RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT…

Ed. note:  The movies of Rustam Khamdamov are impossible to find in the West, and for the most part in his native Russia as well. Read this article (to our knowledge the most extensive retrospective of Khamdamov to be found on the Internet in English) to discover how this legendary, and very weird, director has managed to fall through the cracks in world culture.

By Irina Goncharova, edited and additional material by Greg Smalley.  Original research and Russian translations by Irina Goncharova.

Rustam Khamdamov- What is your father’s occupation?

- My father writes poetry. That’s all he does. He is one of the greatest unknown poets of the world.

- And when does he get money?

– Never. It’s impossible to be great and be paid for it.

The quote above is an exchange from Rustam Khamdamov’s V gorakh moyo serdtse [My Heart’s in the Highlands] (1967).  When he was a third year student of the All-Union Institute for Cinematography (VGIK in Moscow, USSR) Khamdamov shot this movie that was called “the work of a master” and was included in lists of the best Soviet movies. The film swept the VGIK internal festivals. Although Khamdamov is mentioned in the credits only once, along with other students, everybody knew he was the one and only author of the movie—not just its director, but the one who wrote the original screenplay (after William Saroyan’s play), who penned the absurd dialogue, who made all streamers and costumes with his own hands, who selected the best actors when doing the casting. The response to the film was polarized and conflicting. The VGIK Communist Party Committee—just imagine, at that time the Communists decided the destiny of everything and everyone in the country—introduced ideological censorship on the works of the VGIK students straight away.

Really, it’s not easy to write for an American audience about a director such as Rustam Khamdamov.  I believe there are very few people in the USA who have ever heard his name, although it may be found by Googling or searching the Internet Movie Database.  Still, this search would hardly clarify the situation.  The list of his movies is incredibly short, and practically each one has a very sad production history, but those critics who mention his name do so with much respect and even a kind of devotion, often calling him “legendary.”

What makes this director so legendary?

Rustam Khamdamov is of Uzbek descent and took his film production course from the renown Russian film director Grigori Chukhrai.[1]  As mentioned above, his first movie was the student work (some critics say it was his graduate project) My Heart’s in the Highlands (1967), a short, approximately 30 minute black and white film. This was the first film where viewers saw the beautiful Elena Solovey, a future Soviet movie star.

Elena Solovey

Elena Solovey in Raba Lyubvi, 1975.

My Heart’s In The Highlands (1939), initially a play by William Saroyan, was a comedy about a young boy and his Armenian family.  Khamdamov used the play’s plot, but recycled it and made a poetic film, or better a non-narrative one, and did it so masterfully that Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Sergeo Paradjanov[2], and Kira Muratova all praised him for it.  In Polina Barskova’s words, Khamdamov shows “qualities that may easily be called decadent: the obsessive aestheticization of all aspects of life, including the goriest; the eroticisation of the Other—the other space, the other epoch, the other sex; the eschatological quest for the ultimate, the final, the last in the series.” The Italian directors were so impressed by Khamdamov’s student work that they mentioned his name as if he was already one of their equals on the cinematic Olympus.  So did Andrei/Andron Konchalovsky[3], in his book The Enlivening Deception (M., 1999).

Nechayannye Radosti
Elena Solovey and Natalia Leble in a surviving still from Khamdamov’s Nechayannye radosti (1972).

What was so special about the film that brought its director from nowhere to the spotlight?

I think that for the American audience, Khamdamov’s films are one more example of the strangeness of the Russian cinema, and of European cinema in general (see 366weirdmovies’ review of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia), because they almost lack the action which is so attractive for American moviegoers.  Khamdamov’s movies are different.  One can hardly write a paragraph on the plot.  As a postmodernist—but a distinctly Russian, non-narrative postmodernist—Khamdamov freely adapts the plot of the Saroyan play. For Rustam Khamdamov what matters is not so much WHAT HAPPENS, but IN WHAT ENVIRONMENT and HOW he shows it.

The images that later became Khamdamov’s trademarks first appear in My Heart’s in the Highlands[4]: the room cluttered with every sort of art object in every space, ladies stockings hanging over a balcony rail, the peculiar, elegant ladies hat with the white band and feathers, and always visions of women and the Feminine.  The short film begins with a man playing a piano in a silent movie style.  The piano and its player rolls down the street.  The camera follows several characters—a smiling prostitute, two young wealthy girls, some boys on a bicycle, a black woman carrying a basket of flowers—through both the rich and the poor streets of a town before finally finding its main characters, a boy and his father and grandmother.  The grandmother is a retired opera diva (or so she claims), and the father is a poet who has been writing a single poem for his entire life.  The family wishes to entertain a visitor, the actor/musician MacGregor, who they meet in the street, but they have no money for breakfast.

