Yerevan Dispatch


July 21 2008

David D’Arcy sends word from the capital of Armenia.

At the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan, Armenia,
now marking its fifth year, international cinema is meeting the culture
of this small nation whose diaspora reaches from the former Soviet
Union to Paris, Santa Monica and Toronto. Armenia does not have much
film production today, one to two features in a good year and those
are made on low budgets (and then there are the documentaries, made
with a lot of heart and even less money). But it did have its own
active studio under the Soviet system, and its film culture runs deep.

Sergei Paradjanov (1924-90), an Armenian born in Georgia, is
commemorated in the extraordinary museum that bears his name and
reveals a restless vibrant imagination (and these are just his drawings
and assemblages). Most of Paradjanov’s work was banned in his lifetime
for its transgression of rules mandating Socialist Realism, and he
spent more than four years in prison. Paradjanov’s objects range from
wildly inventive satirical collages that combine the influences of
Arcimboldo with a sensibility like that of Joseph Cornell and drawings,
like his finely-rendered pictures of friends from prison, that convey
emotional depth. The museum alone warrants a visit to Yerevan. The
food and cognac, and the people, might keep you here for a while.

Paradjanov (or Paronian, as his name would be in Armenian) once said,
"Beauty will save the world," before he died of lung cancer at the
age of 66. Now Armenians in film from around the world have converged
on the GAIFF this week, and there is much talk of co-productions and
plans to shoot here. An American firm has bought the Soviet-Era Hyefilm
(Armenian Film) Studio, and is committing funds to renovate it into
a hub for production and location services. The Central Partnership,
a Russian distribution and production house run by Armenians (as a
number of them are in Moscow), has avoided much involvement in Armenia,
but its new film, Mermaid (winner of Sundance’s international feature
competition last year) is the work of Anna Melikian, an Armenian
woman living in Moscow. Relations between Russians and Armenians
are far more friendly here than in neighboring Georgia, where Russia
funds insurgencies in the North and bans the import of Georgian wine,
a product that is so identified with Georgia that its patron saint
is depicted holding a cross made of vine branches.

Still, though, Armenia lacks modern cinemas and there are none on
the drawing board. So far, as the construction cranes all around town
suggest, this cinematic renaissance is another work in progress.

New Armenian documentaries at the GAIFF were a mixed bag, often showing
the austerity of their budgets on the screen. For an outsider, however,
they were a revelation. Two films looked at the assassination in March
2007 of Hrant Dink, the journalist and editor of Agos, a newspaper
in Istanbul that publishes in the Turkish language and pushes for
Turkish recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, improbably, as
part of a effort to bring Armenian and Turks together, an ambitious
and seemingly impossible task if there ever was one.

The documentaries, by performer and Gorky biographer Nouritza
Matossian (Heart of Two Nations: Hrant Dink) and by Hrant Hakobyan
(Eternal Flight: Hrant Dink) seem to assume that the audience
is familiar with the factual detail of Dink’s killing by Turkish
nationalists, aided by the indifference or active collaboration of
the Turkish military. Each depicts Dink as a prophet for peacemaking,
a humanitarian who led open conversations about history in the face
of threats to his life. Matossian is now seeking to remake her own
documentary, sub-titled in English (with an English voice-over by
the director), which began as a series of video-taped conversations
in Armenian with the murdered journalist.

Even as Dink’s killing points to enduringly acute Turkish opposition
to any official recognition of the Genocide (just look at the intense
lobbying in the US against Congressional resolutions marking the
tragedy of 1915), there were Turkish jurors on two of the GAIFF juries,
a deliberate step in the right direction.

The documentary Who is Monte, by Edward Badounts, takes up the story
of Monte Melkonian, a California-born American killed in the Nagorno
Karabach War after two years of commanding Armenian troops in the
region that fought for its independence from neighboring Azerbaijan,
and won it in 1994. (Only Armenia recognizes the new government
there.) If Armenia were more of a draw at the box office, this story
would have been made into a Hollywood feature years ago.

Monte (as everyone seems to have called the charismatic hero whom
Armenia now honors) graduated from Berkeley, traveled the world, and
by the late 1970s found his way into radical groups that practiced the
kind of violent hostage-taking and assassinations which we associate
with the more visible Red Army Faction, Irish Republican Army and
Red Brigades of those years. The Beirut-based Armenian Secret Army
for the Liberation of Armenia (or ASALA) tended toward shooting
Turkish diplomats, although it was abandoned (some say sold out) by
its former allies in the Palestine Liberation Organization and broke
into violent factions in the early 1980s. Monte spent the years 1986
through 1989 in prison in France for traveling with false papers and
carrying an illegal handgun. At the collapse of the Soviet Union, he
was in Armenia, having taught himself the language. He soon became
a participant in the war in Nagorno-Karabach, which then sought
independence from Azerbaijan. Before long he was commanding unpaid
and untrained troops.

The film, narrated by Monte’s widow, Seta Kbranian, takes you in and
out of Monte’s military and personal lives. The saga of a war fought
by citizens who became soldiers overnight calls to mind the early
days of Israel and the images of mountain fighting could have been
lifted from the Bosnian archives. The tone of the film is romantic,
patriotic and motivational, but the young widow’s voice is poignant,
and leaves you wanting to know more about her husband and his journey
from suburbia to a war halfway around the world.

Another documentary, Vandals of the 21st Century, shows that the
war with Azerbaijan has taken its cultural toll. In Julfa, which is
in the region of Nakichevan (an Armenian territory now controlled by
Azerbaijan), a cemetery of thousands of Khachkars, massive gravestones
with carved crucifixes, was hacked apart by soldiers from Azerbaijan’s
army with sledgehammers. The pieces of the 400-year old carvings were
then put in trucks and dumped into a ravine. Much of the destruction
was videotaped from a distance by Armenians, and the short documentary
by Ashot Movsisyan follows the soldiers as they smash the irreplaceable

The film quotes from a letter sent by the chief Islamic cleric of
Azerbaijan, informing concerned Armenians who watched the video
(which is more extensive than the sections shown in the documentary)
that his government is taking measures to protect Armenian heritage
there. It’s rare that antiquities vandals are caught in such a flagrant
act. As Donald Rumsfeld said when asked to explain why Iraq’s National
Museum could be looted while heavily armed US troops stood by, "Stuff
happens." Here the troops were ordered to obliterate a graveyard,
presumably to discourage Armenians from ever thinking of this territory
as their home. It’s hard to watch.