Turning Poison into Medicine: My Journey as Producer of ‘Three Apples Fell from Heaven’
BY SONA TATOYAN
I love to walk. I can walk for hours and hours in New York City, my current home. My great-grandmother Lucine loved to walk. In the mid- to late-1950′s, she would walk for miles and miles through Aleppo and into the outskirts with my toddler father on her shoulders.
For the last 25 years I have been carrying Lucine on my shoulders.
I’m a first generation Armenian-American, born in Baltimore, Md., to parents from Aleppo. I was raised in small Technicolor American towns in Alabama and Indiana with summers spent with my mother’s family in Syria. I have grown up in a strange dichotomy: the weirdly named, hairy-armed Armenian girl (You are from Syria? You speak Syrian?) in my Mid-Western town; the green-eyed, honey-color-haired American in the markets in old Aleppo. An outsider in each of these existences.
But I grew up feeling burdened by my otherness. Longing to belong. To eat peanut butter, and not zaater sandwiches for lunch. To go to arts and crafts camp on summer vacations, not the mountain resort in the tiny village of Areha in the province of Idlib, from where my maternal family’s livelihood stemmed. I wanted to have sleepovers with my girlfriends Sarah and Heather, not watch Mahmoud slaughter a lamb and then be chased to have its blood be marked upon my forehead.
I begrudged this Armenian-ness. I wanted to be American. Progressive. Educated. First-world. Taheen does not cure a sore throat, mom. It just makes me gag. And everything in the world that I want to do is not amot.
I come from a family of artists and storytellers—actors, musicians, photographers: My great great-grandfather Abkar, the puppeteer in Urfa. My great-grandfather Artin and his brothers, photographers in Aleppo. My grandfather Bedros, an actor and singer. My grandmother Ovsanna, my namesake, telling me the stories of Krikor the Illuminator in the well, recovering his eyesight after being blinded. Stories of angels making premonitions that came true. And from a young age, this mysticism pervaded my life as well. I heard the chattering of ghosts in the hallways of our Indiana home and was petrified by the Virgin Mary’s presence in my bedroom watching over me every night.
I have been open to the magic of stories my whole life. I have been open to what our storytelling can do. I found my own personal salvation at the age of eight, performing on a stage. It helped heal my loneliness. It helped me understand the world a bit better. It helped connect an introverted, taciturn child to the rest of the universe.
Perhaps I have known the story of Lucine from Kharpert. Pregnant, surviving the beheading of her husband. Making her way to Aleppo. Walking.
I have always been someone who asks questions. Incessantly. Someone who has never been satisfied with what is given and accepted as truth. This skepticism directly springs from the disparity between my personal family history and the history that didn’t appear in those books of my schooling. Truth has been something I have had to find on my own. Truth has been something that I haven’t taken for granted and left in the hands of others.
During my years of university in North Carolina, I had the honor of studying with the poet Maya Angelou twice. In the summer of 1998 in between the two courses, I began reading her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I became engrossed in her personal journey as a young Black woman in the United States, breaking boundaries and making strides. Trail blazing. I felt a kinship with her outsiderness in America. I had the habit of spending whole days reading in the aisles of bookstores, and one afternoon a book caught my eye that would change the course of my life. That would ignite the kindling of all the stories about my personal/family history and set it ablaze. I found Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, and it incensed me. Here was a book that held up a mirror to my own existence as an Armenian-American trying to make sense of this in-between space.
If it was Balakian’s book that changed the course of my life, it was Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel that put it on its destined path. I came upon the stunning Three Apples Fell from Heaven inthe fall of 2001 while shooting a film in Yerevan. This was my first visit to Armenia—I had had no reason to go before. All my family was in Syria, the descendants of genocide survivors. Intense, emotional, heavy, this young country changed my inner landscape. On that first trip, we fought, Armenia and I… But then we fell in love. In a moment of much-needed solitude, I went to eat dinner at a restaurant on Tumanyan Street that no longer exists. The electricity had gone out, as it often did during those days, and I ate by candle-light as I read an AIM Magazine article on the debut novel of a young Armenian-American woman. I read an excerpt about baby Dikran, left beneath a tree on the march to the Der Zor. I couldn’t believe the beauty of the prose I was reading. I immediately had to find and devour this book.
A few months later I met Micheline at a reading at Abril Bookstore in Los Angeles. I geeked out on the Walt Whitman allusions in her novel and I told her that my grandfather was born in Kharpert, where Three Apples is set, and that his mother, Lucine, gave birth to him in 1915. And then she left her home. Went walking.
