Mikhail Vartanov

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Mikhail Vartanov
Михаил Вартанов
Միքայել Վարդանով
Born(1937-02-21)February 21, 1937
DiedDecember 31, 2009(2009-12-31) (aged 72)
OccupationDirector, cinematographer, screenwriter, art critic
Notable work
Parajanov: The Last Spring

Mikhail Vartanov (Russian: Михаил Вартанов, Armenian: Միքայել Վարդանով, French: Mikhaïl Vartanov b. February 21, 1937, RSFSR, Soviet Union, now Russian Federation, d. December 31, 2009, Hollywood, California) was a film director, cinematographer, documentarian, essayist, photographer and artist who developed a style of documentary filmmaking termed the “direction of undirected action.”

His reputation as one of the most important cinematographers, documentarians and intellectuals of his generation was cemented by such influential documentary films as The Seasons of the Year, Parajanov: The Last Spring, and a series of essays including The Unmailed Letters.

Student years[edit]

Mikhail Vartanov dedicated his life to defending and supporting his close friend, the imprisoned genius Sergei Parajanov, whose talent he recognized in 1964, after watching at Moscow’s film school VGIK the landmark motion picture Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and the test footage of the unfinished Kiev Frescoes.

Friendship with Sergei Parajanov[edit]

Mikhail Vartanov met Sergei Parajanov in 1967 in Armenia and shared his thoughts about the screenplay of the masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova). Parajanov was impressed and they became close friends until the end.

Early career[edit]

Vartanov’s debut film, The Color of Armenian Land, marked the beginning of his trademark style, the “direction of undirected action.” This documentary, a silent commentary of gestures of painter Martiros Saryan, also featured Vartanov’s friends, the dissident artists Minas Avetisyan and Sergei Parajanov, for which the film was censored and suppressed; Avetisyan was assassinated and Parajanov was imprisoned shortly after.


His next film The Autumn Pastoral—written by Artavazd Peleshian and scored by composer Tigran Mansurian—was shelved. After Sergei Parajanov was arrested in Kiev in 1973, Mikhail Vartanov immediately protested to the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. The recently declassified document proved that it was that letter in support of Parajanov that prompted the intensified harassment that Vartanov endured, and his subsequent firing from the Armenfilm Studios (4 months after Paradjanov’s imprisonment).


Artavazd Peleshian and Gennadi Melkonian passionately petitioned the Russian and Armenian authorities to work with Vartanov, who was blacklisted and unemployed, and he was able to work as a cinematographer on two films that became classics: The Seasons of the Year (1975) and The Mulberry Tree (1979).


After a 9-year absence from directing, Vartanov was asked to save a troubled project, The Roots (1983) which he later wrote was the best film made in Armenia that year. He survived by teaching art, cinema and photography at the university, and publishing his writings. They appeared in several languages, including French, in Cahiers du cinéma.


Sergei Parajanov, in a letter from prison, wrote to Mikhail Vartanov: “You and your purity are colliding with circumstances and predators… That’s life”.[1] Indeed, many open and secret suppressors of Parajanov, especially the unschooled and the mediocrity, later focused on Vartanov, having recognized the opportunity to advance their personal interests and careers by attacking the free thinkers and marginalizing them. For over 20 years, the films of Mikhail Vartanov had been suppressed, unmentioned by press, or blocked from submission to foreign film festivals, and remain today in the archives, under the control of his former suppressors and their unsuspecting or indifferent sympathizers.

Later career[edit]

In a letter to the imprisoned Parajanov, Vartanov wrote, quoting his favorite poet Boris Pasternak: “the time will come and the power of meanness and malice would be overcome by the spirit of kindness".[2] Parajanov responded to Vartanov: "Dear Misha, I received your amazing letter... Never have you been more accurate in evaluating the world and expressing yourself...".[3] Mikhail Vartanov’s coda was the documentary trilogy Erased Faces (1987), Minas: A Requiem (1989), and the influential masterwork Parajanov: The Last Spring (1992), made in a war-torn, blockaded Armenia, during the one-hour daily limits of electricity. It reaffirmed his reputation of a master.


"In our land, the government manufactures the biography of the Artist. It honors and awards one, for nothing, and it dishonors and imprisons the other -- a wise government -- it desires to turn both into obedient slaves."[4]

"Probably, besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein, the world cinema has not discovered anything revolutionarily new until the 'Color of Pomegranates,' not counting the generally unaccepted language of the 'Andalusian Dog' by Bunuel."[5]

Quotes about him[edit]

