On the Sidelines, but Noteworthy: Three Documentaries at the AFFMA Film Festival This Weekend
BY MYRNA DOUZJIAN
The AFFMA Film Festival is less than a week away, and, this year, courtesy of the screeners provided by the organizers of the festival, I had the chance to review several of the documentaries on the program. Though the feature highlights of the weekend remain the opening and closing night films – “Lost and Found in Armenia” and “If Only Everyone,” respectively – I would argue that, as in previous years, some of the films on the sidelines are quite worthy of audience attention. Though stylistically and thematically distinct, the three films I have in mind – “Memories Without Borders,” “Armenian Activists Now!” and “Armenian Rhapsody” – bring unique material to the documentary genre of Armenian film.
An initiative of the UK-based peace-building organization, Conciliation Resources, “Memories Without Borders” was produced by the collective efforts of a team of Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Turkish directors – Levon Kalantar, Ayaz Salayev, and Mehmet Binay. This documentary broaches the subject of relations between Armenia and its two most hostile neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan, through the lens of personal histories. It portrays the memories of four individuals across the region in order to demonstrate the long-lasting effects of the Genocide and the Karabakh war. As the introduction to the film puts it, this documentary gives a voice to civilians impacted by the historico-political currents of the South Caucasus: “Between closed borders, ordinary lives continue to be haunted by extraordinary memories.”
“Memories Without Borders” delivers on the promise of its intriguing title by presenting intersections between the Turkish, Armenian, and Azerbaijani narratives that it depicts. The first chapter features the experience of a Turk who, in his adulthood, learns about his Armenian heritage; the second portrays the grandson of a Genocide survivor who repatriates to Karabakh from France; the third, related by an Azerbaijani woman, recounts the displacement of the Yerevan Azerbaijani State Drama Theatre as a result of the Karabakh war; finally, in the last chapter, an Armenian woodworker describes the creation of his masterpiece – a chess set made up of carved pieces of Turkish and Armenian national and cultural figures. The stories presented in each of the chapters, though unrelated in terms of their immediate focus, raise questions about the rigidity of geographical borders, and, by extension, national and ethnic identities. The message comes across most clearly in the words of the woodworker: “No one lives forever, not even those who create borders.” Along these same lines, arguably every chapter in the film, though less overtly, makes a case for the logic of transcending national divides.
All in all, “Memories Without Borders” is a must-see because of its novel approach to the representation of the geopolitical conflicts that plague Armenia. The film offers more than just a pacifist message about regional conflict; it open-endedly frames provocative questions about identity and personal choice, forcing viewers to grapple with the reality of traumatic histories – irrespective of which side of the border one calls home.
While we might consider “Memories Without Borders” a performative documentary – one that emphasizes personal and emotional experience in a stylized way – “Armenian Activists Now!” is more of an observational documentary that proceeds, for the most part, through scenes of various protests and a series of interviews with Armenian activists and grassroots organizers. Though it manages to cover all of the major fronts of activism in Armenia, including the environment, election processes, women’s rights, corruption, and animal welfare, “Armenian Activists Now!” has an unfortunately amateurish feel to it. In fact, the amount of material the film presents is one of its greatest weaknesses. That is to say, there’s a great deal of material that needs to be unpacked and contextualized, but oftentimes the film only provides fast-paced bits of information on each of the areas of activism it treats.
Among some of its other flaws are scenes that seem irrelevant or, at best, not terribly important. The Armenian-American singer-songwriter and political activist Serj Tankian appears in one of these, and though his presence in a documentary about Armenian activism makes complete sense, the scene remains random because it does not say much about him or his relationship to the film’s specific content. As a result, in such instances, the viewer is left wanting more by way of an explication from the documentary.
Nevertheless, Robert Davidian, the director/producer of “Armenian Activists Now!,” manages to impress by virtue of the task that he has undertaken – a pioneering attempt at documenting the crucial role of activism in the formative years of Armenia’s contemporary statehood. For that very reason, this documentary can, at the very least, be put to good use as filmic material for high school Hai Tad classes, since it has limitless potential to spur lively discussions on civic duty, activism, and contemporary Armenian politics.
The third documentary, “Armenian Rhapsody,” directed by Cassiana Der Haroutiounian, Cesar Gananian, and Gary Gananian, is stylistically mixed, incorporating both observational and performative modes of filmmaking. As the synopsis indicates, “‘Armenian Rhapsody’ is a road movie, made of a polyphony of characters where the faces and the music are the real protagonists. As in a rhapsody, the film is made of a juxtaposition of musical and narrative fragments with variations in theme, intensity and tone.” And, by extension, just as a rhapsody is associated with improvisation, the film, too, has the qualities of spontaneity and genuineness. The film’s beautifully scored scenes naturally flow like a collage that represents Armenia’s fabric.
The documentary’s exposition creates the effect of flipping through a photo album (set to music, of course): the first few minutes are filled with numerous and lengthy shots of the expressive faces of figures who play a role in the film. After the seemingly endless catalog of individuals, the film moves on to depict several interviews, as well as the wedding day of a diasporan Armenian couple. Some of the most engaging moments along the way include interviews with a 95-year-old Armenian man, a World War II veteran, and the guard of the Khor Virab Monastery. Strikingly, the latter among the three claims that his overgrown moustache bears the traces of his history. But the most powerful moment in the documentary comes with the interview of a middle-aged woman who speaks about her life and her family, mentioning her son and grandchildren who live in America. When she goes on to detail the trials and tribulations of her life, overcome with emotion, she is unable to complete her sentence. Then, for several long seconds, the audience must confront only what this woman feels, what she cannot say. The scene is brilliantly raw, and the directors rightfully take the time to emphasize its affective energy.
Though for the most part the film’s fragmented style is both conceptually and stylistically effective, it has one questionable scene: during an interview with a diasporan couple, the conversation is interrupted by reportage on the Spitak earthquake. The news footage provides information about the calamity that the interviewee is unable to articulate; however, it comes off as an extreme departure from the remaining parts of the film – an uncharacteristic break from the rest of the “road movie.” Aside from this minor incongruity and the need for more professionally translated subtitles, “Armenian Rhapsody” is as idiosyncratic as the array of characters it features. Simply, a joy to watch.
“Memories Without Borders,” “Armenian Activists Now!” and “Armenian Rhapsody” may not have made it to prime time on the AFFMA Film Festival’s program, but they’ll certainly give die-hard moviegoers a great deal to think and talk about next weekend.
Myrna Douzjian is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at UCLA, where she teaches literature and composition courses. You can reach her or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at email@example.com. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.