They send the boy to get food from a local grocer.  The shopkeeper has loaned them food on credit before and is reluctant to do so again.  The boy must scheme to melt his cold heart to get food for the party.

The owner asks the boy when his father will have money to pay for the food. It is at this moment the phrase “It’s impossible to be great and be paid for it” is spoken. The boy is not just shrewd, he is a philosopher.  He understands that his father will never get any money for his “great poem.”

It seems to me that the entire film was made just to pronounce these words: It’s impossible to be great and be paid for it.”

The boy eventually gets some breakfast and returns to his family and their visitor.  The group feasts and gets a little bit drunk.  They tell stories, MacGregor plays a song on his trumpet, the old woman dances the can-can.  The camera pans around the home and shows art objects stuffed into every corner.  The scene dissolves, and suddenly we see another woman in a garden sitting in a rocking chair.  Then she disappears, leaving nature alone.  Then the movie returns to the prostitute, Rosa, learning to ride a bike in a vacant lot with the help of some boys.  The piano from the beginning of the film rolls by, this time with a young girl sitting at it, playing a duet with the original pianist.

It ends here, a poetic, nostalgic movie without any special plot or idea. And we ask ourselves: “Why, why it is so appealing, charming, even compelling?”  A. Konchalovsky asks similar questions in one of his interviews: “I will say more: the picture My Heart’s in the Highlands influenced me greatly―while making Dvoryanskoe gnezdo [A Nest of Gentry][5] I found myself under its spell. I watched the picture several times and each time I could not understand, why it impressed me so much, why it disturbs me, and I do not fear to ask, what is so special in it?” Later he goes back to this question, and comes to the conclusion: “It was very beautiful, though there was some mannerism in it… Alas, but My Heart’s in the Highlands happened to be [Khamdamov’s] only listed work.  Later, there was a sad story with the unfinished film Nechayannye radosti [Unintentional pleasures] (1972), which was recycled and reappeared as Raba Liubvi (1976) [A Slave of Love] by Nikita Mikhalkov.  And then goes one more sad story―with Anna Karamazoff, which nobody has ever seen but at Cannes. Where it is now?  It is amusing, that A Nest of Gentry was made influenced by Fellini and Khamdamov. A great classicist and a student of the VGIK!”[6]

Rustam Khamdamov is first of all an artist. An artist who is fallen in love with life, once and for ever. For him life is the eternal Feminine, in the vast diversity of the female imagery, from a simple young prostitute Rosa who dreams to meet a man that will take her abroad, the young girls with the nurse, the black woman with the flower baskets, and the lady in the rocking chair in My Heart’s in the Highlands (1967) to the neglected opera divas of Vokaldy paralelder [Vocal Parallels] (2005).

As mentioned before, after the success of My Heart’s in the Highlands, Khamdamov made a movie based on the poetics of Russian silent film, Nechayannye radosti [Unintentional Pleasures] (1972).  It was unfinished due to some conflict between the director and the production managers.  Furthermore, the part of the film that was completed was banned. The managers of Mosfilm, the major movie production studio in the USSR, ordered the camera negatives destroyed in 1974. Twelve years later three and a half boxes of the work material were found. They were rescued by Ilya Minkavetsky, the project’s cameraman. What survives today is about 30 minutes of a rough cut and a dozen production stills. Meanwhile the screenplay was rewritten. Nikita Mikhalkov recycled the story, the costumes, and the main actress Elena Solovey, for his popular film A Slave of Love [Raba liubvi] (1975).  This was a new blow for Khamdamov.  He left Moscow.  For many years nobody in Moscow knew where he was or what was he doing.

It took Khamdamov about 16 years to recover from this blow, and in 1991 he completed his new film Anna Karamazoff, described by Mike Haberfelner as “less a narrative piece of film but a metaphoric and bizarre, even surreal journey through 1940’s Russia and beyond that makes its point through impressive images rather than a coherent story…”  Khamdamov cast the iconic actress Jeanne Moreau (Jules et Jim, 1962), as the female lead and inserted the remains of Unintentional Pleasures into this new film.  This caused another scandal and led to one more disaster for the director and his films.

