Bad Movie? U.S. Blocks Filmmakers' Visa

If not for one important detail, Artur Aristakisyan would be preparing to fly to the United States next week to accept a major award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. But the 32-year-old filmmaker says his journey has been thwarted by the U.S. Embassy's refusal to grant him a visa.

Aristakisyan applied for a visa to the United States after receiving an invitation to come to the festival to accept the Satyajit Ray Award, which is given annually to a young filmmaker of exceptional promise, and to present his first and only film, "Palms." He was offered an all-expenses paid trip to the festival, which starts April 28, and was told that the award would be $10,000.

Yet despite letters faxed to the U.S. Embassy by the festival organizers, Aristakisyan said he was twice denied a visa. He said he was told that because he is single and does not have children, he was considered too much of a risk to be given a visa.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which does not discuss individual visa applications, said that the embassy has no blanket rule that single people without children are to be denied visas."Each case is treated individually," said the spokesman.

"There is no hard policy as to which people can get in and which cannot," he said. "The consul must be convinced the person does not intend to immigrate. In general, every visa applicant must demonstrate an intention to return."

Aristakisyan, a soft-spoken man with long hair who describes himself as a hippie, said that he was longing to see San Francisco, a city which looms large in his imagination, and meet fellow filmmakers, but that he had no desire to stay in the United States permanently.

"Without Russia, I couldn't live," he said.

"Palms," a feature-length black-and-white film about homeless people and beggars in Kishinyov, the capital of Moldova, was obviously a labor of love. Aristakisyan, who grew up in Kishinyov, decided in childhood to make the film after befriending beggars and hearing their stories.

Aristakisyan spent eight years trying to gain admittance to the National Film School in Moscow to get the diploma that in the Soviet years was a mandatory requirement for access to state film facilities. The aspiring filmmaker, who believed he learned more from his beggar friends than in school and who never joined any youth organizations, was apparently not an ideal candidate.

"I think they just didn't know what to make of me," he said.

In 1988, Aristakisyan was finally admitted to the school and began work on "Palms." For the next five years, he made regular visits to Kishinyov to work on the project.

"These are not ordinary beggars," he explained. "They live this way out of love, as a kind of freedom. I think we have a lot to learn from them. It's really a film about love."

The San Francisco award will not be Aristakisyan's first. In February, "Palms" won the Grand Prix of the Forum at the Berlin International Film Festival, after which several distributors bought rights to the movie and Aristakisyan, who lives in an improvisational theater he is creating with friends, earned some much-needed money. And last month he was awarded a special prize for humanistic ideals at the Annual Student Film Festival in Moscow.

The trip to Germany for the Berlin festival was the first journey abroad for Aristakisyan, who has by now become something of a living legend at the National Film School. His failure to be granted a visa to the United States is also something of a novelty.

"This is the first time that a Russian cinematographer has been refused a visa to travel to a film festival," said Raisa Fomina, director of international programs for Moscow's Cinema Center on Krasnaya Presnya.