The long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh lends a quiet tension to Yeva, a rather old-fashioned yarn about a heroic woman doctor on the run with her little girl, who find temporary shelter in a village. Her in-laws believe she’s responsible for the death of her husband and want her to stand trial, while Yeva fears they’re really after her daughter. It’s a convoluted story written and directed dutifully but with little flair by first-time filmmaker Anahit Abad. Audiences with an interest in Armenia and a working knowledge of the region will find more to love than others in the stirring locations and self-sacrificing characters. It bowed at the Montreal Film Festival.
Two curious facts about the film: it is only Armenia’s sixth submission to the Foreign Language Oscars since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and it is an Iranian coproduction. The National Cinema Center of Armenia joined hands with Iran’s Farabi Cinema Foundation, and Taghi Ali Gholizadeh, known for the spectacular Iranian religious epic Hussein Who Said No, signed off as producer. Given that the main character is an independent-minded Christian woman wanted for murder, it seems an unconventional choice for a co-project and a bit daring.
But the storytelling itself is terribly familiar. The opening scenes show how brave and resourceful Yeva (Narine Grigoryan) is as she flees Yerevan with her young daughter Nareh through dark underground passages and a dripping wet night, a setting as atmospheric as it is unreal. Much later, we learn her husband has died under suspicious circumstances and the police have a warrant out for her arrest as his killer. Her immediate focus is on saving Nareh from the clutches of her in-laws, who believe she is their property.
After an overnight trip in the back of a truck, mother and daughter are deposited in a remote village in Karabakh, where they find refuge with Yeva’s uncle and aunt. No one is supposed to know her there (she pretends not to be a doctor.) In reality, she sticks out like a sore thumb. She was famous in those parts during the war (presumably the war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990’s) when she was nicknamed “Crazy Yeva” for volunteering at a frontline hospital. Flashback to her meeting with the dashing, wounded villager Ashout. Their great love ends tragically when he is killed in fighting, and she quickly marries a more influential suitor. Why such haste, Yeva, certain resentful ex-combatants wonder? Of course, the heroine is too noble not to have had her reasons.
After all this exposition, Abad’s screenplay offers a narrative breather with some views of life in the good-hearted village, where Nareh makes friends and people celebrate weddings. Since this is Christian territory, the women wear no headscarves, except in church, and joyfully participate in the singing, dancing and flirtation. Yeva’s dignity, reserve and aura of mystery make her a popular target of gossip and interest. She finally gives herself away when a little boy is injured and she flips into medic mode, taking charge of the situation. Ironically, it is the only time pro actress Grigoryan loses her cool and seems on the verge of hysterics.
Meanwhile, she goes to the post office every day to check whether their false passports and visas have arrived so they can escape to France. There remains an undercurrent of danger that she might be “discovered”, not to mention the way the whole village lives on the uncertain edge of a cease-fire with the unseen enemy, surrounded by silent soldiers.
The old cars and trucks have a Soviet-era feel and one wonders when the action is set; what time would justify the film’s old-fashioned aura, the stiff, formal dialogue, and the dark colors, makeup and framing that recall a WW2 film? But the hardest thing to identify with is the way the heroine’s self-sacrifice as a mother, a doctor and a patriot is never enough. In the end, a slippery subplot about a rebellious teenage girl gives her one more chance for heroics.
Melodious folk songs and a touching musical score by Vakan Artzeruni lend some welcome Armenian atmosphere, while most of the other tech credits are handled by Iranian pros.
Production companies: National Cinema Center of Armenia, Farabi Cinema Foundation
Cast: Narine Grigoryan, Shant Hoyhannisyan, Marjan Avetisyan, Rozi Avetisyan
Director, screenwriter: Anahid Abad
Producer: Taghi Ali Gholizadeh
Executive producers: Behrouz Paknahad, Viktor Mnatsakanyan
Director of photography: Hasan Karimi
Production designer: Behzad Kazzazi
Editor: Siavesh Kardjan
Music: Vakan Artzeruni
World sales: Farabi Cinema Foundation