Film: ‘I delved into the most painful places with a camera’

Novaya Gazeta
Jan 2 2024

As Shoghakat Vardanyan began journalism school and her brother Soghomon was completing his compulsory military service in September 2020, the Second Karabakh War broke out. Soghomon was immediately sent to the front line.

On 1 October, he called his mother for the last time. After that he disappeared. Vardanyan spent the next two weeks fruitlessly attempting to locate her brother before deciding to film the experience and document the new reality in which she and her parents found themselves.

The result is Vardanyan’s documentary debut, 1489 — the number Soghomon was given when he went missing in action — which won two awards including best film at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November.

Vardanyan meticulously documents her parents’ agonising wait for news while also recording her own attempts to navigate an unbearable situation. Sadly, the only glimpse the viewer ever has of Soghomon is in archival footage. The news of Soghomon’s death comes as a gut punch, and for a few minutes, both parents really do seem to go mad with grief as their daughter, camera in hand, attempts to guide them back to reality. The film doesn’t shy away from family’s inconceivable pain and shows each stage of human grief — hope, bargaining, anger, acceptance — with an unflinching gaze.

A personal, local story becomes a universal one as Vardanyan’s footage shows the other families experiencing the loss of loved ones in war. While 1489 dispenses with slogans, it is an emphatic anti-war statement. Ksenia Gapchenko spoke to Vardanyan about her film’s success and how making it affected both her and her family.

KG: How do you feel after your success at IDFA?

SV: It’s all kind of confusing. I mean, my emotions were very confused, but it’s better now. There seems to be some clarity…I’ll be honest: these awards matter to me a lot. They show that I managed to get a grip on myself and tell a very difficult personal story; to overcome not only what I felt inside, but also that which caused pain from the outside.

I went my own way, rejecting the usual path of filmmaking: raising money, finding a producer, going to all sorts of workshops, because the first thing people wanted to do is influence the film artistically.

Making the film on my own meant professional loneliness. I had to figure out what to do all by myself, both as a director and as a producer.

KG: How are your parents now? How do they feel and how do you get along?

SV: I get along well with them. We’re doing fine. Somehow I have grown up a lot in these three years, and it strengthened the relationship with my parents

KG: I remember watching the footage of your father and noticing his expressive and sad eyes. It seems like there are a few instances when he loses touch with reality.

SV: A person cannot grieve all the time. Sometimes he distracts himself, becoming disconnected from his grief. It’s a defence mechanism because the brain can’t take in that many negative emotions. There are moments in my film where a person can finally relax.

KG: The film develops chronologically. And then suddenly there’s archival footage of your brother helping your father out with the Christmas tree. This moment brought me to tears. For a moment, hope returned when we saw Soghomon. How did this idea come to you?

SV: The idea of using archival footage was always there. I thought about including a video from New Year’s celebrations, and this bit fit in well. It had a certain cathartic effect. I liked the way it worked in the film.

KG: When did your parents first see the film?

SV: I don’t remember exactly. It was before the final scene of the funeral had been shot. But Mum has since seen the latest version. Dad has only watched the first cut. After that, he left the house and went to his art studio. He didn’t say anything to me afterwards.

KG: How did the audience at the Yerevan International Film Festival react?

SV: It was a small private screening for friends and a foreign jury. It turned out that the best film received a monetary prize from the Armenian prime minister. When I was invited to take part in the festival, I was unaware of that. And when my film won, I refused the money.

I thought about all the families who lost their loved ones. I realised that I wanted my work to remain unaffiliated with anything. So after thinking about it thoroughly, I decided to turn the money down.

Shoghakat and Soghomon Vardanyan / Photo from personal archive

KG: How did European audiences receive the film? How well do you think they understand the events in Armenia?

SV: I don’t know how well they understand what is going on. After the screening, I did a Q&A with a film critic, and people from different countries began coming up to me. I asked them where they were from. Some were Armenian. I even had a Chinese student come up to me. He said that he understood everything and assured me that everyone would get this film. It doesn’t matter who its audience is. During filming, I was worried because some people said that only Armenians would understand my work, but it turns out that’s not the case.

KG: When will the film be shown to the Armenian public and have you thought about special screenings for the mothers of soldiers?

SV: It’s always much harder to show a film at home than abroad. For Armenians, it’ll be a different experience. Many people here aren’t ready to see my film, although I think they really need to watch it. Most are trying to hide from reality and don’t want to face the truth around them.

KG: I think 1489 is a very strong statement about the fragility of human life and surviving loss. In a way, it’s a film with a mission, an anti-war statement. Would you like viewers in Azerbaijan to see it?

SV: I would. An Armenian journalist asked me the same question a few days ago. I shuddered a bit then. Now, I do not shudder when saying that I’d like that.

Why did I shudder then? Imagine that all your life you’ve had an enemy. And suddenly you have to think about them and say something. It’s very hard for me to think about that, of course. But I would like people in Azerbaijan to see my film. But I’m sure that screening it there would be impossible.

Why do people need this film at all? It’s not just about hearing the story of Armenia, of my brother and other Armenian men. As you said, it’s an anti-war film and it functions as therapy for people who have gone through war.

The more people in different countries that see this film, the better. Although, to be honest, I don’t believe in art’s power to change the world, though it can perhaps effect change in some.