Move Over Liberace

Catherine Yesayan with Armen Ra at the Arpa Film Festival


Although I like to write, and there are so many stories I’d like to tell, sometimes inertia creeps in and I get lazy to sit down at the computer to begin.

My plan was if I put my laziness aside and write a column this week, the topic would have been about the upcoming holiday season. However, I changed my mind when at the Arpa Film Festival I watched a documentary titled, “When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra.” I was fairly awestruck by the movie, and decided I had to write about it.

I’ve been a staunch follower of the festival for many years. I believe I’ve gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about socially relevant topics from its programs, year after year. Since I started this Asbarez column, I’ve tried to convey to my readers how much I’ve learned from the movies that the Arpa Film Festival has screened.

This year I had a scheduling conflict, and I could only see a few of the films. Thankfully, the Armen Ra movie was one of those that worked with my schedule. The short synopsis of the movie didn’t offer much. I had no idea what the movie would be about. From an image that I saw in the program book and the explanation, I gathered that the approach and the theme would be surrealistic, which is not my cup of tea. However, I decided to watch the movie anyway because the protagonist was an Armenian.

The movie begins with a cartoonish character dressed flamboyantly, in “Liberace” style attire, moving his hands in a bizarre way in front of a futuristic instrument. He has a Twiggy hair style, heavy transgender makeup and false eyelashes. In the background, I hear Armenian religious vocal music with flash backs to Christening of a baby. I liked the intricate juxtaposition, but I still had no idea what was going on.

It turns out that this cartoonish character is a real man, Armen Ra himself. And the christening scene is his own, while he was a baby in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution. I watched the rest of the movie with a dropped jaw.

As the movie progresses, we learn that he grew up in a well-to-do Armenian family in Tehran, with a father who worked for an Iranian airline, a mother who was a concert pianist, and an aunt who was an opera singer.

In 1978, the political unrest and the Islamic Revolution drove his family from Iran to Boston, where Armen started elementary school. The movie takes an emotional turn as Armen, at the young age of 16, leaves his home in Boston and finds his way to New York City, where he becomes a drug addict, an alcoholic and a drag queen.

The movie takes us to party scenes of the 80s and 90s in New York City, which Armen frequented in those days. AIDS hits the United States’ gay community at just that time. Armen’s friends start to die of the terrible disease. He survives and by what seems a divine intervention, he’s able to pull himself up and away from his drug addiction.

He moves to Los Angeles, and his “sorrow dies” when he accidentally comes across an instrument called Theremin, which was invented in 1920 by a Russian physicist. He masters playing the instrument, which is controlled by the vibration of the right hand and no touching. The instrument produces a heavenly sound which resembles an operatic voice.

The feature-length documentary is like a historical odyssey, which takes us into the world of glamour while also shows us the dark side of life in the trenches of addiction. We hear about his painful life journey and the healing process from Armen’s own mouth. Sometimes the charming Armen tells his story like a femme fatal lounging on an elegant Louis the 16th-style chaise lounge. Sometime we see him in other dramatic poses – but always with heavy makeup and short crop.

All in all, the movie stole my heart. I was mesmerized by the theremin music and the footage of his life. I was happy to see the story of a compatriot who has overcome the dark shadows of his life, rising to be hailed as a virtuoso and now considered one of the finest thereminists in the world today.

After the film screening, I asked Armen, a rising star who may very well one day become a figure as iconic as Liberace, to take a picture with me. He graciously accepted.

This glamorous and tantalizing documentary, which I highly recommend, would not have been possible if not for visionaries who saw the potential in bringing Armen’s life to the big screen: Director Robert Nazar Arjoyan and producers Matt Huffman and Gary Sng.

Catherine Yesayan is a contributor to Asbarez. You may reach her at or read her stories on her blog.

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  1. Maral Kazazian said:

    Thank you so much Catherine for this eloquently written article about our Newly Found Treasure Armen RA. Not only the Arpa committee, our prestigious Jury awarded this film as the Best Documentary of the 2014 Arpa International Film Festival. Each year, we are always so thrilled to see you at our festival, and look forward to see you in the future festivals.

    • catherine Yesayan said:

      Dear Maral, you said it. “Our New-Found Treasure.” He really is.

  2. Hratchik said:

    I enjoyed reading about our Armen talent. and you have got a smooth pen Catherine!