Varsham Yeremyan (Notes of a Cameraman)
It has been more that forty years since on a sunny springtime day our small film crew arrived to the gate of an ancient Hojiakhrar mosque located not far from Samarqand. The film we were making was titled "One of the Pioneers" and told about a remarkable artist Varsham Nikitovich Yeremyan. The reason we came to Hojiakhrar was that the key episodes of "Alisher Navoi" film produced by Kamil Yarmatov, with the involvement of Varsham Nikitovich as art director, were created here. Good artistic fortune brought Kamil Yarmatov and Varsham Yeremyan together. Together, they made many films, but "Alisher Navoi" was the first historical work produced by "UzbekFilm" studio. To recreate the age of Uzbek Renaissance, to dress the characters, and to build palace interiors was not an easy problem, but Varsham Yeremyan and Kamil Yarmatov solved it brilliantly. "Alisher Navoi" earned State Award and was included into the Golden Asset collection of soviet cinematography. Shooting on location had a special significance in the film.
Originally, the poetic contest episode was supposed to be filmed in a pavilion, but Varsham Nikitovich convinced Yarmatov to create the scene en plein air. Together, they arrived to Hojiakhrar - a unique site that had been converted into a warehouse for recyclables. Yarmatov's authority worked and a decision was wade to remove the warehouse. In one day the film crew cleaned the entire courtyard, washed the tiled walls, and Hojiakhrar was transformed.
Based on Yeremyan's sketches, minor decorative additions were constructed, and the courtyard of the ancient mosque turned into the "Poets' Garden" where once verbal duels, spiritual debates and wit contests were held. A century-old plane-tree spreading its branches over the entire courtyard, a spring that found its way up through its powerful roots, walls covered with tiles featuring Arabic characters of the surah, festively dressed crowd, and actor Razak Khamraev as Alisher Navoi, standing tall above the crowd on a high podium - all this came together in the viewfinder of Mikhail Krasnyanskiy, the cameraman, and on the screen the sight was striking not only in the beauty of the chosen site, but also in the ultimate expressivity of the whole episode. Critics gave a special mentioning of the "Poets' Garden" scene that exposed the talents of its director, actor, artist and cameraman…
We arrived to Hojiakhrar to look once more at this remarkable architectural, cultural and historical monument twenty five years after the filming of "Alisher Navoi", the monument that was "discovered" for cinematography by Varsham Yeremyan. We wanted to see this wonderful place again, as if we looked through the eyes of Varsham Nikitovich. And there was another reason for visiting Samarqand. The fact is that Yeremyan came here after his studies in Moscow where he attended the class of the great Falk. Why did Varsham Nikitovich decide to come to Samarqand? Perhaps because his friend and fellow-student Vasiliy Chuikov, currently a well-known painter, advised him to visit Central Asia as he himself was native of this place? Or maybe the young artist wanted to plunge into the mysterious and romantic Oriental world? "Shagane, oh my Shagane…" These enigmatic and beautiful lines of poet Yesenin were often recited in those days, and Samarqand was the best place in post-revolutionary Russia where one could get in touch with the Orient.
Yeremyan settled in Samarqand, a remarkable city on the Great Silk Road, the city as old as Rome, the capital of Timur's state, with its world-famous Registan square, and Gur-Emir and Shah-i-Zinda mausoleums. Varsham Nikitovich fell in love with the city, its monuments, shady streets, aryks with gurgling water, busy market-places, tea-houses with their regular visitors, and mosques big and small. He enjoyed the sight of people festively clad in bekasam gowns and turbans filling their courtyards, stirring one's imagination with the rainbow of colours. Samarqand is a paradise city for an artist, a place where one can put an easel basically anywhere and paint a wondrous world of unusual texture and rich colours, the mysterious world of the East. This world became very dear to Varsham Yeremyan. He acquired a perfectly fluent Uzbek language, learned local customs and soon even began to look like his new friends.