It would be another two years before I would contact Micheline again, this time about a film adaptation I wanted to make. It was after I convinced my boyfriend at the time to read the novel on the way back from the Cannes Film Festival where his film, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” had premiered. I had finally read The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy, one of his favorite books, and it reminded me so much of Three Apples. As I expected, upon reading Three Apples he fell in love. I found Micheline’s contact information and called her. That first call lasted two-and-a-half hours, and ended with the decision to visit her in Berkeley a few weeks later that June. And it was there that we planned to go to Der Zor together. As it turned out, she had been reading The God of Small Things while writing Three Apples.
In October 2004, Micheline and I flew to Aleppo. We stayed in the only house that has been a constant in my nomadic American upbringing: my grandparents house in Sulemanieyah. The house where I was given the stories of my ancestors, where I first heard of places like Aintab, Urfa, and Kharpert. Micheline and I had read the articles of the journalist Robert Fisk, and based on those we went to the Der Zor desert. In Syria. To Margada, in search of bones.
We drove five hours, passed Ras ul Ayn (where tens of thousands of Armenians were massacred) and went south into the desert. On this drive, watching the barren, beige vista and imagining the Armenians walking, my mind went to my sensitive feet. I had a strange epiphany. Were my sensitive feet connected to a past life experience? Was I on this walk 90 some years ago?
We arrived at a site with a small chapel. Walked around the sand dunes unsure of what we were doing or looking for. A young Bedouin boy approached me. Our friend Hrag Varjabedian asked in Arabic if there were still bones where we were. The boy nonchalantly squatted down and picked up a handful of dirt, speckled with tiny pieces of white. There they were, after 92 years under the Mesopotamian sun. I was speechless, thoughtless, and all I could do was walk. Walk away. Looking at the earth beneath my feet and all the sorrow it held, all that it had accepted and given a final resting place to. I heard Micheline call my name from a distance. Standing by a mound of dirt, I watched as she pulled a piece of an arm out of the side of a hill, and then I watched it crumble.
I brought back bones from the Der Zor. I brought back bones, and my boyfriend still proposed to me.
After the desert, I knew I needed to go to Turkey. Yes, Turkey. It dawned on me that Kharpert was a real place. I needed to see this real place. To bring to reality the mythic place where darkness had transpired in some sinister childhood story I was told. I’ll never forget the first time I searched for it on a map. The name had changed. I called Micheline. I wanted to go to Turkey for my honeymoon. Did she want to join us?
We met in Istanbul. My husband, Micheline, and an American filmmaker friend of ours who had been living in Turkey for 15 years. We flew to Kars. Went to Ani, Van, Akhtamar, Dogubeyazit (the foothills of Mt. Ararat), and ended in Kharpert.
I imagined Lucine walking those roads in this city on a hill. I found a stall where a local Turkish man was selling goods from 100 years ago—old metal bowls, hammam boxes—engraved in Armenian script with the rudimentary tools of a century ago. As I sifted through his dirty wares, he said to me in Turkish (as my friend translated), “You are Anatolian, aren’t you?” I had my friend ask how he could know. He responded, “I can tell from her eyes.” I stared into his—a sense of calm, recognition, familiarity. Grateful, moved, I smiled and I walked away.
At every juncture in life, I believe we have the choice between two things: love and fear. And I believe choosing love is always the better choice. I had gone to Turkey with anger, trepidation. I left feeling like I belonged. This tragedy was not an “us” against “them.” We are an Anatolian family. This pain was tremendous, because it was the breakup of a family.
The summer of 2012 I knew I needed to go to Armenia to begin in earnest to lay down the groundwork of the film adaptation of Three Apples. My trip coincided with the Golden Apricot Film Festival. I also needed to pick up my recently granted Armenian citizenship. I landed in Yerevan with a mission and one contact that my amazing co-producer Alex Kalagnomos had given me: the lovely Madlene Minassian and her wonderful husband, Arthur Ispirian. The country, the community, was hungry for a film to commemorate the upcoming 100th anniversary. An epic, historical drama. There was no time to waste.
In a matter of days I met Vahé Yacoubian. In my passion, I needed a partner to take this dream and turn it into a reality. In early July, fate introduced me to that partner in the lobby of the Ani hotel. A man that is passionate about Armenia and passionate about this story. Who spent the first evening I met him telling my visiting American girlfriend our entire Armenian history. A man who at his core is a supporter of Armenian art and Armenian artists. It is through people like Vahé, and his faith and belief in what is possible through our artistic endeavors, that we are able to manifest and make tangible the power of that art.
