Film Essays & Articles >> Garden Dwelling
Garden Dwelling by Tina Bastajian (Turkey/USA, 2004, 29 min, Beta SP)
Armenian News Network / Groong January 31, 2005
by Bedros Afeyan
If you find yourself between the moon and New York City on February the 5th, 2005, at 6 PM, you might want to go to the NYU Cantor Film Center in the Village and give "Garden Dwelling" a go. There you will listen to 25 minutes of snippets of Armenian, garbles of Turkish, formal Arabic mangled between a Turk and a Lebanese Armenian, neither of them aware of that which they do not know, some French in the hands of a Lebanese Armenian woman and now a French "archeologist," or so it seems, and lots of English spackle to attempt to hold these mutterings together.
The only certainty in this film, shot in 2003, is that you may not fall in love with it. Garden Dwelling is the newest episode of cultural or ethnic attempted self-discovery served up by the American Armenian film maker, Tina Bastajian. There is such a hefty dose of what happens when someone is so far away from being Armenian, so uncomfortable, ill informed and confused about identity and facts, about depth and ownership, so tentative and superficial, so alien and unapproachable, that all you can expect is the depiction of just that. Failed contact, cracked hopes and vision, half measures, half fissures, nothing leads to nothing, and other adult moans and groans in the name of the long march "home."
There is a lot of self-loathing in all this too. It is a voyage of four hapless Armenians, the two vocal ones being from the middle east, with a curiously weak grasp of any and all languages they speak, trying to get the Turks to say something, to contradict themselves, to lie, to reminisce, to confess, to come clean about what "they" did to the Armenians 90 years ago. Alas, the Turks are too clever for that or too above it. It does not matter what they say and what they make up and what they lie about. More tragic than this is the futile enthusiasm by these make shift, make do detectives to unearth "the truth" while looking in all the wrong places. Every Turkish slip of the tongue then thrills them like a clever prosecution attorney having painted his hostile witness into a corner. Every attempt at false (pathetic) Turkish propaganda makes them speculate and theorize grandiose paranoid webs of what these clever Genocidal Turks might be up to once again...
As if this is not enough to raise many an informed eye brow, one of these characters even phones in extremely negative impressions of Yerevan and Armenia, which is recorded on an answering machine stateside, served up in this movie as an antidote to the marches in Turkey. And what antidote this? He hates Armenia! He finds Armenians there totally taken by their daily economic needs and oblivious of the larger political struggles that are so near and dear to Diaspora Armenians' hearts... uh huh! And then what? Then we get to hear how X-Soviet Armenians (this fellow meets) complain about the Turkish border being closed and the hardships this causes and how it is all the fault of diasporan Armenians who still talk about the recognition of the Genocide of 1915. When reminded that the boycott and border closing are actually the results of the war of liberation in Karabakh, those Yerevantsis clam up... The Lebanese Armenian narrator constantly concludes that he preferred Turkey to Armenia... His explanations are unconvincing. There is good shock value to it though...
Lost souls, belonging nowhere, quixotic, visiting ancestral homelands as American tourists, speaking to randomly chosen, available, yet illiterate Turks about the past and their history! What a brilliant strategy! What could possibly come of such desperate acts? What can anyone expect at Ani, Anatolia or Istanbul? Scholars and historians pondering the tide of duplicity and ferocity that 90 years ago was their trade and well, not much has changed? Should the passing remark on the plight of Kurds and the injustices they suffer today lift this 25 minute romp to a level of respectability it sorely needs? Or is it the protagonists' stated opposition to the US war on Iraq that is supposed to give this story sufficient political correctness to be included in a series in NY on Middle Eastern film studies?
No. What we have here is a lot of talent and ambition, alienation, general bitterness and a misguidedness that cries out for help. There is a choice an American Armenian can make. I will learn my ancestral language and my history and culture. I will grow as an Armenian even on these foreign shores and I will build and enrich my culture. I will do it without denigrating it or selling it short (or out). I will not make something of what I do not know and can not penetrate. I will not simply call it odar or alien or different and strange and patronize the whole bunch of them. I will try and preserve and nourish my culture, even if I do it as a diasporan and not a native of our ancestral lands. This is the hard way. Alternately, caught up in a bona fide yankee world and yankee world view, I can TRY and look back and over my shoulder at what it means to THEM to be Armenian, and I can stick to my blurred vision and confused ears which hear the melding of languages and styles, all of which don't amount to much on these purifying and cleansing rocky shores, with new paint and polish erasing the blood, effacing the faith and force that kept us alive for millennia. Movie after movie, attempt after attempt to say: Look! Look how strange these customs are? Aren't these people weird? Why are they so obsessed with a genocide, with a language, a cuisine, a set of ancient Christian morals, when they can be HAPPY, they can be GIDDY, they can be FREE?
Actually, she knows better than to state this, Ms. Bastajian. What she relishes is the "nothing means nothing" vein of utterance. See? It's all nonsense! See? It's all make believe. So these folks like their customs and those other folks like theirs, and so the strong killed the weak, since they had the ways and means to do it and since the weaks were just not assimilating. So... this is the crucible of history and these are the facts. Why bother? Flip the channel!
This din is always there when video clips are intermixed with straight video from a TV screen, with hand held cameras and super 8 footage and on and on as if it were an homage to Atom Egoyan, complete with the Akhtamar ookhtaknatsoutiun (and close ups of the ancient church's walls riddled with bullet holes which are a permanent record of the fact that the Turkish army has used it as a shooting range and for target practice), the ad libbed dialogue, the half baked translations, the innuendoes, the ennui, the malaise, the accents and foreign turns of phrase, all huddled masses, all lost, all yelling "foul!" 90 years too late, as surrogates for the cries that were undone then, and are less than genuine now, however sober witnesses they may be of our will's decay and decorum, our internal debates and delirium, our palpitations and potage of self pity, unsalted, dauntless and dawdled.
There is a choice to be made. Learn and know your culture or go door to door, left and right, here and there, unprepared, and seek what you have not the means to absorb or attend to, even if history were on your side, nations not dead set against your wishes and expediently stroking the beast, hoping it does not rise up to strike again. Whether an ostrich or a chicken, it is no fate for an Armenian in this day and age. 90 years after the final solution. We should arm ourselves with much more than a camera and a dictionary we can not read in order to maintain or build upon the blood shed so that one day, we can blend in and disappear while dancing the hala or eating dolma straight from the (film) can.
Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found on his personal web pages at: http://208.177.152.139/


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