DARK FOREST OF HISTORY: The Making of a Documentary
By Hovig Tchalian, from Critics' Forum
A special edition DVD of the film, Dark Forest in the Mountains:
Surviving the Theater of Perpetual War, has recently been
released by Fugitive Studios. The DVD includes the documentary of the same
name, which recounts episodes in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict and was
originally filmed in 1994. This re-mastered version of the original
DVD (the first re-release won the AFFMA Awards Jury Prize in 2002)
also includes additional footage, a journal of war photos, and a
brief but arresting digitally animated history of Armenia.
By far the most significant addition to the DVD, however, is the
documentary film, Hands and a Homeland, shot by the filmmaker, Roger
Kupelian, upon his return to Armenia a decade later, in 2004. The
new documentary includes interviews with people involved with and
affected by the war – soldiers, medics and surviving families with
whom Kupelian came in contact as an embedded journalist on the front
lines in 1994.
By their very nature, documentaries are often fragmented, episodic.
And Kupelian's films are, in that respect, true to the genre. The
juxtaposition of the two films, in fact, acts as an additional
fragmentation of sorts, allowing the later film to serve as a gloss
on the earlier one. The result is a complex composite that
highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of Dark Forest, raising
in the process a number of important issues about the two films,
their subject matter, as well as the documentary form itself.
The 1994 film focuses primarily on the origins of the Nagorno-
Karabagh conflict. It also documents the daily lives of the
soldiers and families struggling through the protracted war precipitated in
the early 1990's between the neighboring nations of Armenia and
Azerbaijan. We see original footage of the war as well
as "portraits" of soldiers and commanders, medics and heroes,
families and children. Interviews with scholars and historians
and a narrative voiceover provide additional explanation and commentary.
The first few episodes of the 1994 film are by far the most
episodic. Together, they present the immediate background to the
conflict. (The separate animated history places it in its larger
historical context.) They also weave in several portraits of
soldiers and commanding officers, including one of Garo Kahejian, a
leader of a group of men who is reported as having been killed in
battle, but only after being presented as, ironically, himself
the "grandson of Genocide survivors."
This final portrait is woven in somewhat less than deftly,
unfortunately, leaving the impression that, in this case at least,
what matter is less the story of Garo than its historical
antecedent. Without immediate recourse to the animated history of
Armenia, the viewer is surprised, almost taken aback, by the sudden
introduction of the Genocide question at this point in the film.
The sudden shift in focus fails to do justice to the historical irony of
Garo's tale, allowing it to be engulfed by the enormity of the
subject instead of presenting it as one element (albeit an important
one) in the film's larger trajectory.
The rest of the 1994 film and its 2004 epilogue offer a direct, and
by and large more compelling, response to this initial moment of
crisis. In essence, the films together try to answer the implicit
question raised by the first – "How does one begin to speak of the
One sequence in the episode entitled "the great game," for example,
follows a group of soldiers planning a campaign. Kupelian carefully
describes the struggles and vicissitudes of battle that help
illuminate the implications of the larger conflict. Another simple
but effective sequence presents an interview with a medic, who
suggests that the battle for Karabagh is meant to avoid another
forced exodus of Armenians, like the ones from Van, Mush, and
Erzerum, in the early twentieth century.
In perhaps the most effective sequence of all, we watch and
listen to a father recount how, after several returns from battle unscathed,
his son playfully accused him of having misled him about the war and
gone off to spend time with friends instead. The father goes on to
say that his son's curiosity about the war soon led him, along with
his cousin, to put on their fathers' clothes and sneak off to the
Perhaps better than any other sequence in Dark Forest, this
retelling of a true story highlights in almost novelistic fashion the
difficult vagaries of the conflict: a son who jokes that his soldier father is
deceiving him then proceeds to assume his father's identity and take
matters into his own hands by heading to the battlefront. The
episode illustrates in uncanny fashion both the father's and son's
depth of commitment to a cause and the occasional absurdity of the
war that united them in it. What is more, the audience is
allowed to take in the story unfiltered, unadorned. To his credit, Kupelian
films the father seated alone in the backseat of a car, the lens
focused on his face, telling his tale as he knows it.
Sequences such as these help make the second half of the 1994 film
more convincing than the first. In the second half, the film raises
issues more skillfully and less intrusively than in the first, less
as weighty questions that hang over the film or intrude at
inopportune moments than as the its true subtext, haunting its
narrative like the duduk music that permeates so much of its span.
The 2004 film presents a "where are they now" series of episodes in
which, during individual interviews, the people introduced in the
first film comment on the war, its significance, and its effect on
their lives. Most important of all, the 2004 film presents two
related issues that help clarify and begin to answer the questions
raised by the 1994 film – the theme of "perpetual war" and its
antecedent notion of a perpetual struggle for existence.
We are told by one of the soldiers, for instance, that the 1994
truce between Armenia and Karabagh is no more than an illusory victory and
that the Nagorno-Karabagh region cannot be truly independent so long
as nations do not recognize its right to exist. And historian Levon
Marashlian suggests that without its "symbiotic" relationship with
Karabagh, Armenia would not survive. He adds that the historical
example of Nakhichevan serves as a solemn reminder of what can
happen to Karabagh, and by implication, Armenia itself. The region, which
lies immediately south of present-day Armenia, was carved out by
Stalin and, as a consequence, lost its entire population of
Armenians, which at one time made up 40% of the people living there.
Finally, Marashlian makes the explicit link between the Nagorno-
Karabagh conflict and the Armenian Genocide of the early twentieth
century – by killing one and a half million Armenians and thereby
bringing the nation to the brink of extinction, he explains, the
Ottoman Turks precipitated the desperate struggle for existence that
has raged ever since. The comment effectively "closes the loop"
with the one made by the medic in the 1994 film – that the struggle for
Nagorno-Karabagh is the response to the forced exodus of Armenians
from Van, Mush and Erzerum.
Dark Forest in the Mountains raises long-standing and difficult
questions about the struggle for independence, for family and for
survival and deals with them effectively and convincingly. The film
occasionally suffers from awkward moments but is generally well-
paced and features skillful editing, narration, sub-titling, and
direction. Perhaps the next iteration (in 2014?) will blend the two
films together and find an even stronger narrative thread. But
until then, the present version more than lives up to its name. (A brief
mention in the DVD's animated history explains the somewhat
mysterious origin of the film's title – Dark Forest in the Mountains
is a loose translation of "Nagorno-Karabagh.") Despite occasionally
losing its way, the latest version of Kupelian's film nonetheless
skillfully navigates the dark forest of history and emerges intact.
Roger Kupelian is a visual effects artist whose credits include Lord
of the Rings and the recent Flags of Our Fathers. He is currently
working on a docudrama about the legend of Vartan Mamigonian.
All Rights Reserved: Critics Forum, 2007
Hovig Tchalian holds a PhD in English literature from UCLA. He has
edited several journals and also published articles of his own.
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