At times, the saga of the production of Anna Karamazoff reads like a detective story.  Moreau and the producers had a falling out at Cannes, and Anna Karamazoff was never released to the general public; but even before that, a lot of strange and inexplicable things happened in the production.  The production quickly ran over budget, and foreign investment was sought to complete it.  The French producer Serge Siberman and the French firms Pairmedia and Victoria-Film-Production were brought in to help complete the film.  (As you might know, Serge Silberman was at that time one of the greatest international film producers. He worked with Becker and Kurosawa, and made five or six pictures with Buñuel.)  With Moreau on board, Silberman had high hopes for the film and wanted to exhibit it at the Cannes festival in 1991.

At this point things turned even stormier for the already troubled production.  Silberman requested cuts, particularly asking for the deletion of a dream sequence that Khamdamov thought essential.  He also requested adding a prologue explaining that Moreau was a prisoner returning from the Gulag.  Khamadamov made some cuts and resubmitted the film, only now with new added scenes.  Silberman was exasperated.  He  had promised to deliver the film to Cannes and it seemed like it would never be completed.  Eventually he gave Khamdamov a twelve day ultimatum to complete the editing, and flew the director to Paris.

In the meantime there were problems between the French and Russian producers.  Mosfilm had a right to keep the original negative, but Silberman convinced them to release it to him so he could have the print struck in Paris, arguing that the Russians would do a sloppy job.  Silberman arranged to have a new agreement signed on short notice at the airport as he was leaving for Paris.  Rumors circulated that he had secretly changed the terms of the contract at the last moment, to Mosfilm’s financial disadvantage.  Also, according to representatives of Mosfilm’s Krug studio, the folder with the production papers had mysteriously disappeared from the studio archives.  In the end it appears the film was exported from Russia without any legal authorization except the oral agreement of Mosfilm’s administrator, who seemed was happy to get rid of the crew, the film and the producer. The USSR was still in shock from what it saw as a tragic “divorce with its partners”, i.e. the former Soviet Republics.  Movie producers, along with many other industries, found themselves heading towards an abyss.  The negative was never returned to the Russians.

Meanwhile Khamdamov and his editor slaved day and night to edit the film in twelve days so it could premier at Cannes.  Khamdamov says that the polite requests Silberman made to make cuts in the film turned into rude demands once they arrived in Paris.  In the end, the two agreed to assemble two cuts of the film: Khamdamov’s long version, and the shorter edit Silberman preferred, which was to be shown at Cannes.

The film was highly anticipated, but Cannes turned into a disaster.  A few days before the festival was to begin, Khamdamov contacted the organizers and said that he would remove the film from competition unless his cut was screened instead of Silberman’s preferred version.  The French producer had no choice but to cave in to this ultimatum.

During the first screening, Khamadamov’s assistant went into the projection booth and placed his finger in front of the lens so that the explanatory captions Silberman had ordered added to the prologue could not be read.  This was scandalous, but it was nothing compared to what happened at the crucial press screening the next day.  The audience began walking out after ten minutes.  The main reason may have been the behavior of star Jeanne Moreau, who began to shout “merde! Merde! Merde!” as the screening went on.  She had not seen the director’s cut before, and was shocked to find that her starring role had been de-emphasized.  Khamadamov had made the unused black-and-white footage from his unfinished Unintentional Pleasures the centerpiece of the film.

After the fiasco at Cannes, Anna Karamazoff was never released to theaters, and to date has not been issued on home video. This make it essentially a lost and legendary film.

Why am I providing such a detailed account of the situation around this movie? Because in my view it explains much of Rustam Khamdamov’s behavior.  He appears to make something extraordinary, extraordinary films that for some reason (each time different) disappear and for practical purposes do not reach their audience. Any other person would be completely destroyed as a creative personality. But not Rustam Khamdamov.

After each new blow he disappears for several years, only to appear again like the legendary Phoenix.

On writing this last sentence, I am reminded of his latest movie, Vokaldy paralelder [Vocal Parallels] , which happily has reached its audience, but only after nine years of production due to numerous obstacles and stoppages. What is THIS film about?  Again, no definite plot, but a kind of a concert-film.  You most probably exclaim in astonishment, absolutely disappointed: What?! A concert?  Yes, it’s a surreal, impressionistic concert of classical opera pieces performed by several retired Soviet opera divas: Roza Dzhamanova, Araksiia Davtian, Bibigul’ Tulegenova, and the late Erik Salim-Meriuert (Kurmangaliev), a fantastic countertenor.

Erik_Kurmangaliev_vocal_parallels_

Erik Kurmangaliev in Vocal Parallels costume and makeup.