When I returned home to New York, the events that transpired can only be described as magical. The internationally acclaimed director, Shekhar Kapur, had been wanting to work with my husband since reading his Academy Award-nominated screenplay for “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Within a day of receiving the screenplay for “Three Apples Fell from Heaven,” he called us at 6 a.m. Mumbai time to say it was the most beautiful script he had ever read.
Through a serendipitous meeting, the French producer of “The Motorcycle Diaries” has joined me, saying this is beyond a film. This is an event!
Through a Turkish friend, I was introduced to a wonderful young Turkish producer. She is more hardcore about Turkish acceptance of the genocide than I am. She is passionate about making this film with us. And it is vital for me to make this film with her. With Turkish artists and filmmakers. This is our collective story. This is the story of the breakup of our Anatolian family. We must put it back together, together. What politicians cannot do with rhetoric on the level of intellect and logic, art can. It opens the doors to the heart by way of magic. The magic of storytelling. The magic of remembering—remembering our shared past.
I spent a considerable part of the fall of 2012 in Armenia. I arrived in Armenia, and for three weeks my clothes did not. After much turmoil, I came to understand that I had started this walk, this journey, with only the clothes on my back. Like our ancestors. I’m grateful for their belief in me. My shoes, however, had arrived.
So, I started walking. With Vahé. Setting up our production office. Inviting Shekhar, José, Edgard (our French producer), Cigdem (my Turkish counterpart), Alex (my right hand!), and the rest of our brilliant, dedicated, passionate team to Armenia to launch the pre-production of the film.
I am grateful for Micheline Aharonian Marcom. For the masterpiece she has written. For the friendship and the openness of her heart and soul. For allowing me to take the journey of this film’s realization.
I am grateful for José Rivera. A writer of immeasurable poetry. A man I am so proud to call my husband. Whose love of an Armenian girl was enough for him to write a film that, I believe, we have awaited for a century.
I am grateful for the luminous Shekhar Kapur. Who arrived in Armenia, ready to fall in love with it, and within a day as we drove to Samosavank, did. Who gleefully enjoyed sweet soujoukh for breakfast and devoured Western Armenian cuisine. Who spent a week in an apartment with José and I, working on the script for hours each morning, speaking of what he wanted to create. A film that holds a mirror to society. That explores the enormity of the human experience. That dissects the nature of evil. But ultimately, a film about survival and memory. And hope. And love. A man who believes in jagadakeer–destiny. Who told me, “God put you in my path, and me in yours.” For whom this film is a mission.
I’m just a girl. A girl obsessed with telling a story. In Buddhism, we talk of turning poison into medicine. So, beyond being a film, the telling of this story is activism. I am committed to making this film in Armenia, to help feed the country economically with the making of a story that was at the essence of its destruction. Art will turn tragedy into beauty. It will take what has made us bereft, and nourish us again. We have a country full of talent; artisans that need the opportunity to create. I envision “Three Apples” as the door, an opening through which first-class international film production can begin to take place here. We have a country with varied, gorgeous topography. We need to create a film commission and invite the world to come and make their art here. We are in the process of having Armenia sign the co-production agreement with Europe, paving the way for tax incentives and Armenian nationals to work as Europeans in their productions.
As Shekhar has said in his brilliant TED talk, we are the stories we tell ourselves. So, let’s tell a story that needs to be told. Let’s tell it completely, holistically, claiming our truth. Let’s tell it to heal. And let’s tell it to help create a beautiful future from the fragments of a dark past. From there, we will tell ourselves a new story. A story of hope. Of potential. Of life.
So, I am walking. With these passionate people by my side. I am on a journey, guided by the dead. They open doors and light my way. But at the end of this march, what awaits us is not the inhospitable deserts of Mesopotamia. We are turning around this karma. We are healing through storytelling, with grace, passion, and love. So much love.
I am walking with my great-grandmother Lucine on my shoulders. I look up at her and she is smiling. She approves.
And you, the living. Will you come join us?
For more about the film, click here.
Sona Tatoyan is a first-generation Syrian-Armenian-American actress, producer, writer, and director living in New York. Tatoyan is the founder and president of Door/Key Productions. Currently in pre-production are “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” and “Celestina.” In development are a biopic on the Armenian abstract expressionist artist Arshile Gorky and “The Der Zor Project,” a documentary about the infamous death march through the Syrian desert during the genocide.