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Compressing Time, Expanding Horizons: The Armenian Film Festival of San Francisco in February 2004
By Bedros Afeyan
Armenian News Network / Groong March 1,2004
A Magnificent Feat
Three talented and relentlessly driven curators (Anahid Kassabian, Thea Farhadian and Hrayr Anmahouni) together with seventeen Armenian Film Festival (AFF) committee members and nine tireless volunteers, pulled off an amazing feat after two years of struggle, in a span of three days, February 20-22, 2004, here in San Francisco. They managed to present on the big screen, in a lovely venue (Delancey Street Theater, 600 Embarcadero) a wide variety of authentic and compelling faces, voices and spirits of Armenians and Armenianness through the medium of mostly experimental and independently produced cinema. Whether it be in Eastern or Western Armenian dialects, French, English or a variety of other wafting linguistic interjections and impositions, here we were, in the flesh, dancing and twirling in the overarching worlds of odars, Ararad, Beirut, dolma, New Jersey, zurna, Fresno, intimate living rooms and even more intimate kitchens, LA, prisons, Karabagh, churches, Paris, monasteries, Yerevan, ruins, Gyumri, music halls, New York, bedrooms, Toronto, mental health centers, Milano, court rooms-- with loss, lament, rejoicing, singing, bragging, doubting and celebrating our diversity, enveloping the proceedings. The San Francisco Armenian film festival (SF AFF) was an unqualified success and packed full houses all throughout its length.
The experience was overwhelming, simply overwhelming. Upon reflection, the effusion of positive or validating emotions one felt while sitting through these multifaceted yet eerily intertwined manifestations of Our world, led to the realization that culture lives only if it diversifies, just as Darwin insisted is the case with biological living creatures. Cultural fragmentations and diffusion, expansion and boundless spreading represent the necessary avenues for survival and cultural replenishment. For the future of Armenians, death would follow strict ultra conservatism in taste and behavior. When we hear only Gomidas, only Barouyr Sevag, only Khatachadourian and only Saroyan or Paradjanov, we should know that the end is near. And yet, if we are served up this human circus of sometimes bizarre and unique acts of courage and vision, drive and perseverance to state our case, show our plight, sing our songs and heave with pride, then that diversity ensures that we are here, we shall stay on and still multiply, as the poet Barouyr Sevag said some time ago...
In one evening and two whole days (an entire weekend, in short), thirty-two films were shown with four minute to feature length ones interlaced in sequences of two to two and a half hour units, separated by short breaks which were never enough! But how could one step away from this parade of national panorama for too long? The precision of the sculpting of the program in the hands of the able curators cannot be praised enough. This meta-editing that they did of fitting and forming film super structures resonating and enhancing each others’ points of view by contrast and reinforcement, by comparison and dissimilarity, by pushing and pulling our skirts and our thoughts to reveal the essence of who we are, who we are becoming and how our dreams and visions measure up against our realities, was superb. Yes, the genocide was there, the Lebanese civil war was there, the 1988 earthquake in Armenia was there, assimilation and justification of American ambivalence in identity and ethnicity were there in spades, but so was our core which came through with such dignity and class, with such purity and motive force, that all you could do is marvel at how nontrivial and complicated our poor enclaves of indigenous civilization happen to be and how much fun to see it on display on the big screen without the stereotypes of Hollywood or other concomitant degradations and trivializations.
Even badly lit, grainy, slow paced, very low production values suffering gems were a delight. Perhaps alone, they would not have been as appealing, but shored up by their rag tag cousins and comrades, these films could only enforce the notion that we should be looking to tell our stories beyond the long shadows of the pillars of our mainstream culture. I mean those sure fire, tried and true elements we tend to cling to steadfastly. We have new music and old musicians, we have avant-garde experimentalists (Cathy Berberian, for instance) and champions, criminal defense lawyers who shatter engrained and racist American injustice, duduk players who sing as birds and fly as kites through the ages of our past, enshrined monasteries and a cappella haunting waves of sound which lead the cameras in and out of where our ancestors have been, beckoning for our return and our respect. Diversity of views and venues made the ensemble of these movies a breathtaking validation of our stirring pot of vibrant, multifaceted national or ethnic verve and vivaciousness, coming through, together with the sorrow, the suspiciousness, the doubt and the heaviness of heart that comes from Soviet living in Yerevan, earthquake in Gyumri, civil war in Lebanon, war of liberation in Karabagh, and a Turkish perpetrated genocide still actively denied.
