BY TALAR CHAHINIAN
Throughout the last century–a struggle for survival has been the identifying characteristic for the growing Armenian Diaspora. Within that struggle–gaining economic stability has been the main focus–whereas the arts have remained shy of the respect and attention they deserve. As we stand at the doorsteps of a new century–development and enhancement rather than survival are the characteristics that embody the Armenian Diasporan communities world wide. Armenia’s are beginning to view the arts through welcoming lenses–accepting the idea that the arts need to be elevated to an international level for the preservation of our culture.
One organization devoted to the task of promoting the arts and enhancing the cultural awareness of our community is the Arpa Foundation for Film–Music and Art (AFFMA). Active since 1995–AFFMA provides support for filmmakers who are interested in exploring films of social and cultural significance–organizes international film festivals–arranges public lectures and provides a forum for artists to exchange views. AFFMA also offers gran’s to students in the fields of film–music and art for their demonstration of academic excellence.
A Dinner Dance honoring the ten recipients of this year’s grant was held on March 30–2001 at the Glendale Hilton Hotel. It was a colorful evening decorated with singing–music–dance and lots of applause. A ballroom dancing couple from Artsakh–left the crowd speechless amidst their conversations–when they danced their way into the hall. The combined vivacity and elegance of their style radiated a charm that fixed the crowd’s gaze on the two dancers–who amused the crowd by returning tot the dance floor a few more times. After their arrival to the US–the couple had participated in eight competitions in ballroom dancing–where they had received 3rd–7th and 9th places among 800 participating dancers. The presence of these two dancers–Irina Sarukhanyan and Haik Arshakyan–contributed a symbolic element to the evening. Having survived a war–these two dancers had been able to preserve their artistic spirit and wanted to share it with the world–much like AFFMA’s efforts to preserve and share the artistic spirit of a surviving Diaspora.
The chairperson of AFFMA–Sylvia Minassian–hosted the evening’s program and introduced the ten recipients of the awards. Having been selected from all over the US–not all of the recipients could be present to personally accept their rewards. Susanna Tchoubarian was from those absent that night. Aside from receiving her grant–she was scheduled to grace the crowd with her much talked about voice. Unfortunately–she had lost her voice due to a flu and could not attend the banquet. In her place–a lady by the name of Yvonne Walters asked to say a few words. A former artist manager specializing in young singers–Yvonne told the remarkable story of her first encounter with Tchoubarian. In the summer of 1998–Tchoubarian was the concert artist singing opera aboard the Russian cruise ship Lenin–traveling the waterways between Moscow and Leningrad. Yvonne–who was on that ship and was left astounded by this young artist’s voice–arranged for Tchoubarian’s arrival to the United States–where she was granted the very rare O-1 Visa for having "Extraordinary Abilities in the Arts." Since her arrival to the States–Tchoubarian has won the Metropolitan Opera Regional Finals. She is currently preparing to enter the opera arsenal of America–for which she received the AFFMA grant. During the few momen’s of her story–Yvonne could not hide her passionate dedication to seeking Tchoubarian’s name–who needs the support of the community in the process of rising to her success in a country that is new and foreign to her.
Eric Nazarian was another young artist who received the grant. A photojournalist since the age of 12–Eric has learned the art of photography from his father. During the last few years–he has developed a bond with Armenia and Artsakh–which have become the inspiration and focus of his work. Born in Armenia–Eric and his family moved to the US when he was just a little boy. In his youth–Eric experienced a calling to go back to Armenia. He responded to this urge to return to his homeland and visited present-day and historical Armenia. Yet a greater experience with the homeland was still in store for him. In high school–Eric was separated from a close friend who fought and died in the Karabakh war. In an attempt to find a sense of spiritual connection to his friend–Eric returned to Artsakh–only to find a treasure box full of stories in need of a voice. During his three-month stay in Artsakh–Eric learned about the people of Artsakh and the post-war trauma that they experienced in their everyday lives. Although the people did not like to talk about the war–Eric traveled from village to village and learned a great deal from observing faces and hands that could not hide their stories. Since then–he has written a screenplay about a boy from Artsakh–who encompasses the idea of a child living through war and its aftermath. His film–called Earth–which will hopefully begin shooting this summer–is the project for which Eric received the AFFMA grant.
Another grant went towards a documentary called I Will Not Be Sad in this World–which tells the story of 94-year-old Zaroohe Najarian–who survived the Armenian Genocide. The film’s German-born writer-director–Karina Epperlein–was present at the Banquet to accept the award. Karina is an artist committed to addressing issues of social–political–and historical significance and she is particularly interested in the task of giving women a voice to tell their stories. I Will Not Be Sad in this World gives voice to Zaroohe–who lives an independent life in her own home in Fresno–California. Zaroohe’s life story represents the story of survival that has been the path of life for so many Armenia’s since the Genocide of 1915. Yet Zaroohe’s strength–independence and unconventional ways present her as a unique individual–who has not only survived massacre and deportation–but who has also survived cultural restrictions and stereotypes. In the documentary–we see Zaroohe–at the age of 94–shopping–gardening–sewing and cooking dolmas for her son. The documentary brings forth an inevitable sense of amazement at Zaroohe’s approach on life. For a woman who has witnessed an entire century–Zaroohe still welcomes every moment of her life with all of her energy–Aside from revealing a story of Genocide survival–the film is also significant in its presentation of a woman who has taken some radical paths in her life–by following her true lover and divorcing her husband that she was forced to marry. These are very bold decisions for an Armenian woman of Zaroohe’s generation–who have often endured hardships of unhappy marriages–for the sake of avoiding public scrutiny in the Armenian community.
Karina first learned of Zaroohe’s story through a book called Our Mother’s Spirits–written by Zaroohe’s son–Peter Najarian. This encounter with Zaroohe’s story came at a time when Karina had lost a Jewish friend who had been a Holocaust survivor. Her regret not to have documented the story of her friend further ignited Karina’s willingness to tell Zaroohe’s story of survival to the world. She immediately began researching the Armenian Genocide–which she had heard about vaguely. What she realized was that the horrific experiences of the Armenia’s paralleled with the Jewish Holocaust. When she learned that the Turkish government still denies the actuality of a Genocide–she felt obligated to make a film.
Karina moved to Fresno–California to make the documentary. Speaking of meeting Zaroohe for the first time–Karina says–"When we met–we just clicked." Karina wanted to take her time and let Zaroohe come to life in front of the camera–by herself–instead of taking the conventional approach of asking questions as in an ordinary documentary. "Zaroohe would not like that," commen’s Karina–who admits to having become a daughter to Zaroohe during the four years process of making the documentary. With this intimate and lyrical work–Karina hopes to voices Zaroohe’s story to the world–having the advantage of being someone outside of the Armenian community.
Other young artists receiving the AFFMA grant were Armen Donelian–who received the grant for his educational venture called "Jazz in Armenia Project," Linda Ganjian–for her project called "The Golden Cities," Vahe Hayrapetyan–for his project "The Drawing," a photographer Emy Havanesyan–who received the grant for the movie "Journey," Aram Kouyoumdjian–co-founder of Vista Players–a theater group committed to producing high-caliber works by contemporary playwrights–received the grant for his upcoming theater productions. Additional recipients were Levon Parian–for his book Lost Memories–and Asbed Pogarian–who is a first-time screenwriter with two current projects for which he received the AFFMA grant.
The precedents of a generation of survivors–these young artists present the hope for out culture to persevere and develop into the new century.