Varsham Nikitovich has a study painted with oil - a man with a staff is walking along the edge of a sand dune. Although there is no portrait likeness between the man and the author, the study can be considered a kind of self-portrait, since the artist walked all over Samarqand area with his sketch album and visited almost all villages and historical sites, which are so numerous here. Courtesy of the Yeremyan family, this album was given to us when we were filming in Samarqand. Those who had a chance to see it, forever remembered sketches drawn from life with a fine quill, portraits, costume details, daily life scenes… Line drawings, yet how expressive they are! Each line is in the right place and every single one is essential for the composition. Every page has a short note. Minute characters inscribed with the same quill, to match the drawings. In the album there are pages dedicated to Hojiakhrar: the mosque courtyard, the plane-tree, the spring and the piles of recyclables in sacks full of holes. And a note, which I don't remember exactly, but in the essence it said that careless officials placed utility refuse storage in the architectural masterpiece. It is hard to understand what the reason was behind the decision. Global revolution did not mean that beauty should be destroyed. Only a man as honest and courageous as Varsham Yeremyan could write about it in those days. Many years have passed since that note was made in his sketch album.
Hojiakhrar greeted us with amazing cleanliness. Rejuvenated plane-tree was as majestic as before - it shone in the sunlight, swaying slightly in the capfuls of springtime wind. Restored walls of the mosque looked vivid and ceremonious - time gives up before beauty. Special energy that the place radiated made one forget about troubles, absurd problems and grievances. One just wanted to enjoy the tranquillity and think about eternity, purity and love. One could understand why Yeremyan suggested this place for the Poets' Garden episode. Indeed, it was the right choice, and we got down to work. The idea was to combine everything together in one frame - the sketch album with Yeremyan's drawing, the plane-tree and the mosque courtyard. It was a complex panorama that involved the use of zoom lens, focus transfer and other intricacies of the camera art. Given our strictly limited length of the negative film we rehearsed many times before shooting.
As it usually happens when shooting a film, a group of onlookers gathered around. A fine-looking old man wearing a bekasam gown drew our attention. His head was adorned with a colourful turban - like those that are worn in Samarqand. He kept looking into Yeremyan's sketch album. He repeatedly took his spectacles on and off, looking closely at the picture of Hojiakhrar. One could feel that he wanted to ask something. Finally, he approached Yuriy Bazarov, film director, and, mixing Russian and Uzbek words together, said: "I don't want to bother you, but it seems to me that I already saw this album once. I can't remember, was in the twenty fifth or in another year. Here came a lad, very handsome and tall. I remember his very rich hair. He didn't look local but spoke Uzbek very well. He was sitting over here with this album, writing something with a fine quill and drew. People were afraid, for Koran did not allow that man remained on paper, but he reassured us, saying that these drawings of his are very much needed for other people, so that they knew about us. Some brave guys agreed and sat before him, and he was looking at them, and similar faces appeared on paper. But I forgot the lad's name. He had a non-Uzbek name, a difficult one. Could be Varcham or Bardam, can't remember".
The old man untied his belbok sash and wiped his sweating face. He poured some tea in a piala cup and took a sip… "I remember it all, but can't recall his name. I was enrolled in the army during the war. They did not send me to the front line, and I served in the Far East. When I returned, people told me that the lad came again, and not alone - with Alisher Navoi himself. I just forgot the lad's name - Varzam or Vardan? Such a difficult name he had". Bazarov gave the old man a hug: "The lad is no longer with us, and his name was Varsham. Varsham Yeremyan. He was a great painter. Pray for him, father". The old man put his hands together and drew them over his face. Wiping a tear, he headed towards the exit, leaning heavily on his cane.