Those of you fascinated by or at least curious about this undoubtedly weird movie may read the short but very accurate review by Polina Barskova (University of California, Berkeley): “…shot in Kazakhstan, the land to which the film pays homage, with its snow-covered mountains; the language of the narrative; and the strange sensation of freedom, desolation, and spaciousness produced by the vacillating image of this ancient country… But it would be very wrong to say that Khamdamov’s film takes place in Kazakhstan or is about it! The space of Vocal Parallels is an imaginary locale of lost memories and ambitions….

Kamdamov is no doubt one of most interesting and enticing personalities in Russian cinema, and was until recently absolutely underrated both at home and abroad. His style may be compared to Sergey Parajanov (The Color of Pomegranates).

His movies are spectacular, striking, eye-catching, astonishing, and gorgeous, such that they may be described by one word: STUNNING.

Although neglected as a film director, there is no doubt Rustam Khamdamov is respected as an artist and painter.

Rustam Khamdamov Watercolor
Rustam Khamdamov’s watercolor “Nina”

In 1992 Rustam Khamdamov was granted the Jacques Chirac Grant by Paris City Hall as an outstanding contributor to world culture.  Until 1995 he lived in Paris, where he worked anonymously making designs for the haute couture houses of Milan, Paris and New York, worked as an artist, and designed jewelry for the American company Russian World Gallery. In 1997 he was awarded the prestigious Russian “Triumph” prize for his work as an artist, playwright, and film director. In 2003 Khamdamov was honored with the Russian Grand Prix as a national cultural hero (Academician Piotrovskiy, Director of the Hermitage Museum, was commission chairman).

In 2003 he became the first living Russian artist in history whose work was officially included in the Hermitage Contemporary Collection.  Artists, art theorists, art historians and international critics such as Francesco Pellizi, David Ross, Valeriy Turchin highly estimate Khamdamov’s aesthetics and his artistic style. His works are also included in the collections of the State Teriyakov Gallery (Russia), the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University (USA), the National Gallery of Ravenna (Italy), and numerous private collections all over the world.

In an essay on Rustam Khamdamov[7], theater critic Inna Solovieva asks with bewilderment: “May a person gifted by the Creator be present in the world without turning anything in it into cash, without profiting by his gift (let the profit be the artistic one: a film or a book)?” Her question refers to Khamdamov’s absolutely non-commercial attitude to directing films.

It’s impossible to be great and be paid for it,” Rustam Khamdamov replied, as early as his student years.

APPENDIX 1: COMPLETE PLOT SUMMARY OF THE SHORT FILM V GORAKH MOYO SERDSTE (1967) [MY HEART'S IN THE HIGHLANDS]

My Heart’s in the Highlands starts with piano music, played in a silent movie style.

My Heart's in the Highlands

Still from V gorakh moyo serdtse

We hear a female voice reading the credit: “Improvisation on William Saroyan’s short story ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands.’” We see a very old street car leaving the depot. The piano is just inside the yard of the depot, and the performer continues to play his simple melody. The street car driver drives his trolley past the performer.  And the movie starts.  We read the caption: “It is early morning in the town” and see how the city awakens: a lady leaves a beautiful building with a Russian wolfhound and meets another young lady with a similar dog. Then we see a pair who are most likely marine college students, a young man and a young girl dressed in special marine uniforms, he in the typical black jacket and white short pants, while she in a white blouse and black skirt. They wear white marine caps. The pair walks by the sea quay. They stop, and begin competing at throwing small stones. A homeless, elderly musician with a trumpet goes by, sits on the steps of the quay, and starts playing just few notes on his instrument, as if a herald announcing his arrival in the town.

Then we are on a new street and again see the same performer and his piano, but now there is a new character: a young girl, most likely a prostitute, in a 1920s style hat with a black and white feather boa. It looks like she is returning home in the morning in a very good mood. She appears from out of the morning mist and goes down an empty street of a rich residential area. She approaches the piano and sits at it, taking place of the performer, and starts playing.  She plays the same melody but in quite a different style and rhythm―in the can-can rhythm.  Two young girls, most likely sea port workers, also in marine uniform blouses with kerchiefs tied around their heads, ride their bicycles down the same street. A black woman in a black dress with a white collar and hat carries flower baskets down a clean street, most probably in a wealthy area.  She walks to the rhythm of the music, smiling wide and showing her beautiful white teeth.  The elderly musician in his long black overcoat and old hat walks down another street, carrying his trumpet under his armpit.  He looks very weary. We see an old woman beating the dust off of pillows and placing them on a rail of the balcony of a dilapidated building to dry.

