In the drawers of contemporary Armenian cinema
What are the contemporary Armenian films about… those that are not possible to see
© Har Toum
In the very center of Yerevan, covered with various ugly advertisement boards, stands Cinema Moscow. There is a poster for a new Armenian film on these boards almost every month – colorful comedies mostly, or dramas full of pathos, all to catch the attention of the passersby, i.e. the film’s potential audience. In recent times, 12-15 Armenian films have received theatrical distribution per year, almost without exception feature length fiction works. Meanwhile, on social media, often during everyday talks, there are films mentioned that this same potential audience has no possibility to see, even if it would strongly wish to do so. These are the films shown in festivals inside or outside the country, or then during closed screenings in Yerevan that only invitees can attend. Without trying to enter into the eternal chicken or egg-argument about audiences’ interests and the quality of author cinema, we should see what these unseen films are actually about.
Many believe that cinema, like any other branch of art, can represent the development of a country and its society, and ideally reflect on them through the viewpoint of the filmmaker. Also, compared to the production of a fiction film that generally requires more time and (financial) resources, documentary filmmaking is comparatively “easier” to make. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that in contemporary Armenian cinema, documentary films stand out. On average, the production of a documentary film spans from two to five years, depending on financial aspects and the director’s ambitions. Here, an interesting (and not very beneficial) comparison can be made with Ukrainian filmmakers and the independent film industry in Ukraine, whose response to the Russian invasion was rather fast. Films made after March are being shown in international festivals, can be viewed online, whereas most films about the 44-day Artsakh war are still in their production or post-production stage.
Through looking back at Armenian Cinema from the last 5-8 years, we will get an outline of the themes that have entered the cinematic discourse, if only to be replaced or even rejected by the next thematic obsession, be it post soviet reality, war or revolution. Themes are directly connected to the historical-political developments of a country far from being calm and peaceful. Before the Velvet Revolution, many independent filmmakers started to revisit the post-soviet past and the first years of newly-gained independence, the so-called “dark and cold years” (“mut u tsurt tariner”). Full of nostalgia and not free of optimism, these films were often trying to recall the dreams and frustrations of the 90s. “28:94 Local Time” (2015) and “Hot Country, Cold Winter” (2016) by David Safarian, “Good Morning” (2016) by Anna Arevshatyan and “Moskvich, My Love” (2012) by Aram Shahbazyan all recreate the spirit, mood and routine of the newly established Republic of Armenia through individual stories. These stories naturally contain remnants of the traumatic experience of the First Artsakh war, such as the population exchange – that in “Moskvich, My Love”, is told through the experiences of the protagonist who has moved to Armenia from Azerbaijan. The same thematic aspects are present in Arman Chilingaryan’s “Drops of Light” (2021), in which the main character returns to Yerevan after the first war in Artsakh and tries to adapt to the rules of urban society. Almost all aforementioned films premiered at the Golden Apricot International Film Festival and also had a short theatrical distribution. “Drops of Light” has not premiered in Armenia as of yet.
The Velvet Revolution of 2018 brought a feeling of freedom and unity that could have been an endless source of inspiration to Armenian filmmakers. In these months of March and April, many filmmakers had taken their cameras to the streets to document the new civic movement. The outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 and of the Artsakh war later in the same year drastically shifted the momentum of the political discourse and the general social mood. The first thing to go was optimism, while filmmakers started doubting the relevance of their projects. Meanwhile, two interesting documentaries depicting the revolution were included in the main program of the Golden Apricot IFF in 2020 and 2022 to serve as a document for the events from just a few years ago – events that now seemed to belong to another reality altogether. The experimental documentaries “Revolution” by Vahan Khachatryan (2020) and “Revolivation” (2021) by Artashes Matevosyan and Ara Tshagharyan both managed to capture the extension of the movement – by condensing all of the film’s images into a one minute prelude (“Revolution”), or by creating a 90-minute collage from hundreds of videos made on the phones of the revolution participants (“Revolivation”). An attempt at a more complete image of the revolution is made in Garin Hovhannisyan’s documentary “I Am Not Alone”, that follows Nikol Pashinyan from the first days of the movement to its victory, in the best tradition of the “hero’s journey”, a common trope in American documentary cinema. The film, alas, has never been shown in Armenia. The Velvet Revolution is also briefly alluded to in “5 Dreamers and a Horse” (2022) by Vahagn Khachatryan and Aren Malakyan.
If the pandemic seems to somehow have been “neglected” by Armenian filmmakers, this might be due to the 44-day Artsakh war that was started by Azerbaijan only several months after the first lockdown. There are a few exceptions: the short film “@HOME WITH A CAMERA” by Arthur Sukiasyan and Aram Pachyan follows the runners in Yerevan’s Cascade during lockdown, whereas in “Resilience”, director Arman Yeritsyan juxtaposes images of pandemic and of war with images of thousand-year old manuscripts in Matenadaran.
In recent years, the main “protagonist” of Armenian contemporary cinema is of course Artsakh – its story now having seemingly been retold almost as many times as that of the Armenian Genocide. Most commonly, these are war or postwar dramas set in isolated communities, using both fiction and documentary techniques to depict the routines of the people living in contested spaces. Isolation, and being under threat from the other side of the border are the main topic of Hakob Melkonyan’s “Blockade” (2020), which was filmed in the city of Berd [∗] and its neighboring villages. And then, simultaneously and independently of each other, two filmmakers directed their cameras to the airport in Stepanakert which, after being renovated in 2011, never went operational – because of the ongoing Azerbaijani threat, as well as for lack of international qualifications. Nora Martirosyan’s “Should the Wind Drop” (2021) and Garegin Papoyan’s “Bon Voyage” (2020) also focus on the airport, and while Martirosyan deploys a wide symbolic system to represent the dream of Artsakh “to fly”, Papoyan tries to capture the situation in its whole ridiculousness and absurdity. Both films were screened in international film festivals; “Should the Wind Drop” even became the first Armenian film in 50 years to be included in the main program of the Cannes film festival.
