Armenian lives come into focus

Armenian lives come into focus
By Bob Strauss, Film Critic

Long Beach Press-Telegram, CA
Redlands Daily Facts, CA
San Bernardino Sun, CA
May 15 2004

Vahe Babaian’s serious, slightly autobiographical film “After
Freedom” comes well-packed with worthy intentions. Set in Glendale’s
Armenian-American community, it’s perceivably honest about the
day-to-day struggles of recent – and not-so-recent – immigrants. It
also tries to tell a kind of “Mean Streets” story of aimless, somewhat
criminal young men without resorting to cheap melodrama.

The film succeeds on those counts. But in his first feature, Babaian
is both too close to the material and not seasoned enough of a
writer-filmmaker to generate much audience involvement. Despite some
solid performances (and partly because of a few lousy ones), the film
is sabotaged by clunky dialogue and sequences that go on too long,
often to nowhere.

Although it isn’t made clear in the opening narration, the film’s
protagonist Michael Abcarian (Mic Tomasi in a controlled, soulful
performance) is probably an Iran-born Armenian, like Babaian. This
would explain his father’s good job back home with a British airline.
(I could be wrong, but I don’t believe there were many flights between
London and small Soviet republics during the Cold War.) Anyway, once
Dad moved the family to Glendale, the American dream proved elusive.

Now elderly, widowed and defeated by a series of demeaning jobs,
Michael’s father, Leon (Greg Satamian), worries about the employment
prospects of an old man who can’t drive. Michael, who does dead-end
supermarket work himself, feels both guilty for not doing better and
responsible for keeping what’s left of the family intact.

This doesn’t sit well with his ambitious girlfriend Ana (Sophie
Chahinan), who has an opportunity to open a store in San Francisco.
But she’s also a fairly patient type who puts up with Michael’s
endless hours of cruising and hanging out at the gun shop with his
dopey pals, blustery small-time crook Avo (Shant Bejanian, in the
film’s best performance) and trouble-prone Mato (Ioannis Bogris), who
is obsessed with smuggling his brother into the country through Mexico.

We get some of the usual immigrant movie moments; there’s a wedding
and a first-time walk on the beach by a character in his 20s. But for
the most part, Babaian displays a knack for immersing viewers in the
small distinctions and similarities of Armenian-American life without
overloading on the ethnic signifiers.

In tone and presentation, “After Freedom” is about as far away from the
“Big Fat Greek Weddings” of the world as it can be, and its realism in
that regard is only to be lauded. But next time, hopefully, Babaian
will display a better sense of what’s interesting and what’s not
about the world he knows and appreciates so well.