Again Rosa, the prostitute, appears, still in good mood.  It looks like she is always in good mood, smiling, revealing her big teeth and horsy upper jaw.  She walks, also in the rhythm of the music, down a slope paved with old stones, and a person (it is hard to tell the sex, most likely a female) carrying a big box looks at her and curses.  A young boy dressed as a choirboy is hurrying to the church sermon.  The black woman with the flower baskets walks in a ragtime rhythm.  Two little girls walk out of a wealthy home with their nurse, wearing very big hats decorated with white bands and feathers. (Hats of this style appear in each and every one of Khamdamov’s movies; it’s a trademark of his). Later, in the finale, we will see the elder of the girls playing a piano duet with the main performer.

But soon Rosa, the musician and the two young women riding the bicycles arrive at the crossroads where three streets meet, Rosa coming from one direction, the musician coming from another, and the young bicyclists from the third.  One of the bicycle riders makes circles around Rosa, almost riding over her shoes. Then they all continue to go their own ways.

Soon we see Rosa, the musician, and a new character, a boy, on a narrow street with dilapidated residential houses. We see white bed linens and curtains hanging across the street to dry, and it is clear we are in the district where poor people live.  With all the white linen hanging across it, the street is reminiscent of an Italian city.

My Heart's in the HighlandsA bridge crosses the street from one decaying house to another, and on the bridge we see a strange couple.  She looks like an elderly female clown with weird makeup, dressed in a vintage dress. Later we learn that she was an opera singer who toured all over the world―according to her; it’s possible she only imagines herself to be a retired diva.  Her son is an elderly man who informs us he is presently writing a poem; it later appears that he writes this one poem for his entire life.  His mother presents him as “one of the greatest unknown poets of the world”.

The musician presents himself to the couple telling them that he is a great actor McGregor whose “heart is in the highlands;” at the moment he is thirsty and asks for a glass of water.  Rosa teases the boy, asking about his grandmother, but the couple on the bridge invite MacGregor to their home to share a meal with them.  But it comes out they have nothing for breakfast, nor any money to buy it. Thus, they send the boy to Mr. Kozak, the owner of a small grocery/pub who used to give them food on credit.  They tell the boy it is his job to get the food, and we understand he does everything so that his parent and grandparent will not starve.

The boy goes to the grocery and approaches Mr.Kozak, but is smart enough not to ask him straight away for some food, again on credit.  He begins “Hello Mr. Kozak. What would happen if you found yourself in China alone and without a penny in your pocket?”

But Kozak wants to get his money and replies quite curtly, “What do you need?  Have you brought money?”

But the boy knows what he needs. His goal is to get some food for the family and the guest.  So his reply is: “Money? We are talking about a man in China. How would you feel in China in such a situation?”

“But you’re not in China and neither is your dad. I will not give you anything on credit anymore.”

A question comes to one’s mind: how do these people survive?

At that moment a young and very beautiful girl, Mr. Kozak’s daughter (Elena Solovey) appears, cordially greeting the boy.  The proprietor’s attitude changes to the opposite, especially after the boy asks the owner how his “beautiful daughter” is doing after she disappears into an office behind some curtains. The father’s heart melts and he starts to pack food for the boy―a pound of cheese, two loaves of white bread, and a bottle of wine.

“What’s your father’s occupation?” asks a visitor to the pub who was sitting at the table and listening to the discussion.

“My father writes poetry.  That’s all he does. He is one of the greatest unknown poets of the world.”

The latest words make Mr.Kozak even more generous.  He opens the cupboard behind his back and adds two additional cans of food for “the greatest unknown poets of the world”.

It’s impossible to be great and be paid for it,” is the answer the boy gives when the owner asks when the father is going to pay for the foodstuff. 

The boy returns home and the feast starts.  They are getting full and a little bit drunk, or better to say, more relaxed feeling free to say what they think. And each person says what he or she has dreamt to say aloud for a long time. They are in the company of equals―a hypothetical former opera diva, an actor-musician, and a poet.  But the paradox is that they are talking to themselves. The lady tells about her success in Morocco, Egypt, China, etc. while she was a young opera singer. She recollects her contracts and lovers, but his husband and the son tease her. At that moment her son (grandson?) climbs up on the chair tells MacGregor several times that she lies; he is tremendously happy to be, as he thinks, the focal point of the adults’ attention.  The poet says: “Oh, she is a great woman!” And we understand that she was his Muse.  But from his tone we feel that “only a great woman could be next to the great poet.”