In September 2020, just like during the Velvet Revolution, numerous filmmakers from Armenia and abroad traveled to Artsakh to tell about the war. As of this moment, dozens of documentary films have been made on the topic, many of questionable artistic value, consisting mostly of interviews or unfiltered emotion. Interestingly, all of these films were made by either foreign or American-Armenian directors. “Invisible Republic” by Garin Hovhannisyan could be considered an exception to this, as formally it is difficult to consider as a work of author cinema. Meanwhile, a number of films by Armenian filmmakers on the same topic are currently in their post-production stage: Angela Frangyan, Vahagn Khachatryan, Aren Malakyan and Silva Khnkanosyan are all currently working on their new films. Khnkanosyan’s documentary will be her second about Artsakh. Her debut, “Nothing to Be Afraid Of” (2019) follows a group of female deminers working in the bordering regions of Artsakh. Radical, cold and challenging the spectator’s nervous system, the film had a successful festival trajectory and was screened in Leipzig, Rotterdam and other notable festivals.
The fact of women’s tales being one one of the main occupations of contemporary Armenian cinema is probably related to the impressive growth in numbers of women film professionals in the local industry. These films are usually not concerned with the fate of just one individual female character, but often with a whole group of friends, coworkers and professionals, with the directors making an effort to display their differences and similarities in view of the challenges they face, presenting them as a mirror reflecting the difficulties of all women in the country. “Tonratun” (2022) by Inna Mkhitaryan and “Village of Women” (2019) by Tamara Stepanyan both are documentaries consisting of different portraits that take the audience to the reality of such a group of women, thereby creating an atmosphere of closeness and warmth, behind which two of the most urgent problems of Armenian society are hidden: gender-selective abortion (“Tonratun”) and work migration from the villages to Russia (“Village of women”). Emily Mkrtchyan’s “There Was, There Was Not” (currently in post-production) focuses on three women from Artsakh, “With the Wind” (2018) by Artur Sahakyan tells of a fisherwoman at Sevan lake, and unlike Khnkanosyan’s film, where all protagonists are women, Sahakyan puts his character in opposition to a group of fishermen. Individual women’s stories are at the core of “Sweeping Yerevan” (2020) by Nairi Hakhverdi and “Chnchik” (2020) by Aram Shahbazyan. The latter, which premiered only after an overlong production process of 15 years, is the tale of a village girl who, after getting pregnant without being married, is killed in order to “clean the family honor”. In Nairi Hakhverdi’s film the focus is on a protagonist from a very underrepresented profession: people who clean the streets at night: its main character has to work all night to support her big family.
Marginalized people are also in the center of other Armenian filmmakers’ attention. Both “One, Two, Three” by Arman Yeritsyan (2015) and “Voldemar” by Aren Malakyan (currently in post-production) follow isolated characters who have become a part of the urban ecosystem and live in the past.
2015 marked the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, with many feature and short films trying to depict what can never be depicted. There are several popular strategies: putting a “Genocide symbol” character in the center, as is done with Komitas in “Alter Ego” (2015) by Vigen Challdranyan, or to narratively bridge the tragic past with the present, as in “1915” by Garin Hovhannisyan (2015). When for a moment it seemed that after 2015, the Genocide will stop serving as a source of inspiration for Armenian filmmakers, the theme in the following years found its way back to cinemas almost constantly. It’s interesting to note however that it was revisited by filmmakers of the older generation, for example one of the episodes in the film “Lengthy Night” (2018) by Edgar Baghdasaryan or in a story about the consequences of Genocide (“Land Surveyors” (2018) by Suren Babayan). An impressive festival trajectory is at the moment drawn by Inna Sahakyan’s “Aurora’s Sunrise”, a documentary-animation hybrid about a genocide survivor, Aurora Mardiganian. After miraculously surviving the atrocities and ending up in the USA, in 1918 Aurora acts in the first ever film about the Armenian Genocide, with the hope that the money collected from a parallelly running charity campaign will help saving the orphans of the Genocide. “Aurora’s Sunrise” is currently playing in Armenian cinemas.
To sum up, contemporary Armenian cinema tends to focus on the topics that are in the center of the attention of Armenian society: revolution, genocide, Artsakh and its wars, women’s issues. Although these topics are of course urgent, and one should not by any means stop talking about them, there are many neglected individual, “ordinary” stories, through which different layers of society can be explored, such as issues of youth, identity and belonging. Now, there is a risk of giving the impression that such problems do not exist, which in turn affects the universality and diversity of the films made about just these mentioned themes.
One of the biggest author cinema events in Yerevan this year was the screening of Artavazd Peleshyan’s new film, “Nature” (2020), in Cinema Moscow. After having premiered in Paris and being presented in multiple international film festivals, the film received one single screening in Yerevan. Admission was free, and although a pirated file of the film is already available on the internet, there were no free seats left, and not even a place to stand in the cinema hall. Hundreds of people came to see the new film of a titan of Armenian cinema, happy with sitting on the floor or sharing a seat with a friend. This might add an interesting point to the chicken/egg discussion about Armenian cinema audiences and “invisible” films. While considering the specificity of this particular case, we may assume that the audience is interested to see other films as well, but that there are many problems yet to be solved by the industry. Just like the beautiful building of Moscow cinema, many films are hidden behind colorful boards – and keep waiting to be seen.
[∗] Situated in the north-west of Armenia, on the border with Azerbaijan, the settlement is constantly turning into an epicenter for military actions.