevan, a modern city in an ancient location, with one million inhabitants spread out over its sprawling hills, between tarted-up slums and tall tower blocks in various states of completion. We’re in the South. The little Socialist Republic of Armenia seems prosperous; the percentage of Russians in the population is minimal. People keep to themselves. Yerevan, contrary to the claims made in travel books, is not pink but of a deep burgundy hue, the colour of tuff. Porous, volcanic, carved in right angles, the rock turns Yerevan into a declaration of the existence of the Armenian people. More than a city, it is an act of architectural vengeance. For something of the beauty of ancient churches (Etchmiadzin, Gekhard) persists in the most unbridled modern architecture (the metro, the fountains). Yerevan – with its beautiful Spendiarov opera, its Lenin Square, worthy of accommodating a peplum, its trees and the poignant sobriety of its war memorial – has some charm.
The filmmakers of Armenia give us a warm welcome. Cognac, even in the morning, friendly chitchat, polite advice. In the Yerevan studios, the local film industry puts out four movies and three telefilms a year. It’s modest. We hope that you will like our land, our people, and, who knows, our films, say the filmmakers. They’re modest, too. Maybe they suspect that their films are not that good (in which they are perfectly right). “What about Pelechian?” I enquire. A slight unease. “We Armenians are a strange and generous people: we gave Mamoulian to the US, Verneuil to France and Pelechian to the Soviet cinema.” In fact, our man lives in Moscow, but we will see his films. It’s a promise.
Three films (We, 1969; The Seasons, 1972 and Our Century, 1982) easily convince me that I am dealing with a filmmaker, a real one. Unclassifiable, except for the catch-all category of “documentary”. What a poor category! In fact, it’s a work on montage of the type I thought was no longer made in the USSR since Dziga Vertov. A work on, with and against montage. I suddenly have the (pleasant) feeling of finding myself before a missing link in the true history of the cinema.
How to speak of his films? Of the image, pulsating like the oscillations of an electrocardiogram? And of the sound, true echo of space? How can one forget the beginning of The Seasons? Armenian shepherds and their animals caught in a torrent where they may be drowning, head over heels? Peasants fleeing before unleashed haystacks or hurtling down slopes, here of snow, there of rock? This brief intertitle fallen from the sky: “This is the land”. But it is a land with no North, filmed, perhaps, from the viewpoint of a meteorite which doesn’t know where it falls. And, in We, this tearful Armenian people in the archive footage of successive repatriations (from 1946 to 1950): the return to their homeland, the embraces, the reunions, the bodies twisted by emotion, and the montage which, within these images, spins like a whirlwind, a vertigo, a dizzy spell? And in Our Century, a long meditation on the “space race”, rocket launches going nowhere, the dream of Icarus encapsulated by Russians and Americans, the faces of the accelerated cosmonauts deformed by weightlessness, the catastrophe which never ceases not to come?
Whatever the theme of the movie, Pelechian propels disoriented human body into orbit. These bodies are caught in the turbulence of matter, where there’s nothing human anymore, nothing merely human, and where the elements (earth, water, fire, wind) make their return. Not man in the cosmos, but the cosmos in man. In this raw cosmogony, I could see a Vertov in the era of Michael Snow, a Dovzhenko added to Godard, Wiseman or van der Keuken. I recognise the fatal and paranoid flirtation between science and poetry, where the filmmaker cruelly extracts his quotient of terror from aesthetic emotion.
“The cinema I like doesn’t like chance”
Back in Moscow, I hastened to meet Pelechian. I liked the uncertainty of whether or not I would actually see him, as well as the strange things that I was told about him. He doesn’t speak much, does not know any foreign languages, and perhaps barely any Russian. He’s strange, he had been put away, he doesn’t look like a typical Russian filmmaker (you know, with a leather jacket and all), he has written theoretical texts, he may have moved house, and when someone phoned him recently there was religious music at the end of the line…
The meeting took place on the eve of my departure, on neutral terrain, in a little corner of a big screening room in the Domkino (the “house of filmmakers”, Vasilevskaya Street, famous for its excellent restaurant). Pelechian resembled his films. He spoke Russian – a lot. Anxious to be understood, he patiently tore apart a matchbox and smoked my Marlboros.