The actual movie titles and credits are listed on the web site www.armenianfilmfestival.org. Please take a look! Also, if you plan on seeing how you can bring this festival to your neck of the woods, please contact one or more of the curators at their e-mail addresses: AnahidKassabian@yahoo.com, thea_ny@yahoo.com, and ehrayr@yahoo.com.
It would be a shame if the grand efforts made by this team of dedicated Armenian movie enthusiasts, who put this festival together, were to not become the bounty of every Armenian community from Buenos Aires, to Beirut, Los Angeles to Paris, Athens and London, by way of NJ, NY, MA, MI, PA, Toronto and Montreal, and yes, Yerevan. All cities that have major Armenian communities ought to look into repeating what was done in San Francisco with such enthusiastic success in February 2004. The hard work is done. A program exists, the movies and the logistics of securing copies also exist. The rest is in the hands of non-traditional Armenian cultural event organizers everywhere. And no, watching video versions does not come close to the experience one gains in a movie house with the big screen, the dark room and the attention of all those paying a fortune for parking outside and baby sitters at home.
Highlights of 32 Flavors of Armenianness
Here, I would like to elaborate further on the movies that touched me the most. This is not to say that the rest are somehow inferior or irrelevant. It’s just that these few penetrated deeper and stayed longer in my consciousness well after the three day steady dose of delights that the SF AFF made possible.
The festival began with a French animated short, Ligne de Vie (Lifeline), by Sergei Avedikian, 12 min., which depicts imprisonment, anguish, man’s inhumanity to man, in gouache colors and very simple sound effects, bringing you down to the level of the struggle to be, to create, to excel and not be shot or shut down. Alas, in this case, the newly arrived free spirit in this prison is soon hung from the prison yard after his hands are cut off and he still continues to try and draw with his stumps. He is killed just because he sketches and expresses himself in prison and does not give up on his identity and his aspirations. The movie is spectacular because it depicts what we may go through internally to maintain our spirits and identities while pressures and forces external to us attempt to crush us or make uniform jelly out of us. Except here, in this movie, external events and punishments, physical abuse and imprisonment are used as metaphors for the inner struggle of the artist or the free thinker or the unshackled spirit in all of us. This is a strong and wonderful 35 mm work, which was made in 2002.
The festival ended with yet another 35 mm work from 2002, a French feature length film, Aram, by Robert Kechichian. This was by far the most mainstream and wide audience
appeal seeking movie of the festival which also made its American debut. It is the story of a freedom fighter, Aram, his soon to marry an odar and embark on the road of possible assimilation sister, Meline’, and his Turkish bullet paralyzed brother, Levon. The story has Aram wanting to relinquish his violent past, stop his involvement in Karabagh’s continuing struggle for independence and try and make a peaceful life for himself back in France. Alas, Levon does not allow this, becomes wounded in an assassination attempt of a high level Turkish general heading the grey wolves, and leads Aram on the path of revenge, self examination, confrontation with his father (who disapproves of his emersion in violence) and eventual return (or exile) to karabagh after he succeeds to take care of business in Paris. This is a movie where Armenians are cock sure, know what they want and get what they need. It is not about Armenians with heads bowed, as the director himself explained after the screening. Armenians are in charge of their fate in this movie and they never lose that. The Turkish war machine cannot overpower a determined cadre of freedom fighters who are smuggling arms into Karabagh for its war of liberation and otherwise are not taking their plight sitting down. It is a study of what violence leads to in this world, its intended and unintended consequences, its humanizing and dehumanizing elements and inevitabilities. The movie is slick and very French, in its point of view, as the director insisted it was, in his Q&A after the screening. He was met with much applause!