When making a film about Varsham Yeremyan we tired to find out why the gifted painter traded his palette, his canvas and his solo art against team work in large film crews. We asked this question to Vasiliy Chuykov, Yeremyan's friend and fellow student in Falk's class, to Victor Shklovskiy, the oldest cinematographer and one of the script-writers for the "Alisher Navoi" film, and to the director Kamil Yarmatov. Their responses differed, yet the meaning was one: it was the artistic need of Varsham Nikitovich. He also wrote about it in his album when he made a sketch of strolling actors' performance in a village near Samarqand: "Look closely at the people's faces - their attention and keen interest with which they are watching the rope-walkers, clowns and musicians. How can one communicate beauty to them? I think this can be done only through the most popular of all arts, which is cinema, as everybody knows".
In 1934 Varsham Nikitovich participated in making a film titled "The Emigrant". Work in cinematography took priority in his life. He was fortunate to meet with talented film-makers. Together with Yakov Protazanov Yeremyan worked on "Khoja Nasreddin in Bukhara" movie featuring Lev Sverdlin as lead male character. Created by an international team, the film is profoundly Uzbek and also entered the Golden Asset collection of soviet cinematography. Although it was made more than 70 years ago, today it is still interesting to watch - works of great talent have no age.
Varsham Nikitovich worked with many film directors, including Nabi Ganiev and Dick Sabitov, but his best films were created together with Kamil Yarmatov. I had a chance to work with Yarmatov for many years, and every time Kamil Yarmatovich walked into a newly built pavilion, he used to say one and the same phrase: "Where are you, Varsham Nikitovich?"… Art directors never got upset as many of them were students of Varsham Yeremyan, his friends and followers.
Yeremyan discovered a whole galaxy of talented cinema artists. They are Emmanuil Kalantarov, Valentin Senichenko, Yevgeniy Pushin and many others. "One of the Pioneers" produced by "UzbekFilm" studio was created with the involvement of people who remembered and loved Varsham Nikitovich Yeremyan. Operators from the trick photography unit Alexander Morozov and Mikhail Ponomaryov stayed after working hours to make colour shots of paintings and drawings made by Varsham Yeremyan for the films. They did it for the heart sake, without any remuneration. Those who knew Varsham Nikitovich will always have respect for and treasure the memory of him. He created a school of his own and developed his signature manner of an artist working in cinematography, underlying that a good work of an art director is the one that naturally fits into the dramaturgy and enables actors to feel uninhibited and at ease in the built set.
"One has to film the actors, not the set", Varsham Nikitovich used to say. People working in the set and structures unit knew that Varsham Nikitovich would not tolerate slipshod work and would insist on fixing any flaw. Legends were told about how Yeremyan commissioned a set. A day before the action he stayed in the pavilion overnight and drew frames of the episode to be shot here. For a film director it was a pictured script, and for a cameraman - sketches showing the type of lighting and even camera movement if Yeremyan suggested shooting from the trolley. Film directors usually accepted Yeremyan's notes and sketches, making their own adjustments. It was the union of creative co-thinkers. Varsham Nikitovich was always present during shooting, standing next to the director. Not a single fault or inaccuracy in lighting, props, camera movement or makeup escaped his keen sight. He was a true art director, producer's trusted ally. Working with him always brought artistic pleasure and joy.
Kamil Yarmatov once told a story of how Varsham Nikitovich suggested painting in black the entire set of the "palace hall" where they were going to shoot the scene of Alisher Navoi meeting his former friend, the ruler Hussein, who was bogged down in drinking orgies and ordered the execution of his grandson in a fit of delirium. In this black hall Alisher Navoi dressed in white looked like a prophet who descended from heaven, and his words about carrying a torch before the blind acquired a new, profoundly philosophic meaning.
Films in which Yeremyan participated were always truthful in terms of daily life details and fixtures. When the reconstruction of the Old City began, entire neighbourhoods of shabby housing were destroyed in Tashkent, and Varsham Nikitovich spent many hours on the ruins, gathering abandoned old crockery, kitchenware, door handles, chains, locks, old doors and windows, beams blackened by time, etc. The set and structures department had Yeremyan's corner where he stored his finds, which were brought to good use when making sets for new films, thus acquiring another life.
