The Golden Apricot and the Flying Triangle By Siranush Galstyan
The fifth edition of Yerevan’s Golden Apricot Film Festival opened by recalling the best and most important moments of previous editions, and by presenting the traditional Parajanov Thaller to the real Michelangelo of world cinema — Michelangelo Antonioni. The award was handed to the widow of the acclaimed director, Enrica Antonioni, who spent the 36 years with him, supporting him in every moment of his life. Wim Wenders, one of the festival’s honored guest, was invited to the stage to present the award. He had both creative and personal contacts with Antonioni, and bore witness to the unique love between the director and his wife.
Right after that, founding director of the festival Harutyun Khachatryan presented another Paradjanov Thaller to the founder of contemporary Iranian cinema, Dariush Mehrjui, who has long been considered a master and who headed the main jury at this year’s festival.
Before the screening of the opening film, The Birds of Paradise (Rayskie ptitsy), Roman Balayan, a director of Armenian descent who lives and works in Ukraine, was invited to the stage. His films Flights in Dreams and in Reality (Polyoty Vo Sne I Nayavu) and Guard Me, My Talisman (Khrani Menya, Moy Talisman) were once hailed as significant works of Soviet cinema. In a way, Balayan’s latest film represents a unique “cinematographic conclusion” of the Soviet period, depicting the mood of the early 1980s which set the stage for the perestroika and glasnost movements.
At any rate, it should be underlined that the director made an unexpected film about three heroes in a country with no freedom: These people were able to fly. And the most important thing is that these flights are shown to be quite natural. One never perceives them as artificial images created with the help of cinematic techniques; it is the same as when one first reads Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”; you never feel uncomfortable with the idea that the heroine can fly.
It is not accidental that the hero of Balayan’s film (played by Oleg Yankovsky) is also a writer, nor that he mentions Bulgakov by name saying that he was the last writer he knew who could fly. And on his wall one can see a reproduction of a painting by Mark Chagall — another artist who knew a lot about human flights.
Yankovsky, who once played Baron Munchausen in the Soviet film That Munchausen (Tot samyy Myunkhgauzen), quotes someone saying that Munchausen once only claimed to fly, but now he truly does. At that very moment, his feet freely rise up from the ground.
But the film is not about the ability to fly, any more than Balayan’s Flights in Dreams and in Reality was. That film was more about one’s inability to fly — and there, again, Yankovsky played the lead. The Birds of Paradise is about freedom — not about the freedom to fly, but freedom in general, or more precisely about the illusion we call freedom. It’s a subject which can never be considered outdated or redundant; not now, and not anywhere — not even in the former Soviet Union, where it seems some achievements took place and something changed after the collapse of the empire.
That said, for a people who never experienced the taste of freedom, it’s difficult to enjoy freedom once it’s granted. Freedom can be born; it can die or be destroyed, and even be reborn — but it can also be allowed to atrophy with disuse.
Of course, this does not occur in The Birds of Paradise. This film is dedicated to the memory of those unknown heroes who paved the way for freedom’s eventual arrival. At the same time it reveals the other side of the problem — how a person, having found himself out of the cage and truly free, can lose the ability to fly. Tarkovskiy’s words come to one’s mind here: “One can experience real freedom only in prison.”
A few words about the storyline of the film: An old writer, who spent the best years of his life in prison, and who learned to fly there, now tries to teach his beloved (Oksana Akinshina) to fly. Of course, these “flying people” are being prosecuted for their ability: “There are eyes and ears everywhere”, says one of the film’s heroes. The lovers at the film’s center have decided to fly to Paris, the one place they will surely breathe free air. But suddenly the writer gets a strange manuscript — a secret pamphlet called samizdat, distributed by being passed from one person to another in secret, in which people write about forbidden freedoms. Having become a mentor and spiritual teacher to a young, talented writer (Andrey Kuzichev), the author of the novel Station Knol, the hero postpones his flight with his beloved.
Of course, the most expected thing takes place — the girl falls in love with the protégé, though she tries to be loyal to the person who taught her to fly. All the heroes of this “flying triangle” die, but their fates are not dictated by the conventions of the love triangle. All of them die for freedom, gaining that which they would not know what to do with — as the Italian translator told the Russia hero Gorchakov (played, once again, Yankovsky himself) in Nostalghia, directed by Andrei Tarkovskiy, who ultimately found his freedom in Europe.
Thus it seems that the protagonists of Roman Balayan’s films, and the roles Oleg Yankovsky has played in different films by different directors, have managed to complete and fulfill each other.
After this bitter piece of art, with its most poetical developments, has ended, the spectators leave, taking with them the pieces of broken glass from their picnic, on which you can still find some ants, the cigarette that the KGB investigation officer crushes out over the stem of a tree… and the many other images with which Balayan has filled his screen.