Color, 65 minutes
Kazakh with Russian voiceover translation and English subtitles
Director: Rustam Khamdamov
Screenplay: Rustam Khamdamov, Renata Litvinova
Camera: Rifkat Ibragimov, Sergei Mokritskii
Art Director: Rustam Khamdamov
Cast: Renata Litvinova, Erik (Salim-Meriuert) Kurmangaliev, Araksiia Davtian, Roza Dzhamonova, Bibigul’Tulegenova
Producers: Galina Kuzembaeva
Production: Gala-TV and Kazakhfil’m, with the participation of Kinoprom.
For an appreciation of the transience of things, and the concern to rescue them for eternity, is one of the strongest impulses in allegory.
Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama
Vocal Parallels meticulously preserves the remnants of Soviet imperial legacy and, at the same time, playfully unmasks the transience and discrepancies inherited from it. The opening voice-over narration, stating that “every civilization is ephemeral” but “the abyss of the history is large enough to encompass everything,” alludes to this double-function of the film. Unlike this fairly straightforward verbal statement, the way how the film is made is far from obvious. It requires a great deal of attentiveness and effort on the part of the viewer to grasp the references and connections being made in the film with regard to the vanished Soviet empire.
In terms of genre, this film returns to the unique Soviet variety show tradition called film-concert. Film-concerts were meant to deliver high art, like opera or ballet, to the masses and were especially common during the height of Stalinist cine-anemia [malokartin’e]. Vocal Parallels roughly follows the structure of a typical film-concert, but it is stylized in such an astonishing manner that it becomes hard to distinguish between nostalgic homage and caustic irony toward this canonical Soviet form.
The eight arias from the classical repertoire that comprise the film are sung by retired opera divas from Union Republics: Erik Kurmangaliev, Araksiia Davtian, Roza Dzhamanova, and Bibigul’ Tuligenova. Each musical entry (performed in the following order: Glinka’s “Vania’s” aria, Puccini’s “Cio Cio San” and “Floria Tosca,” Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben,” Brahms’s “Sophist Song,” Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Rossini’s “Semiramide,” and Chaikovskii’s duet of “Liza and Pauline”) is announced by the Mistress of Ceremonies played by Renata Litvinova, an iconic figure whose performances often embody the retro style of Soviet times. In the film’s very beginning, she aptly notes that “opera and ballet are the arts of tsars, emperors, and big-shot communists,” thus overtly suggesting a reading of this film-concert through the lens of Soviet imperial ambition. Instead of performing on the classical operatic stage, though, the aged and forgotten divas sing in their shabby domestic environments, be it a nomadic yurt in the wide Kazakh steppe or the dilapidated buildings of Soviet-style architecture. Their costumes, flamboyant as they are, at a closer look reveal that they are made of newspaper and music scores, which can easily be caught in flames.
Every single episode and detail in this film is fraught with this kind of ambiguity. For example, the divine voices that create lofty imperial art emanate from the aging bodies of the disheveled divas. The theatrical lighting and the richness of details elevate each scene to the dramatic extravagance of baroque painting, but the hanging carcass of a sheep in the yurt and the shabby domestic objects in the midst of the ruins betray their inappropriateness for an opera setting. A similar ambiguous effect is created through the ballet sequence reminiscent of a Degas painting. The harmony of this delicate ballet composition, which represents another imperial art form, is playfully interrupted by two male figures sitting in traditional Central Asian robes. Through this frivolous and inventive recycling of fragments of the Soviet empire, the film rescues this dying civilization for eternity and, at the same time, exposes its incongruous and ephemeral nature.
The double entendre of the film is conveyed not only visually but also through the sound and its multilayered asynchronization. In terms of speech, we hear both the Kazakh and Russian languages. Litvinova’s fragile high-pitched voice narrating in Kazakh is subdued by a didactic male voiceover that provides a Russian translation of Litvinova’s speech. This embedded structure of linguistic hierarchy—a common way of translation of the films produced at the Union Republic studios—carefully replicates and pithily discloses a typically Soviet way of preserving hierarchical heterogeneity within a homogeneous culture. In terms of sound aesthetics, it is worth mentioning that sound asynchronization is a common device in Khamdamov’s films. This decoupling of aural and visual images often works in his films not merely as a defamiliarizing device but also as a way of preserving silent cinema aesthetics within a sound film. The film as a whole, both visually and aurally, attempts to preserve various disappearing cultural forms from different eras in a complex assemblage that resembles a finely woven carpet.
The insertion of vast natural landscapes in-between the décor-like ruins adds yet another layer of ambiguity to the possibility of preservation, by introducing the broader issue of the relation between nature, culture, and history. In addition to the inserts of natural landscapes, the sounds of birds, horses, and sheep are mixed throughout the film with the opera singing. This sound collage is reinforced by the occasional intercut between animal and human faces. Considered together with Litvinova’s—as always hyperbolized—closing statement that “lions, jaguars, cheetahs, tigers, and eagles soon will disappear and it is our fault,” this theme can be interpreted as a self-ironizing allusion to an apocalyptic extinction along with nature. In the vein of Treplev’s decadent play embedded in Chekhov’s Seagull, Khamdamov’s Vocal Parallels shows at once aesthetic decadence and an ironical view on it.
Rustam Khamdamov is a Moscow-based film director, artist, and fashion designer from Tashkent. He graduated from the State Institute for Cinematography (VGIK) in 1969. His first short film, made as a VGIK student, received great acclaim from critics and filmmakers in the Soviet Union as well as abroad. The following feature-length film, Accidental Joys, was banned and partly destroyed. Khamdamov returned to filmmaking after 20 years of silence, with a French co-production, Anna Karamozoff, which premiered at Cannes and was never released due to disagreements with the film’s producer. In 2003 he became the first artist whose paintings were included into the Hermitage Museum collection during their lifetime.
1967 Heart in the Highlands (short)
1972 Accidental Joys (destroyed)
1991 Anna Karamazoff
2005 Vocal Parallels
2010 Diamonds. Theft
2013 Ruby. Murder