  • Vartanov's film Parajanov: The Last Spring…exemplifies the power of art over any limitations." (Francis Ford Coppola)[6][7]
  • "Vartanov...brother and friend in arts and in soil... dear, beloved, rare and wonderful. Perhaps, you're the only friend, who compels me to live... You possess everything an artist needs -- mind, kindness, principles, freedom. Create... That's your mission." (Sergei Parajanov, 1974)
  • "Vartanov - the Eyemoman..." (William Saroyan, 1978)[8]
  • "My dear friend...if you like the screenplay (Desert), together we could make a masterpiece..." (Artavazd Peleshian, 1980s)
  • "On January 9, came Vartanov... Parajanov's most devoted man...an amazing man...gave an amazing speech..." (Gayane Khachatryan, 1990)
  • "Vartanov's film...excited and filled me with strength..." (Tonino Guerra, 1993)
  • "Vartanov was an amazing intellectual, perhaps one of the last..." (Yuri Mechitov, 2010)
  • "Misha Vartanov...one of the most principled and righteous men I have ever met..." (Roman Balayan, 2010)
  • "We have to ensure that the work of seminal artists like Mikhail Vartanov is preserved, promoted and accessible to the widest possible audience. His films, made against all odds and under the harshest conditions, are crucial to the important heritage of world cinema." (Agnieszka Holland)[9]
  • "Vartanov made a wonderful film Parajanov: The Last Spring..." (Martin Scorsese)

Awards and honors[edit]

  • Golden Antelope Award (for diploma film, The Monologue of the Mask) Dakar, 1965.
  • Cinematographer of the Year (for The Song of Eternity), USSR Film Festival, 1973
  • Russian Academy of Cinema Arts Award (for Parajanov: The Last Spring), Moscow, 1993
  • Golden Gate Award (for Parajanov: The Last Spring), San Francisco International Film Festival, 1995
  • Golden Palm Award (for Parajanov: The Last Spring), Beverly Hills Film Festival, 2003
  • A film retrospective and an art exhibition, Busan International Film Festival, Korea, 2012


Parajanov-Vartanov Institute was established in Hollywood in 2010 to study, preserve and promote the artistic legacies of Sergei Parajanov and Mikhail Vartanov.[10]


Year English title Original title Romanization Notes
1969 The Color of Armenian Land (in Russian) Цвет Армянской Земли Tsvet armyanskoy zemli Banned debut film. Behind the scenes of Sergei Paradjanov's Color of Pomegrantes. Documentary trilogy, part I.
1971 Autumn Pastoral (in Russian) Осенчяя пастораль Osenn'yaya pastoral' Written by Artavazd Peleshian. Shelved.
1972 And So Every Day (in Russian) И так каждый день I tak kazhdiy dyen' Scored by Tigran Mansurian. Vartanov narrates for the first time. Black & white. Shelved.
1974 Kadjaran (in Russian) Каджаран Kajaran' Unfinished. Vartanov fired.
1975 (cinematographer) Seasons of the Year (in Russian) Bремена Года Vremena Goda' Directed by Artavazd Peleshian, lensed by Vartanov.
1979 (cinematographer) The Mulberry Tree (in Russian) Шелковица Shelkovitsa' Directed by Gennadi Melkonian, lensed by Vartanov.
1984 Roots (in Russian) Корни Korni' First directing work in 10 years. A project deemed unfilmable by all filmmakers at Armenfilm (Armenia)
1987 Erased Faces (in Armenian) Ջնջվաց դեմքեր Jenjevatz demker'
1989 Minas: A Requiem (in Armenian) Մինաս. ռեկվիէմ Minas. rekviem' Documentary trilogy, part II
1992 Paradjanov: The Last Spring (in English) Parajanov: The Confession Documentary trilogy, part III



Selected bibliography.

English language sources[edit]

  • Dixon, Wheeler & Foster, Gwendolyn. "A Short History of Film." New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780813542690
  • Rollberg, Peter. "Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema." Scarecrow Press, 2008. ISBN 9780810860728
  • Schneider, Steven Jay. "501 Movie Directors." London: Hachette/Cassell, 2007. ISBN 9781844035731
  • "Francis Ford Coppola Recognizes…" Hollywood Reporter (20 October 2015)
  • Thomas, Kevin. "Intoxicating spirit." "Los Angeles Times" (1 January 2004)
  • Kaplan, Ilyse. "Beverly Hills Film Festival." Variety, (7 April 2011)

Foreign language sources[edit]

  • Abramov, G. "Ancient art, alive forever" Pravda newspaper, Moscow, 20 April 1966
  • "Il Cinema Delle Repubbliche Transcaucasiche Sovietiche." Venice, Italy: Marsilio Editori, 1986. (Italian language) ISBN 8831748947
  • "Les Cimes du Monde." Cahiers du Cinéma" no. 381 (1986), 42-47 (French language) ISSN 0757-8075
  • Krukova, A. "Russian Oscars were awarded in Moscow" Independent Newspaper, Moscow, 21 December 1992
  • Badasian, V. " "Approaching spirituality" Republic of Armenia newspaper, 25 June 1993
  • Perreault, Luc. "Paradjanov - The Last Spring" La Presse, a12, 14 Juin 1994 (French language)
  • Tremblay, Odile. "L'empire du pape du pop" Le Devoir, b8, 14 Juin 1994 (French language)
  • Stolina, G. "Larger than legends" Panorama newspaper, Hollywood, 14 January 2004
  • Egiazarian, R. "Mishel Vartanov from former USSR" Novoye Vremya newspaper, Yerevan, 4 June 2005
  • "Director Martin Scorsese accepts 2014 Parajanov-Vartanov Institute Award" California Courier, Los Angeles, p1, 13 October 2014
  • Schneider, Steven Jay. "501 Directores de Cine." Barcelona, Spain: Grijalbo, 2008. (Spanish language) ISBN 9788425342646

External links[edit]