The lady decides to go to her bedroom and to put on her old gown.  But she is too fat now to fit into it.  She even asks the boy to pull her corset tighter.  But alas!  She grew irreversibly fat.  She is upset and cries, lying down on her bed. But all of a sudden she gets up from her bed and starts dancing a can-can dance with the boy (being already appropriately dressed in the underwear of that epoch). Then she comes out to the dining room in her regular dress, keeping her wonderful old white gown in her hands as if evidence of her youth and beauty, and she starts dancing with the gown.

MacGregor, who has just stolen a piece of bread with meat and cheese to eat when he leaves the house, takes his trumpet and starts playing “a song of happiness”. The song is heard on the street, and the people walk out from their houses. Mr. Kozak and his daughter leave the pub to listen to the  melody that is performed by MacGregor, a melody “that makes hearts to tremble with sorrow and happiness,” as he says. He plays the same tune that has been heard during the entire film.

The camera pans around the room showing different objects: paintings of famous artists, some simpler paintings, sculptures, crystal wineglasses, books, shovels hanging from the ceiling, porcelain jars (some of them broken), a pair of lady’s stockings being dried on the balcony, a live white chicken on the balcony rails, etc., etc. (Actually, ladies stockings hanging and the balcony rails appear in practically all of Khamdamov’s films as a symbol of frailty, the feebleness of feminine beauty, and life in general—because beyond the rails lies the abyss.) The room is jam-packed with paintings and pictures hanging or simply leaning on the walls, antique furniture pieces, books, vases. In that artistic mess we perceive that the director is fascinated by the beauty of the world in all its forms, especially in the ‘fin de siecles’ aesthetic.

The decorations of the room are excessively aesthetic. There isn’t any empty wall or space. Such is the artistic language of the director, starting from his very first picture. We will observe the same in his other movies, such as Unintentional pleasures (1972).

All of a sudden we are taken to a garden where we see a lady sitting and rocking in a rocking chair. Water falls from an unknown source. The lady wears a beautiful hat, similar to the hats two little girls wore at the beginning of the movie, and similar to the one the old singer keeps in her bedroom. The rain stops, but the lady has disappeared from the garden. And we see the everlasting nature, the thick green garden (forest?) without any human presence, which again reminds us of the fragility of the human life irrespective of how beautiful it may be, and the undying nature of the world.

We now see Rosa, the prostitute, who is learning to ride the bicycle aided by a gang of little boys on the vacant land. Her first attempts look very comical.  Music is being played on a piano by the performer from the opening in a duet with a little girl in the typical Kamdamov-style hat, one of the girls from the rich house.  The piano goes down the city street while Rosa rides her bicycle accompanied by the boys… and the film ends.

My Heart's in the Highlands

Mr. Kozak and his beautiful daughter at the door of the pub listening to the music performed by MacGregor.

APPENDIX 2: SELECTED ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF INTERVIEWS REGARDING THE PRODUCTION OF ANNA KARAMAZOFF (ORIGNIALLY PUBLISHED IN “Сеанс” №9: SEE  http://seance.ru/n/9/rustam-hamdamov/rustam-hamdamov FOR COMPLETE RUSSIAN TEXT)

Sergey Solovyev (film director, and art director of the Krug studio): I found Rustam in 1986, when Krug was established…. I said to him: “Make what you want.”  Soon he proposed the scenario of the opera movie “The Snow Maiden.” I told him: “OK, write a screenplay.” His response was: “What screenplay? Everything is clear.”  Three months later he declared that it was not “The Snow Maiden” he wanted to make but an entirely different scenario, and “it cannot be put short.” I asked him how much money would it cost, but Khamdamov did not know. We allocated about three million rubles. Then money was not any problem for the studio.

Lilia Ogienko, actress: It was so unexpected, like in some fairy tale…. Solovyev invites him to the Krug Association. He writes a screenplay, friends translate it into French.Somehow the screenplay gets into Jeanne Moreau’s hands. It’s not Khamdamov who selected her, but she who selected him. She reads the screenplay, sees his drawings, arrives in Russia, and they begin work.