The consequences of violence again play a significant role in the two “sister” movies, The Pink Elephant, 30 minute video from 1987, by Ara Madzounian and Nigol Bezjian’s Roads Full of Apricots, 35 minute video from 2001. The scene is Beirut during and after the civil war. In the Pink Elephant, a theatrical piece is being rehearsed by this troupe while bombs steadily fall closer and closer, till the players run down to the basement make shift bomb shelter. They converse and try and decide whether they can continue, what theater’s role is at times like these, what chances a rumored cease fire has of taking hold, what makes people behave the way they do and so on. It is a wonderful mood piece with extravagantly well thought out corners, shades and details. Shot darker than necessary, Madzunian makes the mood more somber in contrast to the vibrant, youthful sexy exterior facades of the nervous actors. The movie also employs a juxtaposed collage of stills from the war accompanying the sounds of dropping bombs proclaiming impending doom in no uncertain terms. It is a UCLA film school thesis work by a young Madzounian holding much promise.
The newer update on this theme has a strong voice over element. In the Road full of Apricots, there are scanned shots of a set of apricots intercutting Lebanese civil war video and still photos and this Lebanese woman’s return home from a stint in LA. She wants to be home and we hear her depicting changes, laments, memories, old lovers, food smells and food preparation rituals that she can still enjoy and all the longing of a chicken who returns to her hen house to find her nest trampled and her eggs spilled by the way side. Meanwhile, slow camera strokes visit the picture of a few fresh off the vine apricots, which measure dreams and unqualified pleasure no longer attainable in this milieu. You could easily say that these are anti-war, war is absurd, look at this mess proclaiming movies from the Middle Eastern Armenian point of view.
Moving to Armenia, there were some gems at this festival. Duduk, Musicians and Prison Art, are three documentaries with great depth and perceptive essence. Duduk was by far my favorite. It was extremely humorous and touching at the same time. It is a 50 minute video from 2002 by Vardan Hakopian, which has Djivan Gasparyan as its superstar (he is the world renown musician you can hear, for instance, in the movie The Passion of the Christ, with Dle’ Yaman and other Armenian fare draped above the Arameic background). But even Djivan with his imperial ways is overshadowed in this movie by the large number of working duduk players who feel and exude great pride towards their art and their own (non-superstar) lives. The sense of humor is very strongly honed and ever present. The rivalries, ribbing, teasing, bargaining, and finally playing the duduk and other instruments at weddings, funerals, wakes, and pseudo-pagan rituals (Diar’ntarach, Vartevar, etc.) still practiced in Armenia. All this is precious and vintage Armenian folklore preserved for our eyes and ears to feast upon.
Prison Art is a masterpiece in its own right. Gennady Melkonyan and Garegin Zakoyan’s twenty-six minute video is from 1998. In a remote setting, there is a maximum security prison where murderers and other extreme offenders are barb wired in with guarded high towers overlooking the prison yard. Mountains are distant backdrops and the scenery is beautiful except these head shaved inmates are going nowhere. Despite their diminishing options, they somehow participate in the creation of mostly religious relic art! They make crosses and rosaries, statues and paintings and in miniature too. Some of these are beautiful indeed. You would not know by looking at these poor folks that they would have it in them to literally knead breadcrumbs to such giant works of self-expression. The human condition, flawed, broken and deliberated still finds shades of hope and commitment in the strangest of settings.
By far my favorite movie of the entire festival was The Land of Holy Rites, 62 min., 35 mm, 2002, by Edgar Baghdasaryan, which has no dialog at all. This is a work of true cinema with emotions, story line, point of view and even history lesson all rolled into one. It is simply beautiful. The film narrative traverses Athens to Jerusalem to Rome to Armenia to Karabagh to Armenia again, to ancient monasteries, to time lapse photography, to clouds carrying the sorrows of these ruins away, to rain washing their shiny facades, as the sun rising again and calming the natural order until it becomes a quiet lullaby. This is a movie to behold! Its music is potent, its juxtapositions and interlaced images make you see the connections in our past and their ties to our possible future. I cannot stress enough how powerful this film is as a cinematic experience, all on its own, and as an emotional probe for every Armenian’s soul. If nothing else, find and see this movie, preferably on the big screen.
