Taboos, Tattoos, and Trauma: Making ‘Grandma’s Tattoos’

Suzanne Khardalian in Der Zor

The Armenian Weekly Magazine

I have a tree, my own tree in Stockholm. A dead oak tree. Majestic from a distance. Yet it holds as its secret the big hole inside its trunk. You will not see it unless you climb down and examine it closely. This magnificent oak has still kept its form. The beautiful woody branches still rise to the sky. But the tree is dead; it has been dead for more than a decade. It is a monument to things gone. And it is mute; you will not hear its leaves murmur. I am surprised no one has decided to cut it down.

The tree has lost its roots, just like me. It is standing with no roots. Living yet dead. Just like my culture, my mother tongue.

I am full of dying or dead words. A lifeless existence. On my way to being extinct.

Why am I writing about my tree? The oak evokes in me a world that is disappearing. But what fascinates me is this unique state, of being half dead, half alive. What does a dead tree have to offer? Not life!

Herein are the origins of my interest in memory and its reflections in my work.

A scen from "Grandma's Tattoos"

Why do we remember things? What is memory? What is it that we choose to remember, and what do we decide to forget? Do we even decide? How much can we influence the process of memory-making?

And why do we remember genocide? Why do we want to remember the pain? Why do we want to pass it on? Is there anything at all to learn from genocide?

And what about selective amnesia? Why do we decide to remember certain stories about the Armenian Genocide, but have difficulty even mentioning some others?

I’ve been grappling with these questions for more than two decades now. They are at the core of my films.

In documentary film and photography, one is inclined to associate pictures or film sequences and frames with a specific depiction of history. We call it a “slice of time,” or sometimes “frozen moments.” From this perspective, frozen moments are nothing but flat constructions that we pick randomly from a constant flow of events. And shooting a film means stopping time in artificial ways. But reality is something else: Time is a machine that is moving us, the film viewers, hopping randomly from one event to another, while still sailing the stream.

This is how Heraclitus looked at history and time: “Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not.” He was attempting to understand history through channeling world events into one big coherent unit, harmonious and consequential. But the camera gives us the opposite picture. It makes time look fragmented. There is no one big river, flowing. It makes us believe that there is no one big narrative, and therefore no place for the art of narration, storytelling.

Yet, Democritus understood time as a big ocean and waves, as big and small explosions, a sea of eruptions. Each event is unique, and independent. There are only free atoms flying around us. In contrast to the first concept, instead of a flowing river, the privilege here goes to unique moments.

So what happens when we look at film as a series of eruptions? This has been the model I’ve worked with in my films. I see it as an exciting thought that could open the door for new interpretation. According to conventional storytelling, the camera fragments time and consequently the world. But we can never say what came before or after a certain fragment. Time as a sea of eruptions gives us the possibility to see each picture as an entity, freely moving in space and time.

Heraclitus’ and Democritus’ concepts of time do not contradict each other. Photos are not frozen moments but instead are a “state of things.” And film becomes a machine that translates this “state of things” into a series of scenes.

I made this introduction about time in order to reflect on my work that has long had the Armenian Genocide as its subject. When making “Back to Ararat,” “I Hate Dogs,” and “Grandma’s Tattoos,” I consciously tried not to limit myself to the traditional art of storytelling, and to instead show that the depiction of the genocide does not come in sequences, but as explosive outbursts.

Film not only makes it possible to capture these violent eruptions, but also encapsulates the power that lies within these outbursts. Only then can we understand the power that the survivors’ stories carry.

Documentary filmmaking has never been about packaging and storing time, but for me it has been about giving the viewer access to an experience that is pressing and distinct in its nature. And my intention has been to capture fragments of traumatic time. Every frame, each picture, each scene, is a standpoint that reminds the audience that in reality there is no room for readymade solutions.

There is a connection between the camera and the structure and functioning of traumatic memory. Trauma is disorder in time and memory. Trauma is not the product of the event itself, but is the creation of the experience that, although registered by the individual, never evolves into meaningful memory. Trauma blocks the routine mental processes that usually translate an experience into a memory. Documentary film can give access to an experience that cannot be recalled, but that, at the same time, cannot be forgotten. Film has the potential to urge the viewer to confront a past moment—one that has been lived, but never internalized, and thus never understood.

The genocide has turned into a collective trauma for us Armenians. In an historical reality such as genocide, there are no simple ways to access the truth. I have tried to capture those persistent uncertainties, the fears and doubts that are still not dealt with, the unresolved issues. I have worked extensively with survivors. Their recollections, their fragmented stories tell about the unique experience, yet with no cohesion and context. They give us a series of eruptions. Through film and storytelling, the sum of the parts become one, integrated. And their eruptions acquire a context. The genocide experience becomes real, lived; it gets a meaning and can finally be turned into a memory.

The viewer cannot identify with an experience if that experience does not have a holder. Genocide survivors and their stories have stopped being private. Testimonies are so general that they’ve lost their human dimension. They’ve become numbers. For a human being, it is easy to understand a single tragedy, and to internalize it. But a human being is never able to internalize the death of a million people. Our mind cannot make sense of it.

I want to stress that I am not questioning the veracity of the survivors’ recollections. Undoubtedly what they went through was atrocious. But precisely because of that, these stories need to be placed in their right context. This is why I keep on returning to the private, to the individual, to the specific. Only through the personal pain and suffering can the horror be approached.

“Back to Ararat,” which was released in 1988, was my effort to describe how we were dealing with the acceleration of history. As Armenians, we were rapidly distancing ourselves from the past. We no longer inhabited that past; we only communed with it through relics, ruins, and vestiges that had become—and still are—mysterious to us, and that we would do well to question, since they hold the key to our “identity,” to who we are. We were cut from the land, from the language, from the nature, sounds, and places that once were our keys to our identities.