…For Rustam everything is hard after sixteen years of complete neglect…everything is extremely hard and sometimes even unbearable―the need to have real, actual relations with the people… his inability to tolerate, his incapacity to bridge the gap between the desired and the real, the concept and its physical realization; and an absolute lack of understanding the money problems… And yes, a great actress, but a foreigner in the lead role, and there is no harmony between her and the mise en scene… he undoubtedly understands all this, he is man of a rare intelligence, but he is nervous. And all this continues ad infinitum, it lasts for long, too long…

Despite all the difficulties, he continues to work under conditions Western directors cannot imagine. However, no one can stop the collapse.  The situation continues to aggravate. Every day the production costs increase, and Mosfilm cannot afford it anymore. All of a sudden some western firms appear that are ready to help finance the completion of the project. They become the saviors of “Anna Karamazoff.”

Lyubov Arkus, journalist: On March 18, 1991 the Krug Association of Mosfilm studios signed an agreement of partnership in the Anna Karamazoff production. The agreement was signed by the representatives of Mosfilm and the Director of Parimedia, Mr. Mark Ruscar.,, The Agreement began March 28, 1991, after the initial sum was agreed.  According to this Agreement, Mosmedia, a French-Soviet joint venture, represented the interests of the Soviet Union and took upon itself rights and responsibilities of Mosfilm, which had been outline in a previous contract with the firm Victoria-Film-Production. In my view, from this point on the situation becomes confusing and ambiguous…

Sergey Solovyev: After the initial budget was exceeded, the financial situation of the production was extremely complicated and the production approached catastrophe. At that moment appeared a gentleman with a cigar from the Mir Theatre (Mark Ruscar) and the famous French producer Serge Silberman.

Mark Ruscar: Silberman arrived at Jeanne Moreau’s request.  He was her friend. He watched the unfinished film, and liked it. It ran about two hours and thirty minutes. Silberman talked to the director and the crew, and they agreed to cut it shorter.  Silberman had already decided to show the picture in Cannes. He flew off to Paris, returned in a week and watched it for the second time.  Silberman did not understand and was irritated: the director made some cuts, but at the same time added more material which was not in the previous version.

Inna Brozhovskaya (editor):  He [Khamdamov] called me and said that it is necessary to finish the picture in 12 days… We worked until two-three A.M. without days-off. We had an electric teapot… Once I saw Rustam sitting in front of the teapot, which had fogged up his glasses.  He said: “Inna, I think I’m blind from the fatigue.”

Sergey Solovyev: The French predicted success at the Festival and called for us to complete the picture as soon as possible, as soon as possible. I hoped these people would make Rustam finish it. I understood that there is no limit to his shamanic tricks with the film, but he did not know how to stop himself. I hoped that the people, as tough strangers, would be able to persuade him.

Lyubov Arkus:  Earlier negotiations had been held in Moscow on April 28, 1991 between Mr. Dostal’, the managing director of Russia’s Mosfilm, with Silberman and Ruscar representing the French. They merely discussed technical issues about the handing over of the original negative by the Mosfilm laboratory to the French part without the preliminary production of the intermediate positive and second negative. The management of Mosfilm yielded to Silberman’s request and agreed to hand over the negative. This violated a contract term regarding the unconditional retention of the original by Mosfilm, the production studio.

Mark Ruscar: Silberman turned directly to Dostal’, the Mosfilm administrator, and told him that it was necessary to take special measures for the picture be completed in time.
- Did Khamdamov share the desire of the producers to exhibit the film at the Cannes Festival?  – asks the interviewer

It was impossible to understand what Khamdamov wanted. He gave impression that he was indifferent to the future of the picture, provided they did not interfere with him and he could proceed editing the film…. Mr. Silberman makes the following proposal to Dostal’. He invests additional 1 million francs and takes all the materials to Paris.  They take Khamdamov, his assistant and the editor as well.  A standard print is printed in Paris.

Sergey Solovyev:  Silberman insisted the copy be printed in Paris, arguing Moscow would make it carelessly. He requested the negative, promising to return it to the studio as soon as the copies are made… Dostal’, who never trusted anyone under any circumstances, bit and signed the release, accepting Silberman’s word of honor.  It was late April, and the Festival was to begin May 9.

Lyubov Arkus: On April 29, 1991 in the Sheremet’yevo Airport, Mosfilm offered Silberman the previously approved contract to sign. There is a theory that Silberman had changed the text, already signed by Mr. Dostal’, changing the terms of the contract and affecting the future income of Mosfilm… According to the same account, Moscow customs had a copy of Silberman’s written obligation to return the exported items back to Russia within three months.

