‘Armenian Exile’ and ‘My Son Shall Be Armenian’ Author Discusses His Years in Cinema and His Influences

KCET Airs Both Films on April 24

LOS ANGELES—KCET public media for Southern and Central California, presented a special live night of programming featuring back-to-back documentaries by filmmaker Hagop Goudsouzian in observance of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on Saturday, April 24. Goudsouzian, a Canadian filmmaker, and Larry Zarian, Vice Chair of the California State Transportation Commission and former mayor of Glendale, hosted the evening, which begain with “Armenian Exile” at 7 p.m., followed by “My Son Shall Be” Armenian at 8:30 p.m.

In Armenian Exile, Goudsouzian paints a self-portrait in which he pursues a greater understanding of his cultural roots.

In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s war for independence was in the headlines worldwide. Halfway across the world in Canada, Goudsouzian’s peaceful world was suddenly shaken: “I had forgotten I was Armenian, until I saw the courage of these people who had never forgotten who they were and knew what they had to do.”

Then, again in 1991, the independence of Armenia triggered a new beginning for Goudsouzian. At this point, he embarked on what he considers his most important adventure – to touch this mythical land in search of his roots.

In “Armenian Exile,” Goudsouzian travels to Armenia for the first time, in search of the ultimate connection with his forgotten and sometimes ignored identity. Seeking clarity of both history and self, Goudsouzian’s reflection on Armenian identity is also at the heart of his next installment, “My Son Shall Be Armenian.”

“My Son Shall Be Armenian” follows Goudsouzian and five Montreal men and women of Armenian descent to Armenia in search of survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Through interviews with elders and the touching accounts of his fellow travelers, Goudsouzian crafts a dignified and poignant film on the need to make peace with the past in order to turn toward the future.  This documentary is broadcast in French with English subtitles.

Encore broadcasts of Armenian Exile and My Son Shall Be Armenian aired on Sunday, April 25 at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., respectively.

Asbarez reporter Georges Adourian interviewed Goudsouzian via email prior to the KCET special, the complete transcription of which is presented below.

Georges Adourian: On April 24, KCET will broadcast your latest two films, tell us about it.

Hagop Goudsouzian: Just before finishing “Armenian Exile,” I called Mr. Bohdan Zachary at KCET in Los Angeles to see if he would be interested in my new film. Quite frankly I’ll never forget the moment I introduced myself to Mr. Zachary. Surprisingly he was very happy to hear from me. He said “We aired ‘My Son Shall be Armenian’ just last night during our fund raising.” You cannot imagine how happy that made me.

KCET is one of the top PBS stations with the largest number of Armenian viewers, so it was a great honor for me when Mr. Bohdan Zachary expressed interest to view and later license “Armenian Exile.”

This is a unique experience for me. Not only are my two Armenian films being shown back to back on April 24, but they have also invited me from Toronto to participate on-air with the KCET fundraising.

I have been very lucky. The French version of “My Son Shall Be Armenian” is regularly aired in Europe, even as we speak. And that’s some four years after its release.
As an independent filmmaker, it is very difficult to find television stations that can pay a licensing fee and have an interest in Armenian programming. Licensing fees and DVD sales are important sources of income to help me produce more films.

G.A: How long have you been making films?

H.G.: I don’t remember doing anything else! My dad was a filmmaker, so I grew up in a film environment. I remember as a child, while other kids played with guns and whatever, I would play with strips of 35mm film my dad brought home. At the time, with a friend, we tinkered with a flashlight, a strip of 35mm film, a shoebox with a rectangular hole and transformed it into a projector. It was way before PlayStation.

When I was about five or six—I cannot remember—I started acting in my dad’s films and commercials, I did a Coca-Cola commercial that was shown in Cairo theatres, this is before television in Egypt.

So I really don’t know anything else. If ever I got tired of making movies I’d be lost, I wouldn’t know what to do.

G.A.: Why did you decide to make Armenian films?

H.G.: It is kind of a tough question to answer because I didn’t really have a choice. I was driven. I had to do it at any cost. It was something pushing me to a world I never knew, yet I felt at peace because the subjects that were ahead of me were touching my soul. It was not an intellectual process rather a gut reaction.

You know, a few months before my father died, we went to see an Armenian movie. No. I am not going to say which one, but we agreed on one thing. Armenian movies can be much much better than that. So we set out to do our own films. But unfortunately he died before we could make our dream come true and it took me half a life time to come back to the dream I had forgotten and ignored.

It was not just the dream that had dissipated but as well the whole Armenian baggage (the French meaning).

It took a war for me to wake up. The Karabakh war.

G.A.: What is the recurring theme that surfaces in your two films?

H.G.: I am not really sure if it was intentional. I think in the true sense of a documentary a recurring theme has unfolded in my two films and I see it more and more clearly as time goes by.

I see the recurring theme as memory. I believe the key to understanding oneself is memory, and being in touch with our memory. In myself I see that I am touched by the memory transmitted by my family, my culture and my personal memory. Whenever I have ignored one of these key components I have been out of balance. To keep this balance is a constant struggle not only as an Armenian but as a human being.

But memory is such an abstract topic and film is a very visual medium. How do you make a film about memory?

G.A.: It seems you are obsessed with the question of Armenian identity…

H.G.: No, not about Armenian identity, I am obsessed with the question of identity! I am interested in the quest of Armenian identity because I am Armenian. But the quest for identity is a universal theme, I know more about Armenian Identity than say Greek identity. I can only explore subjects that speak to me. But as a filmmaker if my quest reflects only the Armenian identity, it would not interest anyone else. I have to approach it as a human being not just as an Armenian, and hope the viewer relates to it.

G.A.: What were the challenges you faced in making “Armenian Exile”?

