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Opinion You might not know the name Artavazd Pelechian, but this cult film director matters

Director Tadhg O’Sullivan writes about why the cult director is a must-see at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival.

THE BEST THING you could do right now is to stop reading this article immediately.

Don’t read another line – just decide to go and see ‘The Seasons’ and ‘Nature’ by Armenian master Artavazd Pelechian at the Dublin International Film Festival in March.

I promise you won’t regret it.

If you insist on reading on, let me tell you why I think these films are best seen knowing nothing about them or their maker.

I first saw Pelechian’s work at a film festival many years ago. I knew very little about him or his work, other than that he was considered a great filmmaker whose entire output since he began making films in the Soviet Union in the 60s amounted to a dozen or so short films.

Intrigued, and keen to fill in a gap in my knowledge, I wandered in blind to a screening of The Seasons. Nothing could have prepared me for the half-hour that followed.

From the opening scene, of a farmer and his sheep tumbling down the rapids of a whitewater river, struggling to stay upright and to hold onto what feels like life itself, I was captivated.

As the film unfolded, I was drawn deeper into a wordless portrait of rural Armenian life that seemed to have the whole world present in it: humanity’s never-ending dance with the natural world as it seeks to eke out a living in the face of forces infinitely more powerful than itself.

Over the course of a year we see these farmers work with and against a natural world that in its epic scale they know to be far greater than them. They run and slide down mountains, desperately trying to keep the hay-stacks they are bringing from the harvest from getting away from them. They herd livestock on horseback in rain of Biblical proportions. They form a human chain, passing sheep from one to the next across a furiously flowing river that threatens to sweep them away at any moment.

On the surface, The Seasons seemed remarkably specific to rural Armenian life at the time of its making. But somehow it managed to draw from these strange and stunning images a universality of human experience. Working without words, without identifiable characters, Pelechian was capable of transforming the intensely specific, the deeply local, into something vast and true.

This was a type of film-making entirely new to me, despite being from a time before I was born. A type of film-making that had as much in common with poetry as it had with conventional cinema.

Structure and rhythm 

When people evoke poetry in relation to cinema they usually mean films full of symbolism, films in which the meaning is not obvious, or left open to the viewer, films that explore big ideas and great themes. Pelechian’s work is all of these things, but watching The Seasons for the first time it seemed there was something more: a kind of rhyming scheme, a structure and rhythm that poetry usually keeps for itself in its written form.

In The Seasons shots seem to echo across the duration of the film: mountains and skies; powerful rivers; men struggling with the forces of gravity and water; a constant flow, of life and water and everything.

In the years that have passed since I first watched his films, I have learned that this is an entirely intentional aspect of Pelechian’s work – a true innovator, Pelechian’s films were a canvas on which he explored radical and brilliant techniques to do with structure and editing.

‘Distance montage’ is the name he gave to his method, a method that didn’t simply place two images beside each other to create meaning but placed them so that they echoed and orbited each other across the duration of the film.

While there are a great many things that are interesting to film theorists but which remain invisible and irrelevant to the average viewer, Pelechian’s techniques are what make his work so strangely, so uniquely brilliant. Each film seems to exist not as a sequence of images but as a unified whole, woven together by the kinds of invisible threads that hold the world itself together. Each plays out with a cyclical rhythm – like that of a tango or a sonnet – while the images circle and rhyme within, creating these strange immersive worlds that seem to contain the world itself.

Indeed, Pelechian has never shied from the biggest themes. The titles of his films reflect the scale of his ambition: The Seasons, Our Century, Life, End. And finally, Nature.

His longest film to date, Nature is a 63-minute work supported by the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. The piece was originally commissioned in 2005, when Pelechian was already in his late 60s; by the time he turned 80 in 2018 there were doubts in some quarters that a new Pelechian film would ever be seen.

An epic film

Seeing the film now, the 15-year wait seems entirely understandable, such are the scale and power, the ambition and craft of this epic film.

Opening with stunning imagery of mountains that serve to establish the scale and grandeur of his subject, Pelechian proceeds over the course of an hour to weave a captivating and frankly terrifying portrait of nature’s destructive power in our century.

He draws on material from all over the world, much of it from YouTube. Such images – of cars and buildings being swept away, of roads buckling, of farms razed by tornadoes – should feel familiar, but in Pelechian’s hands, woven together with his remarkable craft, shifted to black and white and underscored by an epic classical soundtrack, they are elevated to something entirely new and remarkable.

It is impossible to look away.

It is impossible to ignore the shift in scale and power across the two films, a shift in nature itself from 1975 to 2020. It is a shift past the point where people can work with (and within) the forces of the natural world.

A shift within one film-maker’s career in which his central concern has become the central concern of the world itself. As Pelechian told the film scholar Scott  MacDonald thirty years ago, with a wisdom that many are just now catching up with – ‘It is not man who imposes himself on nature but rather nature that imposes itself upon man’.

His wisdom though is best accessed through the immersive, unique world of his films: “If it were possible to say it with words, the films would be useless. One should not talk about films, one should watch them.”

I told you not to read this. Now just go see the films.

Tadhg O’Sullivan is an artist and filmmaker, who is the director of The Great Wall and To The Moon. He will host a Q&A with Pelechian on Saturday 4 March at the Dublin International Film Festival (DIFF) and tickets can be booked via its website.

God’s Creatures, starring Paul Mescal and Emily Watson, has just been announced as the opening night gala film at DIFF. The festival will run from 23 February to 4 March

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