Ashik Kerib

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

29 April

Tariq ibn-Ziyad invades Iberian peninsula, 711AD

On this day in 711AD, the Muslim general Tariq ibn-Ziyad launched an attack on Spain – which was then operating under its Roman name of Hispania. He had set off from Morocco, pausing to assemble his troops on a large hill which was later named after him – Jabal Tariq (ie the mountain of Tariq) from where the name Gibraltar derives. Tariq was in cahoots with Julian, who governed the North African enclave of Ceuta, and whose daughter had been raped, so the story goes, by the Visigoth king of Hispania, Roderic. And so, inspired by revenge, Julian had entered a treaty with Tariq to convey him across the Mediterranean, land him at present-day Gibraltar, then called Mons Calpe (ie one of the pillars of Hercules). Tariq’s army consisted of 7,000 men, with 5,000 reinforcements supplied by Musa bin Nusayr, governor of North Africa. Roderic countered with a force reputed to be around 100,000. But he was defeated at the Battle of Guadalete, leaving Tariq to advance on to Cordoba, Grenada, Toledo and Guadalajara. Over the following decade most of what is now Spain came under Muslim control.

Ashik Kerib (1988, dir: Sergei Parajanov, Dodo Abashidze)

Ashik Kerib is one of the great weird wonders of film, made by one of its true uniques – Sergei Parajanov (the role of co-director Dodo Abashidze is disputed, but it’s unlikely he did very much). The Armenian Parajanov spent much of the 1970s in Soviet prisons, on charges of homosexuality and trading in religious icons. The nature of these charges is entirely pertinent. Ashik Kerib is soaked in religious iconography, but also has a homo-erotic element that probably aligns it with the films of Pasolini, its overt medievalism too.

The plot? Ay ay ay. The tale of a travelling minstrel. No, hang on, it’s the tale told by the travelling minstrel. Possibly. Either way it doesn’t proceed by “showing not telling” as Hollywood does. Instead it’s a case of layers of suggestion, powerful symbolism, colour, as we follow Ashik Kerib on his journey from his hometown to make a fortune so he can get married. Almost immediately the minstrel is robbed, forcing him to wander like a tramp for 1001 days. Parajanov then holds up for our admiration and wonder a series of tableaux that are at first bewildering, eventually quite beguiling.

Somewhere around 45 minutes in I gave up trying to “decode” it and just decided to yield to its splendour. I think that’s the point. It was the scene where the minstrel is in ropes being pulled along behind a horse. The camera has just panned across to a man playing a string instrument and a gaggle of other men, who look demented. It then pans back to the minstrel. And now behind him we see a line of men, all of whom appear to be doing some form of tai chi. Except they’re no good at it at all. In fact they all look like refugees from some local drinking establishment who have been asked five minutes before if they want to be in a film and then dressed in exotic turbans, baggy pants etc.

Parajanov is aiming for an amateur medieval form of the surreal, and is essentially holding up a finger to the conventions of realism. And what a finger. Nothing synchs, instruments continue playing when people stop playing them; every set of extras looks shocked to be on film, as if they’ve been frozen by the director’s shout of “action”. Parajanov is twitting socialist realism, of course, which is why the authorities thought he was dangerous. But he’s just as obviously having a go at Hollywood realism and the tyranny of special effects. It’s Pasolini with extra helpings of exotica, film-making that appears to come from another world.

Why Watch?

  • A great film from a true one-off
  • Possibly Parajanov’s most accessible movie
  • It’s dedicated to Tarkovsky
  • It’s a film about film-making

Ashik Kerib – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2014

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