27 July 2023

Documenting the Turbulent Region

Already for the 20th time Golden Apricot IFF, curated a program consisting of films from the Lesser Caucasus

© Nvard Yerkanian

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A white car crossing a monotone and empty landscape, driving over bumpy roads towards the ‘new’ border that is still to be demarcated and validated by two countries. This is the main storyline of LANDSHAFT, a documentary film by German filmmaker Daniel Kötter, which opened the Regional Competition program of this year’s edition of the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan. The festival, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, has become one of the most important events in the film landscape of the Lesser Caucasus, bringing the best and most interesting films of the region to Yerevan, thus serving as a bridge between the Lesser Caucasus and the West. It is somewhat symbolic that this important cine-landscape event opened with Kötter’s film, which presents the region as one challenged by unresolvable conflicts and so pointing also to the main topics of the other films included in the program. It’s notable that most of these films choose to develop their storytelling within the confines of the documentary genre, as if the disturbing and turbulent region has left fiction behind.

LANDSHAFT was shot in 2021-2022 in the area around Vardenis and Sotk, near the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. During the Soviet era, as with other Soviet nations, these borders were not clearly demarcated. The First Artsakh war of 1991, with its unresolved conflicts as well as the general absence of diplomatic relations, made a final demarcation impossible. Prior to the 1990s the region was inhabited by more than two ethnic groups. The multiethnicity of Vardenis was partly due to the Sotk mine, the biggest gold mine of the Lesser Caucasus. Banavan, a special residency for the mine workers, was built in the 1960s – a city within a city with its own school, culture house and kindergarten. The 1991-94 war strongly affected the ethnic composition of the region. A population exchange took place, and the Armenians arriving from Azerbaijan started to live in the houses of the Azerbaijanis who had left. Many of these Armenians who could not integrate into the city emigrated to Russia and other places. All this is discussed in LANDSHAFT, with characters remembering their Soviet past and the Artsakh War of 2020, as well as making predictions about the future. The film thus not only explores the memory of the place in the context of the current geo-political situation, but also shows the relationship of the locals to the landscape – as soil to be cultivated, as a homeland to be protected from the enemy, as a well of natural resources such as gold that is to be extracted and exported for the benefit of the country’s economy but at the same time destroying the natural environment.

Film still from <em>LANDSHAFT</em>Film still from LANDSHAFT© Daniel Kötter

The topics of immigration and constant border crossing are central to NOTES ON DISPLACEMENT (2022), by multimedia artist and director Khaled Jarrar. Shot in 2015, the film follows two Palestinian families who try to reach Europe as Yarmouk, their camp in Damascus, is being shelled by ISIS. Unlike most other documentaries on the same topic, the director of this film joins the refugees on their journeys of immigration and horror, crossing Greece and Cyprus, Macedonia and Hungary, finally reaching Germany, their “dream country”. Even if some of the film’s protagonists are being displaced already for the second or even third time – like having to leave their Palestinian homes in 1948 – the director prefers to avoid both political discussions and taking positions. Documented in an anatomically raw style, the film does not poetize the situation or ask for pity, instead it creates a harsh picture of the characters’ fight for a better life.

Meruzhan, who has migrated to Europe for medical treatment, is one of the central characters in the Belgian documentary WAITING FOR THE FLOOD (2022) by Chris Pellerin. Although the film is not directly linked to the social-political situation of the region as it also portrays immigrants from Italy and Serbia it does, however, manage to find optimism while creating a touching story of absurd bureaucracy and the never-ending fight for life.

Film still from <em>WAITING FOR THE FLOOD</em>Film still from WAITING FOR THE FLOOD© Centre Vidéo Bruxelles

ENDLESS BORDERS (2023) by Abbas Amini tells a story of people who had to leave their houses because of a repressive regime, seeking safety in the neighboring country. The fictional film follows Afghani immigrants in Iran, showing the cultural similarities and differences between the two nations, as well as the human rights situation in Iran. It’s not surprising that in recent years the topic of Afghani immigrants is prevalent in the cinema of Iran, inspiring both documentary and fiction filmmakers. Focused on one or several characters, Iranian filmmakers capture the routine lives of these immigrants, their struggle for integration, and the exhausting bureaucracy of Iran.