I should say that there were a number of experimental works and quite daring attempts at forging movie grammar, Armenian style. Here I would single out a 13 minute piece by Diane Hakobyan from Armenia which is provocative and appealing. A woman questions the roles society might expect her to play by finger painting leading questions on a transparent vertical board from the other side of which the camera looks on. Once the question is posed, a set of fast intercut images portray what a yes answer might look like, as if asking back, is this really what you mean, or want? Another experimental avant guard work is Hrayr Anmahouni’s 25 min. visual contemplation that ends up blurring and unblurring images and scenes of a hip-hop-esque version of Vahe Oshagan’s reading of his own poem, Tebi Gyank (Towards Life).
There are also two very important documentaries in this collection, one by Sevan Matossian, 84 min., video, 2002, called Our House and the other by Roxanne Makasdjian Bezjian, 58 min., video, 1992, entitled, Charles Garry: Street Fighter in Our Courtroom. The first depicts a half way home for retarded and handicapped patients who are in a tough spot since they are not wards of the state (they have not been declared mentally incompetent, and you wonder why not), but are not quite able to be all there either. Their plight is moving, their progress slow and intermittent, their frequent failures, touching. All this is very carefully chronicled by a very young and up and coming documentary filmmaker, Mr. Matossian.
Ms. Makasdjian’s movie is an homage to a larger than life Quixotic warrior in our courts (from the fifties until his death in 1991 when he was in his eighties), a Mr. Charles Garabedian who found it easier going through his adult life calling himself Charles Garry, after years of discrimination and injustice he witnessed as an Armenian in Fresno. Mr. Garry defended notorious criminals and innocent revolutionaries and changed much of what was accepted legal practice in California, Connecticut and elsewhere via his numerous landmark victories, such as in the cases of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale of the (Oakland, CA) Black Panthers movement. This too is a student film but it is wonderful in its thorough journalistic rigor and pounding clarity. Mr. Garabedian comes across as a complex and driven man, who used his Armenian background and experience to better the lot of all Americans ill-treated by our criminal justice system. That kind of catharsis is rare and very much worth noting, as Roxanne does in her film.
Suggestions for the Future and Conclusions
What can you do to have a go at acquiring the means of screening this kind of cinematic embarras de richesse in your community? I would suggest contacting the curators, their e-mails were given above, and telling them just how many hours and screens you want to plan for. I would suggest making sure that there is adequate time for dinner and breaks and the steadfast belief that the audience will want to see it all. You can expect full houses and you can expect an appreciative attentive audience, if San Francisco is any measure. But before shelling out one or two thousand dollars per hour long (or more) 35mm film, with insurance, and shipping and so on, you should select the number of such movies you can show and still have a captive audience on a long weekend, say, soaking it all up. You can separate the sessions enough to have Q&A after every session and to have the directors at hand to discuss their projects with the public in a leisurely manner. We had the luxury of having half a dozen or more of the directors here, for instance, and they were certainly ready and eager to mingle and share their visions beyond the small number of Q&A’s that were part of the scheduled program.
The AFF idea must take root wherever it can. A repeat is scheduled for New York City in April. Stay tuned for more news on that and start beating the drums wherever you are: the duduks and zurnas, the monasteries and Mt. Ararad could be coming your way and searing your memory with the panorama of Armenianness, whether it be by way of lesbians, prisoners, war victims, deaf mutes, musicians, freedom fighters, dancers, proud and potent or ambivalent and self-justifying in their assimilation, and everything in between, all there to sample and digest in your town’s very own Armenian Film Festival. The number of significant Armenian movies not included in this festival is at least four (perhaps up to ten) times as large as the number shown. So you should expect future SF AFF’s and more work for future tireless curators to mold sequences and ensembles out of these disparate clime fruits. And remember, they will need your vital support to keep up the good work.


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