H.G.: By the time I got around to making “Armenian Exile,” I had produced and directed some 250 programs for public television in Canada. On most TV programming the producer and director’s responsibility is the picture on the screen and its content, while the Director of Photography, sound recordists, editors, assistants deal with the specifics. For example, in the editing room, I would be with an editor and say “move that scene a bit to the right
or to the left” or “That’s too blue.”

When I was ready to edit “Armenian Exile,” I had a computer in front of me with all the necessary software but had no idea how to use it. I just did not know how to cut or make a dissolve. I had to learn everything from scratch, I knew what had to be done but I just did not know how the process was done physically. So after a while I got the hang of it, watching tutorials, asking lot of questions, now I am an expert! George, do you have any questions about editing? (joking)

But this was just the beginning. Once I had more or less finished, I realized I needed music. This was another challenge. I went and bought all kinds of sounds and had to learn how to use it. My son helped me, Arudz is very talented musically. I have a very special passion for Armenian Church music. I was an altar boy a long time ago. My greatest love is “Der Voghormia.” I can listen to a good version of it day and night. We found some very old versions of “Der Voghormia” and Arudz played it on his keyboard and I ended up with these musical files and played with them for weeks…

The next one will be easier…. maybe I’ll make a film with just Der Voghormia music with various arrangements, I am serious.

G.A: Do you plan to make more films with Armenian themes?

H.G.: If I were a logical person, with a good business savvy, the answer would be NO. But since I am not a very good businessman, unquestionably I will do more.

For me filmmaking is ultimately a gut reaction. It must come from your soul and, even if people throw tomatoes at you, you must do what you believe in because that is the most powerful thing you have and can express… What you have in your soul that is what is unique.

“Armenian Exile” and “My Son Shall Be Armenian” are the first two parts of my Armenian Trilogy. I am planning another shoot this summer and hopefully by next year we will have part three. But, I have a feeling I won’t stop at three parts, as each film leads me to the next.

G.A.: What is your cinematic approach?

H.G.: Funny you should ask that. Both films have lived a similar experience. But, I will tell you what happened with “My Son Shall Be Armenian” and I was lucky in a way that it happened this way…

NFB of Canada had approved my project based on my submission and released the funds accordingly. I had a wonderful plan, it was a fantastic plan. Two days before we were to leave and shoot in Syria, our permits were revoked. Here we are on Tuesday 10 a.m. and no more film. I was told if I had another idea they were ready to look at it. If I failed at this point, there were many other directors that would have been very happy to access these same funds. On midday on Tuesday I said to my executive producer, “Don’t worry I’ll have another project for you by tomorrow noon.” I was terrified. I had no idea what I could come up with. I left the office and went home. I started looking at the research I had done for the past six years and through the night I came up with a new idea to be shot entirely in Armenia. The next day, I went in with a big smile and presented my idea. Luckily they liked it. We fine tuned it and presented it to the chairman; on Thursday it was approved and we had our go ahead to shoot in Armenia. I must admit they were very, very positive about the idea of doing a film on the Armenian Genocide.

The fact is the project was approved but I had no specific plan, like I had before. I had a feeling of what I wanted to do and I was taking 10 other people along with me to explore this possibility.

I said all this to illustrate that, that’s how I do it! You can start with the best plan in the world but when you are on the field you have to let the story unfold and see where it takes you.

When you are in Armenia, stories unfold as the day progresses. It is the perfect place to film. It has everything.

G.A.: But how do you approach your films as an Armenian or as a filmmaker?

H.G.: How do I approach a film as an Armenian or as a filmmaker? That’s really a tough question… Hmmm… Against my better judgment neither.

Probably passion, I have to be drawn to what I do, I have to have an affinity for the subject, and feel the subject, again have a passion for the subject. Otherwise it would not be my film. We use the term “film d’auteur” I am signing my work, with that, I hope my work is unique.

I guess it is the filmmaker that is speaking. But what interests me these days is the soul of Armenians, yet I speak it with my voice and not necessarily clinging to a previous concept. I am not the voice of Armenians. I have my voice. I do not expect the viewer to agree or disagree. This is my film and I share it with the viewer, I hope this moment we share helps us understand something.

G.A.: Will you do more films on the Genocide?

H.G.:
This is a very touchy subject for me. I don’t really know if I want to answer it.

G.A.: With your experience, I am sure you can say something…

H.G.: I have proposals ready for more films with the Armenian Genocide as the principal theme with new twists and turns but they are gathering dust. Who is going to pay for it? George, do you know anybody? (Joke)

In my experience I see the community divided into three parts, the older generation wants to see films with facts and figures and prove the Genocide.

Then there are the potential sponsors, I have not had many positive experiences with them. Even when the project is about the Armenian Genocide, even with my experience as a filmmaker.

But the most interesting group is the new generation—the up and coming. They want to see more films about Armenians, Armenian life and in particular the Genocide… But not films about lament or suffering but films with a new storyline and an interesting and captivating approach but alas they don’t have the money yet to sponsor these films.

In the Western world an Armenian artist can not live on patriotism. It does not pay the rent! We need sponsors, and that’s not just me. There are many brilliant artists, and trust me, $500 does not help make a film… It hardly pays to rent a camera and a few lights for a day. Of course that means the artist does not get paid or eat.

If we want to make interesting films on the Armenian Genocide, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. If we want it to make a mark, a Genocide documentary has to be universally captivating, and, above all, it must start with the premise that the Genocide is an irrefutable fact.

At this point I am no longer looking for Armenian sponsors to produce more films. It is just not cost effective. If you spend a week of phone calls and end up with $500, it’s not worth it. I am not being arrogant or ungrateful. Any accountant will tell you, it just does not add up.

I hope more community stations will license my new film for a fee and buy my DVDs from my web site, www.ArmenianExileTheMovie.com.

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