Another subject widely discussed in Iranian cinema relates to human rights, a topic difficult to tackle from within the Islamic state. For this reason, many of these films are made outside of the country, usually in Iranian communities of Europe. In one of these films, MY WORST ENEMY (2023) by Mehran Tamadon, the director meets Iranian immigrants who were interrogated in the Evin prison and asks them to perform the same interrogation towards himself. The shooting of the film was launched long before the Woman, Life, Freedom movement but the completion of the film coincided with the worsening situation in the country and it generated lots of interest at international film festivals. In addition to political, social and human rights issues, MY WORST ENEMY questions the morals of documentary filmmaking, for example whether a director has the right to use or even ‘play’ with the traumas and unhealed wounds of the protagonists in the name of cinema. The problem is even more relevant for the second part of the diptych, WHERE GOD IS NOT (2023, not part of the festival program), for which Tamadon filmed three of Evin prison’s former convicts and asked them to describe the interrogations and tortures they had been subjected to.

If the Armenian documentaries selected by the festival may be thematically similar – both OUR VILLAGE by Comes Chahbazian and FAR FROM MICHIGAN by Silva Khnkanosyan were filmed in Artsakh – stylistically they are very different. Chahbazian’s film was shot before the war in 2020 and is extensively poetic, juxtaposing peaceful scenes with lyrical speeches by the locals, thus creating an unnatural and artificial environment. Meanwhile, Khnkonosyan’s film was made during the war and the subsequent displacement of people. It drastically rejects poeticism and never tries to polish or romanticize the horrifying reality. While filming the everyday routines of people in shelters that are being constantly shelled, locals who burn their houses before leaving for good and roads jammed with heavily loaded cars, the director creates a cool-headed war chronicle that shakes the viewer to his bones.

Film still from <em>FAR FROM MICHIGAN</em>Film still from FAR FROM MICHIGAN© La Huit, Cined Productions

While the topic of war has also been very present in the cinema of Azerbaijan in recent years, none of these films are presented in the program of Golden Apricot. For example, in SERMON TO THE FISH (2022) by Hilal Baydarov a favourite of international festivals, the war and its destructive influences are discussed in parallel to indirect political criticism about petroleum extraction and the environment. Tahmina Rafaella’s BANU (2022) also unfolds during the third Artsakh war and tells the story of a woman in Azerbaijani society.

The war is depicted through discussions and conversations between women in TONRATUN (2022), the debut documentary film by Inna Mkhitaryan. Shot in a small traditional bakery where five women make lavash (Armenian traditional flat bread) and talk about their lives, the film touches not only upon the topic of the three Artsakh wars, but also on gender based abortion and women’s position and challenges in Armenian society. Structured very similarly is Israeli director Orit Fouks Rotem’s CINEMA SABAYA (2021) where the young director invites Palestinian and Israeli women to participate in a filmmaking class and assigns them exercises such as filming their daily routines, preparing video letters to their spouses etc., thus exploring the differences and similarities between the two cultures, showing their prejudices and fears towards each other and the position of women in their societies. Similar to MY WORST ENEMY, the film raises a conversation about morality in documentary filmmaking: what are the limits that should be respected during the making of a documentary and can cinema and art in general ever be more important than the personal space and safety of the protagonists?

Film still from <em>TONRATUN</em>Film still from TONRATUN© DoKino, La Huit, Cined Productions

The camera as a tool for healing and self-discovery is presented in Israeli director Tomer Heymann’s I AM NOT (2021), while two other Israeli films in the festival program focus on female characters: co-produced by Ukraine and Israel, Michal Vinik’s VALERIA IS GETTING MARRIED  (2022) follows a young Ukrainian woman Valeria who is advised to undertake an arranged marriage with a successful Israeli man who will provide her with everything but freedom. Valeria prefers to choose freedom. A path of self-discovery is explored by a woman in THE OTHER WIDOW (2022), a fiction by Ma'Ayan Rypp.