Before being a filmmaker, he was an engineer (“the cinema I like,” he said, “doesn’t like chance”). And before that, he was born in an Armenian village (“there was no cinema there”). In 1963, he was studying documentary at the VGIK in Moscow. A question haunted him: “Does the cinema need me? Because I certainly need the cinema.” The curriculum included the classics: Vertov, Eisenstein, etc. When Pelechian talks about them, it is as an equal, as if he bore a grudge against them, all the while knowing that it was necessary for the cinema to pick up where they left off – or where, maybe, they misled it. “Vertov and Eisenstein invented a new machine, but they put it on railway tracks, whereas this machine needed an air cushion. It was a dead end.” But among those who condemned them, there were those (the rare few) who saw the dead end, and those (all the others) who saw neither the machine nor the tracks. These “others” are numerous today in Soviet film circles. They cannot speak harshly enough of these apprentice sorcerers, these “formalists” (a word which both condemns and hurts). And so it was in minor, less prominent genres that a concern with montage (both in terms of theory and practice) took refuge. Where a man like Pelechian operates today.
His goal: “to capture the emotional and social cardiogram of his time.” He uses a scientific vocabulary and medical metaphors, in the vein of Godard. “The whole film is present in each of its fragments and each frame is comparable to a coded genetic cell.” It must then find its place in the whole, in order to construct (as genetics would have it), “a reality which could also have been real.” Pelechian believes in this all the more, as, in his view, “a man’s life reproduces, in a certain manner, the entire history of mankind.”
“If you had more time…”
There is a certain madness to his discourse, as if, encoding increasingly reduced fragments, and sinking deeper into the matter of the film, he had come up against what he calls “absent frames”, which are invisible but which allow us to see, within the void, the heart of matter (“Truce!” I yelled to myself). Pelechian speaks like a scientific researcher, and when I tell him that, on certain points, there are similarities between him and Bresson, he seems neither surprised nor flattered: “It is normal, he notes, that researchers cross paths ‘somewhere’.” What he is looking for is his business. He knows that his films are not what he (nicely) dubs “protocol films”, but up to now he has done what he wants to do. He has a strong, reputedly bizarre personality, and is capable of convincing his commissioners (Armenian television mainly) that a film must be judged on the basis of its images rather than its script. Moreover, he is recognised by his peers, has won prizes for his work, and is currently working on a film about the Orthodox Church, commissioned by West Germany. It took him three years to shoot and edit Our Century, less because he was refused access to the stock footage of space exploration than because nobody could locate them. The only trouble he had: when he had to interrupt the movie because the cosmonauts were in space (for 185 days), he was required to furnish a certificate from said cosmonauts explaining their absence.
Authentic, unknown Soviet filmmakers? The friend who first told me about Pelechian confirmed it. But, as he would clarify, they can be found more among the ranks of documentary and scientific filmmakers. Naturally. When it is Science speaking, it is no longer the Party’s voice: the enunciation is more unpredictable, the rhetoric stranger. As long as individual fictions are blocked in advance by the fiction of the State, leaving room only for luxurious literary celebrations or dull social neo-realism based on allusions to daily life (of the “life is not pink everyday” kind), it is in documentary cinema, in the delirious clash between science and poetry, that fiction can clear a path. The path of science-fiction, no less.
The problem, as my friend insisted, is that in a country such as this, where information has trouble circulating, a researcher can be searching without anyone knowing about it, a filmmaker can make his movies on the condition that he relinquishes any interest in distribution – which he doesn’t have any control over anyway. So, like everything which has value in this country, the passion for making comes from the private sphere and, in the final analysis, from inner life. When it comes to people who are really working, you have to go find them in their own homes, in the Soviet Republics, closer to American “independent” film than to our French-style auteur cinema. Their names populate an imaginary map of the USSR like so many question marks: a certain Franck in Riga, a school of documentary filmmakers in Tallinn, a certain Sokurov in Leningrad (already four films banned!). But who will go see them?
“If you had more time,” Pelechian tells me before leaving, “I could have introduced you to some very interesting people. They ask for nothing, they’re not looking for any publicity. They are painters, artists, they’re not even dissidents. They’re more like monks.”
It was a mouthwatering idea – but I didn’t have the time.Originally published in Libération, 11 August 1983. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde 2. Les Années Libé 1981-1985, POL éditeur, Paris, 2002, pp.410-413. Translation by Daniel Fairfax and Laurent Kretzschmar, 2012.