Film Essays & Articles >> I HATE DOGS / BACK TO ARARAT : A REVIEW
A REVIEW OF "I HATE DOGS/BACK TO ARARAT" A forgotten genocide: Two Documentary films by Pea Holmquist and Suzanne Khardalian
By Bedros Afeyan
Two superb documentary films, certainly in the must see category, are available on DVD for the whole world to get acquainted once again with the Armenian Genocide and its indelible traces on the generations of its survivors and their children. They are the work of the husband and wife documentary film making team, Pea Holmquist and Suzanne Khardalian of Sweden. These two newly available films are bundled together on a single DVD, since one is a gem lasting 29 minutes only, "I Hate Dogs," released in 2005, while the other is a 100 minute work, "Back to Ararat," dating back to 1988. More info on these films and the rest of the oeuvre of this couple can be found at their web site: http://www.peaholmquist.com/ararat/. For more information on the availability of the DVD in the US contact Raffy Ardhaldjian at anmf@aol.com.
The two movies under review, "I Hate Dogs" and "Back to Ararat," are bookends of sorts. They compliment each other and close the loop on a chapter of our history and national struggle when our presence on the international political scene was picking up steam and chalking up some of its first victories in the mid to late '80's. The air was fresh and full of hope, the Karabagh movement was getting afoot in Armenia, The Lebanese Armenians had withstood a bloody civil war without undue involvement, the Armenian American public was demanding recognition and raising the public opinion stakes for the pro-Turkish lobbies to up the ante over and over again (a game that has not reached its steady state yet), in Europe recognition was being adopted by governments starting with the international human rights counsel and the world court at Le Hague. All this is captured in "Back to Ararat" and so much more. It is a look at an obscure page of world history dating back to the first world war where the young Turks (Ittihadist party mavericks) desperate to resuscitate a glorious empire in ruin, decided to exterminate the unassimilatable Armenian population and make room for the muslim refugees that were streaming in from Europe and other parts of the ex-Ottoman empire. A systematic extermination of an entire race, the Armenians, who were the indigenous people of Eastern Anatolia, defenseless and unarmed, spread thin and vulnerable, a perceived impediment to Pan-Turanical megalomania. Between 70 and 90 years hence, two movies set the stage and prepare the scene. In Back to Ararat, we get some of the first authentic glances (circa 1985) on what has really become of our cities and towns in Western Armenia, lost to Turkey. A Swedish film maker goes back there and looks for the traces of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, the Turkish occupied territories of our ancestral homeland. And he finds an Armenian or two, still there in Diarbekir, old, abandoned, still reciting psalms and singing revolutionary songs from the First World War Era, warning of the massacres to come, the genocide afoot. These isolated incidents are amazing to watch. Who are these ladies? All living and dressing like old Turkish villagers but cognizant of their past, warning the film maker to stop asking about the Ermeni, lest he be taken away by the Turkish police himself... And the ruins of our churches and castles, our shining cities of the middle ages, our entire civilization replaced by desolation, poverty, nomadic tribes, chickens, sheep and dogs, unpaved roads and ruins of a future which never came to be.
Back to Ararat is a masterpiece of breath and depth made up of the smallest of pieces. A young Armenian couple about to be married in NY. They are full of energy and hope. They want to go back and rebuild Armenia one day. Their parents are less brazen and more accepting of a defeated state of affairs. In fact, they have rationalizations of the hopelessness and thus the futility of the Armenian freedom fighters movement, which their son in law fully admires. In another scene, we see the Armenian schools and community armed guards in Beirut keeping Bourj Hamoud safe for Armenians (ten years or more after the start of that civil war), despite the incendiary tenseness all around them. We also see Armenian Lebanese politicians professing mediation as the route to success in the peace they all seek. The Catholicos (Karekin) is there, hopeful, eloquent, speaking of the rebirth of the spirit and spirituality of a people, amidst the bullet ridden walls of the surrounding towns. You see Yerevan, street demonstrations, Gorbachev preaching a new day, a new page, a new way, and then he sent in the tanks to Karabagh, and killing Armenians was fashionable once again... You see European Armenians, mostly in France, who are refugees from the death marches and the genocidal acts of the Turks, 70 years later, recounting of the detailed horrors they witnessed in person. Their children and grand children around them for comfort but the shock overtakes them too. Their grandparents are not used to talking about this and the children and grand children are not used to seeing the magnitude of the horror that is all bottled up. The tension is real, French and Armenian are used in turns, the authenticity of the horrors and their branded, seared consequences are in the walk and in the talk of these old men and women, making a go of it in Lyon. Then they gather outside the Hague where for the first time, a world court accepted the Armenian genocide as fact, despite the protestations and threats of the Turkish government to stop trade with whomsoever dares to besmirch the valiant and gallant past of their forebears... At least there, that day, the truth and justice both prevailed.