Rustam Khamdamov: While in Moscow, Mr. Silberman asked me to cut an entire dream sequence from my film Anna Karamazoff, a piece that had been included in my 1974 material and saved by my cameraman, Ilya Minkavetsky.  Mr. Silberman was aware of the fact that I believed the omission of this most important scene would make the film less understandable. I respect him, but it seemed to me that such anti-artistic proposal on his part could not be intentional. Most likely, he took this decision impulsively. Leaving for Paris, I was convinced that we would be able to find common language. Moreover, when we were in Moscow, it was just a proposal, but not an order. In Paris the situation became tougher. Mr. Silberman demanded I cutting out dream sequence, no matter what. I refused to comply with his requirements. He forbade me to approach Éclair factory and standardized the copy himself.

Mark Ruscar: In Paris, Silberman and Khamdamov could never come to an understanding regarding the editing. As a compromise, they decided to make two versions of the film: one long and another short.  Silberman was sure that the short version would be shown at the Festival… Then, a standoff happened, like in a Western. On the eve of the screening we learned that Khamdamov had talked to Jil Jacob, the director of the Festival, and declared his intention to remove the picture from competition if the short version was shown. Negotiations began an hour before the film was to be screened. Silberman didn’t have any way out and agreed…

There are usually three screenings for a picture in competition: the first on the eve of the main day, then a second in the morning – for the press, and in the evening – the main showing. There is a ridiculous anecdote from the first screening. At the last moment Silberman had ordered that at the beginning of film there should be a caption explaining to the viewers that Jeanne Moreau’s character is a woman who had just returned from a Gulag camp to her native city. We considered that without this caption it would be impossible for the audience to guess what was the movie about. When Russians learned about this caption Khamdamov’s assistant went to the projection booth and shut the projector with his finger so that the caption could not be read. It was an unprecedented event in the history of the Cannes Festival. The next day the picture suffered a disastrous fiasco.

Rustam Khamdamov: During the screening a whistle was heard in the hall, and after 10 minutes spectators started leaving. Those who stayed to the end applauded fervently. But even the applause was a symptom of the total crash, for it was the applause of solidarity of those who go against the established view… The public opinion … had been already formed. However, I hardly remember this screening because of Jeanne Moreau’s behavior.  As soon as the black and white film started, she, who had been my devoted friend immediately turned into my merciless enemy. She yelled and demanded to stop the showing. I was scared something bad might happen to her.

Inna Brozhovskaya: Ms. Moreau shouted: “Merde, merde, merde!” and stomped her feet. I understand why she was so infuriated.  It was to be her film, but all of a sudden the black-and-white footage from Unintentional Pleasures turned out to be the centerpiece. Really this piece and its expansion were always more important for Rustam.  Jean Moreau had not seen the director’s final cut…

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

ENDNOTES

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grigori_Chukhrai, best known in the West for such his movies as Sorok pervyy (1956) [The Forty-first] and Ballada o soldate (1959) [Ballad of a Soldier]. []
  2. Tini zabutykh predkiv (1964) [Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors], Sayat Nova (1968) [Color of Pomegranates], Arabeskebi Pirosmanis temaze (1985) [Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme, Ashug-Karibi (1988), etc. []
  3. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0464846. Konchalovsky (as Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky) later wrote the script for Khamdamov’s never-completed Nechayannye radosti (1972).  He wrote the same scenario again for Nikita Mikhalkov’s Raba lyubvi (1976) [A Slave of Love], a kind of remake of the earlier unfinished film. []
  4. A complete shot-by-shot plot synopsis of this movie appears as Appendix A to this article. []
  5. Konchalovsky invited Khamdamov to be a designer for A Nest of Gentry. []
  6. Andron Konchalovsky, “The Enlivening Deception” (1999). []
  7. Magazine “Сеанс” №9, http://seance.ru/n/9/rustam-hamdamov/rustam-hamdamov []

7 thoughts on “RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT…”

  1. Let me express my gratitude to the site management for letting me the opportunity to post this article on the site. My separate respect and gratefulness to Greg Smalley for his kind agreement to help me in editing the text and finding additional materials.

  2. An informative and comprehensive introduction to the art of an apparently highly talented film director, whose name was unknown to me and, as I presume, to most people outside a narrow group of cinema experts.

    I understand it took much effort to present his personality and work so vividly.
    Many thanks to Irina Goncharova.

    Samuel
    Israel

  3. A real discovery of unknown land. I’ve heard just noticing of the person , but didn’t imagine his unique artistry – personal and creative. A touching and …thrilling essay… Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>