BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Halloween, pumpkin patches, and fallen leaves are images that come to mind when I think of autumn. Festivals are other images associated with that time of the year. Among all Fall Festivals – from October Fest to Harvest Fest – there’s one that I don’t want to miss: that’s the Arpa International Film Festival.
Yes, I’m a diehard fan of that Festival. Over the course of many years I’ve followed Arpa Foundation for Film, Music and Art (AFFMA) events. Through watching many documentaries at its festival I’ve gained insight into the dynamics of global issues.
This proved true again last month, when the Arpa International Film Festival opened its doors on Thursday evening, September 26, to its faithful audience at the Egyptian Theatre in the heart of Hollywood.
At the festival, each year I try to watch as many films as possible. There are always at least one or two films that stand out. This year the opening night kicked off with “Lady Urmia,” a 30-minute environmental documentary by Mohammad Ehsani, an Iranian filmmaker, about a dying lake in Iran called Urmia.
The subject of the documentary was close to my heart, because my mother grew up in Tabriz where the lake is. Like every Persian work I encounter, its artistic rendition accents the message. The film is narrated in poetic words by the lake itself. The lake tells us about its glorious past. Today, Urmia, the world’s third largest salt-water lake, has lost 70% of its waters and is dying.
I went to Urmia once for a family vacation, fifty years ago. At that time, we enjoyed its beauty and swam in its salty waters. You could float in the water even if you didn’t know how to swim. But God forbid if a drop of water touched your eyes!
The film shows boats, now abandoned and rusted, that we rode to travel from one end of the lake to the other. The trip took a whole day because the boats moved quite slowly. My two grandmothers were with us. We made them comfortable by giving them the seats on covered inside benches, while we rode outside under the scorching sun. Today, there are no more boat trips, and the water is too salty for swimmers.
Another notable documentary at the festival was “Heal America” by Yervand Kochar. It features advocate Ted Hayes, who has dedicated his life to increasing sympathy and support for homeless people, and to making their voices heard. In 1985, Hayes left the comfort of his home and joined the homeless population in Los Angeles. The film portrays his plucky and eccentric character, and shows him dressed in his signature white clothing and flowing white coat. The audience pursues the discussion of Hayes and Alec, an Armenian cynical writer. We learn Ted’s views of life through the dialog between him and Alec.
After the screening of the film, I had the chance to talk to Hayes. He said that God and Scriptures motivated him to address the abject poverty of the homeless population. He said, “I may have a controversial personality, but what I say is the simple truth. We are connected to the pain of everyone in the world.” The self-proclaimed “American Gandhi” has high hopes that he will heal America from the wounds of slavery.
The film festival ended with a documentary about orphans of the Armenian Genocide. It was an emotional visual portrayal of the subsequent lives of orphans who lost their parents during the death marches. The children were housed in schools and orphanages of countries bordering Turkey. The never-seen pictures of orphanages put me in awe.
All in all, this year’s full schedule of films once again encompassed the festival’s core mission, which is cultural understanding and global empathy. Kudos to Sylvia Minassian for having a vision to hold a festival where emerging filmmakers can screen their creative expressions. The Arpa International Film Festival audience is lucky to enjoy and learn from a variety of new works.
I cannot finish my review of the festival without mentioning the wonderful hospitality we received every night – a host of delicious food. I’m already looking forward to next year!