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Peleshyan’s Style – and his Sheep

Cannes-winning director Serge Avedikian has chosen his perfect scene from The Seasons (1972) by Artavazd Peleshyan. We asked the prominent director to take us through the scene.

January 31, 2018  |  by Creative Armenia

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CA: Could you please describe this unusual scene in your own words?


SA: This episode comes about in the middle of a rural wedding scene. Instead of traditional Armenian music, we get Vivaldi, with such unusual images that it's impossible to forget them. Peleshyan offers Vivaldi to the mountain peasants. Or perhaps it's better to say that the peasants – tumbling down the mountain slopes in snow, holding onto the lambs, becoming one with the animal – offer Vivaldi's music a whole new dimension.

Watch the perfect scene according to Avedikian

A writing on the screen tells us: "It's your land" – and again, the image of men and lambs, slipping on the snow, then on the rocky stones, resuming their way, like it's all child's play. These images are mostly in slow motion as if to follow the rhythm of the music. Never again can I listen to Vivaldi's Four Seasons without seeing Peleshyan's tribute to the peasants of the mountains and their animal companions.


I think that it was necessary to convince the shepherds in the mountains to "play this game" so that the cameras installed in front of the slopes could catch this unique and magical moment. Had Peleshyan made the peasants listen to Vivaldi before they accepted this proposal? Had he dreamed about these pictures while listening to Vivaldi? Or was it was these images, once shot and revealed, that summoned the music of Vivaldi?


Anyway, they have found each other and lived together in this film sequence. Peleshyan and Vivaldi made a film together called The Seasons in the mountains of Armenia.


CA: Why sheep?


SA: The lamb (and sheep) is an animal closest to human beings – after the dog and the cat, of course. But it is also the animal that replaced man as a sacrifice to God. Abraham sacrificed the lamb (the ram in Genesis) instead of his son, and this sacrifice has been perpetuated by many people and religions to this day. But here we are – dealing with the transhumanity of lambs and sheep in Peleshyan's film, according to the seasons, and in this journey, through valleys, mountains, and torrents, man has a loyal companion. The carnal proximity between man and animal is captured by the images in this sequence in a way that I have not seen anywhere else.


CA: How has this film influenced your films?


SA: It's the relationship with the poetry. The way of telling what we feel, not with words, but by a combination of sounds, pictures, and music. This is what I call "Poème cinématographique" in French. It's not a popular genre. These films are beyond ordinary, beyond genre. They come from deep relationships that we try to communicate in the language cinema permits. When grace interferes, the results are sometimes dazzling – as in Peleshyan's films. This language is so universal and sometimes beyond its own time, that it can fight against time itself.

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The Seasons by Artavazd Peleshyan

CA: Who else has been influenced by Peleshyan?


Since his films were shown in France and Europe in the 90s, I've met a lot of young directors who have tried to imitate the lyrical style of Peleshyan. But these were no more than experimental tests and pale copies. Among more professional filmmakers, the influence of Peleshyan's films is less directly visible. This is a style which is used very rarely and isn't commercial at all.


I think that music video directors could find an influence in Peleshyan's fast and syncopated editing, which is constructed on music. Even if their concern is merely to "sell the song" efficiently, and even if they are thousands of kilometers away from what Peleshyan sought to create. If we try to compare three filmmakers from the same circle who knew and respected each other, and who were discovered in Western Europe one after another – Tarkovski, Parajanov, and Peleshyan – then we can see that Tarkovsky and Parajanov have inspired more filmmakers or visual artists than Peleshyan has.


But I must say that Peleshyan stands out from the three, both for the duration of his films and for the fact that they are built from reworked and tricky images, as well as archived images mixed with his original footage. Parajanov and Tarkovsky follow more classic standards, despite their unique worlds and their very specific staging. In addition, the films of Tarkovsky and Parajanov are fictions that tell stories which are more directly perceptible. But Peleshyan remains wholly in the poetic universe; his stories are deconstructed, making us feel first and tell after. But I think that Peleshyan's films have been more popular than those of the other two filmmakers.

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Serge Avedikian in Minneapolis film festival, 2017

CA: This film is a visual Poem. Have you seen similar devices or stylistic techniques employed in a more conventional film that tells a linear story?


One example is Sibiriada by Konchalovsky, which is a long film – punctuated by Peleshyan's editing – on the evolution of Russia's history before the USSR. This allows the film to have historical significance, within a more classic construction, which tells the story of the evolution of a Russian family in Siberia over several generations. Konchalovsky asked Peleshyan to interpose his documentary sequences within the film's more classic style.


I also quoted heavily from the end of his film, We, while editing a documentary made with Jacques Kébadian on the history of the Armenian diaspora in France: Without Possible Return. I projected the images of Peleshyan's film on a dozen screens that were placed in holes corresponding to the cities of Western Armenia (nowadays Turkey) on a very large map that we had built for the movie.


Other documentaries have used images of Peleshyan's films about his own works (The Silence of Peleshyan), and at the moment a new film, Peleshyan's Gesture, is being made about the special-purpose machine he was working on in Moscow.


I think I forget other examples. But overall Peleshyan is inimitable, as are all great originals. We can learn from their work, but we must find our own style and not copy theirs.

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Artavazd Peleshyan and Serge Avedikian

CA: You note that "when grace interferes" in a film like this, the results are dazzling. But we know that grace does not always interfere. Can you identify a film with a similarly poetic ambition – by Peleshyan or anyone else – which, by contrast, you consider a noble failure?


In the modern Republic of Armenia, several filmmakers have tried Peleshyan's approach in documentaries of similar length. But their films are less inspired, less effective, and stylistically inferior pieces. These movies are simply not carried by grace and will not survive their time.


"You have to kiss the hand of the master and not cut it." Peleshyan said this to me about a film we had we seen together during the opening session of the documentary festival in Nyon, Switzerland. Imitation in cinema doesn't work at all, because grace itself can't operate when one is not the inspirer of one's own film. It is only through ourselves directly that a divine intuition can be free to speak.  

Serge Avedikian is an Armenian-French filmmaker and director of such films as Paradzhanov (2013), Lost in Armenia (2016), and Barking Island (2010).

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