Mikhail Vartanov was blacklisted for his debut film, The Color of Land (1969), which portrayed his dissident friends, the genius Paradjanov (imprisoned in 1974) and the modernist Minas (assassinated in 1975). When Vartanov’s artistic freedom was restored 20 years later, he responded with Minas: A Requiem (1989) and Parajanov: The Last Spring (1992) - his masterpiece, which was admired by some of cinema’s most important luminaries.
For bravely campaigning for the release of the imprisoned Parajanov, Vartanov was fired from the Soviet Armenia's sole film studio and deprived of his only source of income (since the film industry, like all others, was fully government funded and controlled). Parajanov reacted with a letter written to Vartanov from the prison, “You and your purity are colliding with circumstances and predators”.
Thanks to the tireless lobbying of his (V.G.I.K.) classmate Artavazd Peleshian and Gennadi Melkonian, Vartanov was able to work as their cinematographer and exquisitely lensed two films that became classics: Seasons (1975) and Mulberry (1979).
Not until Paradjanov was taken off the blacklist in 1984 (due to petitions by celebrities) was Vartanov also permitted to direct. Even though these were studio-imposed films, such as Roots (1984), he breathed into them his trademark soulfulness.
The publication of his revered Unmailed Letters essays in the top literary magazines spurred new writings, as well as their translations all over Europe, notably in Cahiers du Cinema in 1986. His fierce Erased Faces (1987) terrified the colleagues who doubted the permanence of Gorbachev's reforms. The film remained unseen (like all his films made in the USSR because the studio's leadership was used to suppressing Vartanov, first to score points with the regime, and later - when the Iron Curtain began to rise - to avoid competition).
In the war-torn and blockaded Armenia of the early 1990s, which was plagued by severe shortages of food, water, transportation and electricity, Vartanov’s health, already compromised by decades of harassment, worsened. Despite the serious limitations, he persisted and, for the first time, independently produced what would be his final film, Parajanov: The Last Spring (1992).
In Moscow, in 1993, Vartanov accepted the Russian Academy of Cinema Arts Award for Parajanov: The Last Spring (1992), and, in a characteristically modest move, simply bowed, and uttered not a single word to the millions watching the live broadcast.
Festival invitations for his masterwork enabled his escape to California, but his early films remained inaccessible and under the control of his old suppressors for the rest of his life. He did not witness the first retrospective and exhibition of his films and art at the renowned Busan International Film Festival, which took place just three years after he passed away in Hollywood.