Yet the camera of Mr. Holmquist soars over our mountains and dried up valleys and we hear in voice-over and inter-cuts, names of survivors, their birthplaces and numbers of relatives lost to the genocide, being read out loud on Time Square, at the April 24th commemoration ceremonies in 1985, in NYC. Our mountains are silent, resigned and desolate in Anatolia, yet the names of the villages long gone are rung out as echoes of the past, singing in the consciousness of newer generations of Armenians and justice conscious people everywhere. Our music, our dances, our traditions in their modern embodiments, the remnant churches and symbols, all meld in to paint the true colors of a people divided and scattered but still in search of a road back to Ararat, our destiny, to Ararat, our destination (as goes the poem). The opposite bookend comes in "I hate Dogs." It is another twenty years later, and now there are no more eye witness survivors of the atrocities committed by the Turks left. And if there are, they are few and far between. So this Swedish couple of documentary film makers, go and find a man in his nineties in Paris who was orphaned by the genocide of 1915 and is still lucid enough to tell all about it. Enter the hero of the movie, "I Hate Dogs," together with his son, granddaughter and the next generation after that as well. The movie has a very fast but self assured pace. A Holmquist-Khardalian movie has a very distinctive style. While the subject matter influences the pace and presentation mode, there is a perfection of editing style, usage of music and lighting, of repetition, of reinforcement, of highlighting and rapid winking that is wonderful to behold. This is a movie full of humor celebrating the joie the vivre of its subjects, even though the story that is being told, the story that gives the movie its title, is harrowing indeed. The odds in this tale are long. A death march orphaned boy of eight or so, finds his way to orphanages, some primary education, hard work, entrepreneurship, indefatigable spirit and self confidence and ends up being a successful businessman in France. He is now in his nineties and ready to tell his tale. His family is all around him, they are at their summer home, all remade by hand, one tree planted after the other, to resemble the orchards his parents had back home in Anatolia, Armenia proper. While in France, enjoying his freedom and his opulent surroundings, he can never forget where he came from, his mother, the last time he saw her, his father and his brutal end. He is in tears, his son, himself no spring chicken, a Frenchman through and through by sight, speaks Armenian, even if somewhat strained, with great conviction and honesty. He is proud of his dual heritage. His adopted homeland and his ethnic core. We see them looking at old family films from the fifties, when this son was a toddler and we hear the family stories, at least three generations worth. This is a celebration. Calamity did strike, and yet this gem of a family was made possible through it all. They have their soft spots and weak points but here is an authentic Armenian existence in the most luxurious valleys of France, with rich soil and sun, and yet the story of the father, the father left behind, dragged along so that they will never forget and never give up their quest for justice.
These are two eloquent stories of breathing, living Armenian spirits, not degenerating into self absorbed, self-justifying irrelevancy, as is the case of other testimonials of late, but the story of Armenians rolling with the punches and yet preserving some dignity throughout the ordeals that would break many a lesser man. These are not superheros or larger than life characters. In fact, they are miniscule in build and soft spoken old men and women, somehow refusing to go away and let the giant superpower that tried to kill them off get away with it. Their survival is a giant blow in the face of "sweep it under the rug and move on" mongering Turkish governments who to this day think that this strategy will work. That somehow, no matter how barbaric and oppressive and non liberal they may be, the door to join Europe will be open to them and they will laugh all the way to a subsidy and a much higher standard of living any minute now. Let us hope that history teaches humility to the murderers and non-repentant bullies.
Holmquist and Khardalian give interviews as added tracks on the DVD explaining how these movies were made, their styles, aspirations and motivations. Throughout it all there is much poetic talent, an overabundance of (dry, Swedish) humor and a dedication to film and the truth that is exemplary indeed.
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 the web by clicking on his personal web pages at: http://208.177.152.139/
This article was originally posted on groong.org.


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