The People's Artist of Uzbekistan, the studio's chief designer, Varsham Yeremyan never shunned dirty work. He helped stage people to mix the clay, plaster the walls and paint the floors. He taught young people to do hard work in cinematography, where one also had to be a civil engineer. Sometimes one had to create the sense of destruction and devastation, sometimes - of royal luxury and calm…
The artist taught the young guys to become cinema-men, saying that it was not a profession but vocation. Varsham Nikitovich could forgive anything but shoddy work in any job, big or small. Yeremyan's amazing, infinite kindness was matched by his highly demanding attitude to work. These traits of his character can be discerned in his paintings too - kind and uncompromising.
Varsham Nikitovich had many friends. One of them deserves a special mentioning. We speak of Isan Karimov, without whom the "UzbekFilm" studio of 1950s-1960s cannot be imagined. His shining eyes and charming smile were the studio's "decoration". He did not work as cameraman, or make-up artist, or property-man, or costumier. Neither was he a producer or director, but he was a cinema-man in the real sense of the word. Nobody knew when Isan Karimov appeared in the studio - he seemed to always be here. He did not have any formal training in cinematography, but he had a sense of cinema, a "nose" for it. Isan Karimov earned only two critical assessments of his acting, camera and directing work. The first one was "Brilliant!", and the other cannot be expressed on decent paper… Usually Isan Karimov worked as second film director. The second director is responsible for logistics and the organization of filming. It is a hard work, often unrewarding. Sometimes it is not easy to reconcile personality differences of actors, directors and cameramen, which is essential for the shooting process. Isan Karimov managed to cope with the challenge, and producers were eager to make him part of the team.
Varsham Nikitovich respected Isan Karimov for his professionalism, his extraordinary looks, and his accurate assessments, but most of all - for his infinite dedication. Isan Karimov, in turn, worshipped Yeremyan, admired his talent and treasured their friendship. In many film crews they worked together. Isan Karimov had another vocation: he could cook pilaw. Isan's pilaw, made in a tea-house! The taste of this culinary piece is indescribable - one has to experience it. Those who live in Uzbekistan know that pilaw cooked in a tea-house is different from the one prepared at home. Yet no one can tell what the difference is, but… they are different! Because it is a tea-house! Tea-house in Uzbekistan is not just a place where one can have tea, but the national club with its own charter that evolved over centuries. The laws of a tea-house are unwritten, but observed without failure. There are regulars in a tea-house, there is a place for honoured old men…
A tea-house located on the bank of the Komsomol Lake not far from the studio was lovingly called "MostFilm" because the road leading to it went over a bridge across Ankhor Canal. In "MostFilm" people gathered to mark all events - public and private, to discuss completed films and scripts for those yet to be made, and these discussions were more sincere than at the official artistic council meetings; judgments were often unflattering but honest, because the very atmosphere called for truth. Varsham Nikitovich adored the tea-house and was a regular visitor there. If he could not be found in the studio, he was found in the tea-house. As a regular, he had his own place, and a man running the tea-house never let anyone else take it. For Varsham Nikitovich they always brew a special kind of green tea known as "No. 95". Yeremyan even had his private tea-pot. The usual sight: Varsham Nikitovich with a piala in his hand. Isan Karimov was also well known in the tea-house. When he was making pilaw, many onlookers gathered around, because it was a wonderful performance, a one man show of a great talent. The tea-house and Isan's pilaw were the happy occurrences in life. But it so happened that the regular's place - the one of Varsham Nikitovich - stood vacant. A merciless storm made a powerful oak-tree fall… The passing away of Varsham Yeremyan was a heavy blow for everyone who met him even once. It was not long before Isan Karimov also passed away.
For a long time nobody took the regular's place in the tea-house. The tea-house runner was seeing to it carefully. Then the man died. Yeremyan's place was taken by a new regular… This is how things will be, until the end of time.
New York, 2009
Miron Penson (USA)