Film still from <em>VALERIA IS GETTING MARRIED</em>Film still from VALERIA IS GETTING MARRIED© Lama Films

In the Georgian films of the festival program (as well as in Georgian cinema of recent years in general), other topics are at the forefront. In addition to films about LGBTQ+ communities that had significant success at international festivals (AND THEN WE DANCED, dir. Levan Akin [2019] and WET SAND, dir. Elene Naveriani [2021]) Georgian filmmakers take a look back at the country’s Soviet past, reconsidering memories of the period through locations, gardens and statues, rail tracks and architectural monuments. One example, MAGIC MOUNTAIN (2023) by Mariam Chachia and Nik Voigt, is set in the Abastumani sanatorium. In addition to the main focus of the film, which captures the daily routine of patients with tuberculosis (TB), another topic not very commonly shown is the story of the sanatorium itself. Built during the Tsarist Era, the sanatorium was designed for members of the elite who contracted TB and therefore the institution functioned as a closed, elite community during Soviet times. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was still in use as a sanatorium, until the day when a Georgian oligarch decided to buy and demolish it to build something else instead. Thus, memory is erased. The subtle contrast between visual storytelling and political themes reminds the viewer of another Georgian documentary, TAMING THE GARDEN (2021) by Salome Jashi which told another barbaric story of uprooting century-old memories. Chachia and Jashi don’t mention any names, but the memory-destroying oligarch in both documentaries is one and the same person. The Soviet past is also beautifully revived in SELF-PORTRAIT ALONG THE BORDERLINE (2023) by Anna Dziapshipa and STATE IN A STATE (2022) by Tekla Aslanishvili, films which were not included in the festival program because of limited slots. Three other Georgian films included in the festival – Giorgi Ovashvili’s BEAUTIFUL HELEN (2022), Kote Kalandadze’s DRUMMER (2022) and Anna Sarukhanova’s INCONCEIVABLE LIGHT (2022) explore the lives of artists, their struggles and existential crises as well as the difficulties and magic involved in living the life of an artist.

Film still from <em>DRUMMER</em>Film still from DRUMMER© Parachute Films

Engaging with their memories of a house, an Iranian family of three generations tells the story of Iran in a documentary by Farnaz Jurabchian and Mohammadreza Jurabchian. SILENT HOUSE (2022) links the personal stories of the family members to significant cultural and political experiences within the country, including the Islamic revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and other events. The house in which the family of the directors lived for more than seven decades is turned into a symbol of Iran – once prosperous and full of life, now dilapidated and abandoned.

The Golden Apricot International Film Festival and especially its ‘Regional Competition’ program serve as a cinematographic mirror for the Lesser Caucasus and Western Asia, reflecting stories, themes and problems that challenge and trouble the region. At the same time, it can be seen as a mirror of what the West wants to see of the region, as most of the films are co-produced or co-financed by European countries. In this turbulent and constantly reshaping region, the topic of borders is a central one for cinema – borders both physically and ideologically limit the freedom of people, while suggesting a ‘paradise’ on the other side. Predominantly documentaries, the films tell of a sense of belonging, of connection to a geographical location, and of forced uprootings that result in a loss of the vital source. Another topic recurrent in the films is related to gender self-identification, to human and especially women’s rights and the everyday struggle to find a place in society. Remarkably, most of these films are made or produced by female filmmakers, and the number of successful female filmmakers keeps growing in the region. In Georgia and Armenia their numbers have even surpassed male filmmakers. The third main topic of the cinema of this region concerns memory and the reconsideration of the past. By comparing it to a present that seems both pessimistic and dark, directors seem to look for reasons and maybe also answers in a supposedly more glorious time.

To summarize, one should note that in recent decades the Lesser Caucasus has been one of the most turbulent places in the world, regularly distorting the lives and destinies of its inhabitants. Currently, one of the few beneficiaries of this turmoil is a cinematic mirror that is able to reflect this troubled landscape as an endless source for inspiration.