The “acceleration of history” had two effects on our memory. First, we started stockpiling. Caught up in this feeling of loss, we began establishing institutions and instruments that relate to memory: museums, archives, libraries, and digitized collections. Yet, we also found ourselves caught between a past shrouded in darkness or mist and an unforeseeable future. The present emerged as the only category for understanding our lives, but ours was a present that was already historical. “Back to Ararat” dealt with how our past no longer guaranteed our future. It is essentially on this ground that memory came to play such an active role in our communities.

Investing in memory was a warranty, a promise of continuity. “I Hate Dogs–The Last Survivor,” from 2005, was about establishing individual memory, and about the demand for truth—more “truthful” than that of history, the truth of personal experience and individual memory. Unlike history, which has always been in the hands of powerful states, public authorities, scholars, and specialized peer groups, we gave memory all the new privileges and prestige of a popular protest movement. It has come to resemble the revenge of the underdog or injured party, the outcast. My film reflected the mood, and told the story of those who were denied their right to history.

“Grandma’s Tattoos,” which was released in November 2011, again deals with memory. This time my intention was to reflect the mood that memory, too, can be collective, and both liberating and sacred. Before, only individuals had memories, and collectivities had histories. The idea that collectivities have a memory, too, represents an important transformation in the status of individuals within society and of their relationship to the community at large. In this documentary, Grandma becomes us, we become Grandma—a reasoning that mirrors the shift in our understanding of identity.

The concept of identity has undergone a reversal in meaning at the same time as that of memory. It has gone from being an individual and subjective notion to a collective, quasi-formal, and objective one. The expression identity now is a group category, a way of defining us from without. Identity, like memory, is now a form of duty. As Simone de Beauvoir remarked, “One becomes a woman,” and “One is not born a woman.” I am asked to become what I am: a Swede, an Armenian, a film director, an American, or even a Muslim Armenian. It is at this level of obligation that the tie is shaped between memory and social identity. The two terms have become synonymous, and the fact that they have merged reflects a change in the way that history and society interact. No one has a monopoly on history today.

May be that is why “Grandma’s Tattoos” created so much controversy.

As mentioned earlier, the survivors’ traumatic memories were disorders in time and memory. Certain memories were amplified, others were suppressed; certain memories became taboos, never to be touched. It disturbed the essence of our identity. “Grandma’s Tattoos” was about unlocking the attic door and bringing down the walls of oblivion.

“Grandma’s Tattoos” was, for me, the most difficult film to make. We have rarely dealt with the issue of gender, even less when it comes to gender and genocide. It is remarkable that so little is written about the fate of women in wartime. Only now have we started to confront ourselves and ask the questions that were never meant to be asked.

Usually, a film on genocide is viewed as a bad idea, as commercially non-viable. Yet I fought, and persistence yielded results. That is how “Back to Ararat” and “I Hate Dogs” were made. But this time the resistance was incomprehensible, irrational. Already from the beginning, while researching, I was told, “Fate of the women? That is a strange way to approach the genocide.”

A commissioner could allow himself to say, “But what is the big deal with rape?”

And sexual violence is almost taken for granted. But that is not surprising. After all, history is written by men; so it is with genocide. Women as casualties is only now becoming an international security issue.

There was another challenge with “Grandma’s Tattoos”: How could you tell the story of thousands of victims while making it interesting, touching, and comprehensible at the same time? The victims, these women, had long passed away.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, was fighting my own blindness, my belief that I knew it all, that I had seen all the photos and read all the books. I was shocked when I found out that my own grandma had been a victim. And I was shocked by my family’s choice in dealing with the problem—selective amnesia.

It took me three years of research and of fighting opposition to the project, but the reception to “Grandma’s Tattoos” was overwhelming. We were all discovering ourselves. Women were mostly touched by it. Men were angry. But in the end, the anger was only a sign of desperation.

“Grandma’s Tattoos” was aired on Al Jazeera English, and reached a large audience. It was launched at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. But reaction form the Turkish side came only when the film was to be aired on Swedish television, SVT; Turkish organizations and Turks living in Sweden bombarded SVT with letters, demanding the film not be shown. Instead, they demanded the showing of “Sari Gelin.”

For several weeks the campaign went on. However, “Grandma’s Tattoos” was broadcast as scheduled.

The film was also selected by FILMMOR, in Istanbul. This time, the Azeris took the lead and contacted the festival with threatening words, asking for the film to be removed from the program. The festival committee, however, decided not to politicize the issue, and insisted on screening the film. “Grandma’s Tattoos” was screened in Istanbul three times.


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  1. anna said:

    You have too much to offer us. Keep up the good job! We need you.

  2. christo said:

    I didn’t get the movie. What was up with your family? Why didn’t they want to take the trip with you to Der Zor? Why were they so indifferent? I remember a piece by Garen Yeghparian a few years ago, when he made the comment, once the genocide survivors are gone, the grandchildren wouldn’t even care about the genocide issue, hence your families indifference to visit Der Zor.

  3. Greg K Basmadjian said:

    How about a follow-up on this theme? Most Armenians have a story to tell, passed on by their elders…they all need to be told, it is never too late!

  4. anonymous said:

    I got nothing from this “so called” documentary, and i found myself really being annoyed by suzanne and her family. I felt very bad for the grandmother for having to be forced to relive such horrific moments of her life, and for the other genocide survivor who cried as she recalled those terrible events.

    • RS said:

      Telling the story brings it into focus what her grandmother and others’ like her been through. Her sisters did feel sorrow at the realization of the pain of their blood relative. Suzanne does not have the finances to produce a big budget film. If Turks were offended by the film that speaks volumes.

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