The Opened Hand: Reflections on Artur Aristakisyan's Palms

By Graeme Hobbs

palms-artur-aristakisyan.jpgPalms, 1993

A hundred years after the invention of cinema, a feature film that is wholly original is a rare discovery. Poetic, spiritual and hallucinatory, Palms is remarkable at every level. The winner of many international awards, this August marks the first release of this unique film on DVD.

A blind, begging boy has been told by his parents, also blind, that everyone in the world is in fact blind. “Not a single person can see himself”, they have said. So when the boy is ignored by people, he waits patiently, realising that they may not yet be aware of his presence. Of the many images in Palms that imprint themselves on your mind, this one, of a world populated entirely with blind people living off each other’s charity, is at its heart.


Perhaps surprisingly for a film populated almost entirely with beggars, Palms has nothing to do with charity. Its real subject is proximity. In its relentless depiction of life at the margins and with its discomfiting jabs of authenticity, it is an affront to personal space. Why should this be so?

Part of the answer comes in John Berger’s essay Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, in which he considers the current omnipresence and elusiveness of images. What are depicted, he says, “used to be called physical appearances because they belonged to solid bodies. Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent. And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more.”[1]

In contrast to these fugitive appearances, there is no doubt that in Palms we are in the company of solid bodies, maimed and damaged bodies even, not seeking our attention or intervention, utterly indifferent to us at our safe distance, yet completely present. They feed no appetite, create no wealth, yet still they stubbornly exist, heavy with the affront of parasitic life.

One of the usual lures of cinema is the attraction of journeying in safety to places and with people you would not otherwise meet. Palms presents you with no seductive journeys. It does not care about you and it does not indulge you. It leaves you with nowhere to go except back on yourself, making you keenly aware of your own reaction – your disgust, your righteousness, your shame, the boundaries of your love.

the system

The system will engulf everything that has sense.

In Palms, the “system” outside of which the beggars live remains undefined. This is unimportant; political system, social system, system of mercantile totalitarianism, whatever name you care to supply makes no difference. When you are outside of it, the terms are meaningless. The only thing worth knowing is the essential fact that power, wherever it is found, “starts to ferment, like wine”. Always.

Palms is a confrontational film. It may even provoke fear in some – a fear of losing control, losing position, losing choice. The latter especially is unendurable. This is why the image of the blind boy begging in a blind world, with all of its people entirely reliant on charity, is central. This is the system’s nightmare.

In Aristakisyan’s second film, A Place on Earth, set in a hippie commune in Moscow, many of Palms themes are developed to their extreme. The commune’s members have turned against all accepted social hierarchies and codes of separation. There are no longer boundaries between human and animal, adults and children, desire and disease, squalor and food, free love and obligation, your own body and your body’s ownership by others. Of that film, Aristakisyan has said that it “reveals our worst fears: it shows the scariest version of what might happen to us.”[2] The comment applies equally to Palms.


My son, it’s true that I want you to become a beggar. I, your father, wish you to become a beggar, because I love you my son.

There are many words in Palms, remorseless words that follow logic into the abyss. Aristakisyan’s first address to his unborn son is also an address to us. His words, an attempt to understand how to save his unborn son’s spirit, are profoundly disquieting, for they intimate how we too can save ourselves from spiritual ruination. “Either a man lives in the spirit or in the system, and thereby becomes its agent” he says. The options are terrifyingly limited: have nothing to do with power, beg, go out of your mind. Everything else is compromise. The only thing you may claim to own is your virginity. “Unite your destitution with your virginity. It’s all that I can advise you,” the unborn son is told. “Destitution will protect you from the system, and virginity from fornication with the system”.

When Aristakisyan addresses the man who hides in his basement, nicknamed “Pithecanthropus” by those at the hospital from where he escaped, he tells him, “you’ll start speaking later on, when people have used up all the combinations of words and will eat their’ll speak when people will lose the gift of speech out of shame.” The man stares out at us, a rebuke to words used meaninglessly, as if they have no value, and do not refer to people, or things.


If we are reluctant to journey in the film, what hope is there then of salvation? The usual channels are closed. We are not comforted with visions of redemptive beauty. At the end of Chapter I, Bedding and Clothing, the district in which Palms was filmed is shown. It could have been depicted so that the points of reflected light on the ground were made to glisten, to represent hope or promise. They don’t. They look like litter.

In Chapter II, Life on a Swamp, there is a scene of a boy drinking from a plate as water flows next to him. This is not the picturesque poverty that sells diaries and calendars. The water is rain overflowing from a gutter that feeds the swamp on which he lives.

We become aware of the urge to transmute images to beauty, or at least something that can be understood in the context of art or cinematic history. With relief we note the scenes of ruined houses and courtyards that resemble daguerrotypes brought back from 19th century travellers, a still-life of a plate of apples, a woman carrying a man down a road that previews a similar situation in Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son, a depiction of a man with doves and a candle emerging from the darkness that calls to mind the chiaroscuro lighting, and maybe even the subject matter, of a Caravaggio painting. These are moments of relief and reassurance that our aesthetics are still in place.

This is to confuse the picturesque with necessity. The houses are condemned, the apples are for sale, the ragman needs to get down the street. There is nothing here to support our world.


The system privileges physical and psychological renewal and reinvention. In Palms, it is confronted by people who wear their stories – of rejection, failure, suffering, indifference, acceptance, dogged resistance – on their bodies instead of erasing them. Such bodies are unsightly to the system. They are the bodies of people just stubbornly there, claiming nothing more than the territory that they inhabit.

There are so many stories here: a woman who lies on the ground for forty years after being deserted, a man who sleeps with doves, a woman who carries the head of her failed executioner in her belongings, a man so taunted that he bit through his veins, a woman who leaves out food and drink for her dead husband who visits during the night, a man who wishes his unborn son to be a beggar. All of these stories are hidden, almost completely, behind nothing more than the palms of beggars. Palms opens our ears.

Watching Palms, I have the curious sensation that it is an artefact of a destroyed civilisation – its epitaph perhaps, or a memento mori that went unheeded.


When his mother bathed him
the wooden trough was whole.
When he pushed himself from eight storeys
the trough broke
and his body now lives between his birth and failed death.
This is a film for beggars.

The blind boy believes that everyone in the world is blind,
so when a person seems to ignore him, he waits
understanding that they may not yet be aware of his presence.
This is a film for the blind.

People with money see an eighth skin on beggars,
a skin of bandages, rags and dirt,
which is a convenient disguise for both.
This is a film for the cold.

A man hides in a basement
and only comes out on Sundays
so he won’t be taken away
by those he has escaped.
This is a film for fugitives.

Another man lives in a hill of rubbish
so bloated that passers-by
must push him through his gate.
His fence just holds it all in.
This is a film for hoarders.

Among the pigeons and doves of the city
are those that took food and love from the attic man
and they now keep his memory.
This is a film for the dead.

Beggars, the blind, the cold
fugitives, hoarders and the dead.
We are all watching now
from beneath our clothing
from among the scraps and waste of our lives,
unwilling to lose our tongues
and unable to find our silence.


[1] John Berger, ‘Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible’, in The Shape of a Pocket, London, Bloomsbury, 2001, pp11-12.
[2] “This film is dangerous”, Artur Aristakisyan in conversation with Christina Stojanova, Kino-Eye, Vol. 2, Issue 2, Jan 2002 (

Artur Aristakisyan's Palms (‘Ladoni’, Russia, 1993) is released by Second Run DVD.

Graeme Hobbs lives and gardens in the English/Welsh borders and creates chapbooks.