THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.—Armenian-American documentary filmmaker J. Michael Hagopian, whose 70 educational and documentary films have won more than 160 national and international awards, including two Emmy nominations, died Dec. 10 in his Thousand Oaks, Calif., home. He was 97.
Funeral services will be held Wednesday, Dec. 15, at 2 p.m. in Samuelson Chapel on the campus of California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Rd., Thousand Oaks.
Hagopian was a Genocide survivor who dedicated his life to the visual documentation of the Turkish extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. Over a 40-year period, he filmed nearly 400 interviews of survivors of and witnesses to the Armenian Genocide, traveling around the world to record their accounts in 10 languages. He established the Armenian Film Foundation in 1979 as a non-profit, educational, and cultural organization dedicated to the documentation in motion pictures of Armenian heritage and life.
During the past several years, his mission had been to preserve the film footage of those eyewitness interviews. On April 13, 2010, he and his wife, Antoinette Hagopian, and the Armenian Film Foundation signed an historic agreement with The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for the preservation and dissemination of the Genocide testimonies on the internet.
On Dec. 9, Hagopian was to meet Steven Spielberg, Shoah’s founder, at the foundation’s Ambassadors for Humanity banquet but was unable to attend because of a cold. Spielberg personally expressed his support for the Armenians to two of Hagopian’s colleagues on the AFF board who attended the event, and Hagopian’s work was acknowledged at the gala. He passed away before he would have received a report of the evening, but his legacy will no doubt long endure.
Born in Kharpert in Historic Armenia in 1913, Hagopian survived the Genocide because his mother hid him in a well behind the family home. His father was spared because he was an important medical doctor, and the family left Turkey for Boston, Mass., in 1922, eventually settling in Fresno, Calif., in 1927.
Hagopian attended Fresno State University, transferring to UC Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He went on to earn another masters and a Ph.D. in Government and International Relations from Harvard University. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, he taught at several universities, including Banares Hindu University, India; American University of Beirut, Lebanon; UCLA, and Oregon State University. While teaching, he discovered a lack of good films to show his classes and concluded that he could produce better documentaries.
After completing two years of graduate work in cinema at the University of Southern California, Hagopian embarked on a new career as writer, filmmaker and producer. In 1952 he founded Atlantis Productions, Inc., and as its president created award-winning films for instructional and informational use in the classroom and on television. His earlier films were about the peoples and cultures of India, Nigeria, the Middle East as well as Native Americans and include the well-respected Jerusalem – Center of Many Worlds and Asian Earth, which won several film festival awards.
During his early filmmaking expeditions, Hagopian trekked 1,500 miles to the source of the Ganges River, becoming the first man to film in color the entire length of the river to the holy source. For this and other remarkable adventures, he was invited to join the prestigious Explorer’s Club, New York, and Adventurer’s Club, Los Angeles.
In 1961, he married Antoinette Hobden, and they settled in Thousand Oaks in 1963. A major force in the formative years of Thousand Oaks, Hagopian was active in its incorporation as a city and served on many civic committees. In 1990 he laid the groundwork for the establishment of a sister-city relationship between Thousand Oaks and Spitak, a city in Armenia that he visited and filmed after the devastating earthquake that hit the country on Dec. 7, 1988.
In addition to his local involvement, one of Hagopian’s main interests was to help create permanent Armenian studies programs in major universities in America. As the initial West Coast member of the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research, he worked to endow the first two chairs in the United States, at Harvard in 1959 and at UCLA in 1965.
Armenian community leaders approached Hagopian about making a film to mark the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. In 1965 he produced the film Where Are My People, which was aired on KCOP TV in Los Angeles. It was then that he realized that the witnesses to the Armenian Genocide were fast dying, and he began filming survivors. He made 17 documentaries about Armenian heritage, culture and history. In 1976, he received two Emmy nominations for the writing and production of The Forgotten Genocide, which aired on KCET.
The last film Hagopian wrote, directed and produced was The River Ran Red, a 58-minute documentary that opened the Eighth Annual Arpa International Film Festival on Oct. 24, 2008, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. The River Ran Red, the third film in a trilogy about the Genocide, was voted Best International Historical Documentary by the New York International Film & Video Festival in 2009 and won many other awards.
Several of Hagopian’s films were produced under grants from the U.S. Office of Education and the Ethnic Heritage Program, the MacArthur Foundation, California Endowment for the Humanities, Milken Foundation and California State Department of Education.
Hagopian received numerous honors, including Jewish World Watch’s “I Witness” Award for dedicating his professional life to chronicling the Armenian Genocide, the Arpa Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award. The Armenian National Committee has honored him as Man of the Year twice, once in 1984 and again in 2000.
“Through his life and career, Dr. J Michael Hagopian is proof that a single person can change humankind’s understanding of itself,” said Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Krekorian. “He is proof that we can rise above intolerance and ensure future generations are armed with the information needed to combat bigotry in all forms.”
“I was blessed with the opportunity to work closely with J. Michael Hagopian, bringing his films to Capitol Hill and on a variety issues of importance to the local Armenian community, and I was terribly saddened to learn that he passed away late last week. Mr. Hagopian’s documentary films on the Armenian Genocide are a pathbreaking work that will help inform generations to come of the facts of the first genocide of the last century,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). “He will be deeply missed. As they say in Armenian, may God enlighten his soul and bring comfort to his loved ones.”
Hagopian is survived by his wife, Antoinette; children James Michael, Maui, Hawaii; Joanne, Berkeley, Calif.; David, Thousand Oaks; and William, Honolulu, Hawaii; and five grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Armenian Film Foundation or the Conejo Valley Historical Society. Donations may be sent c/o Armenian Film Foundation, 2219 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Suite 292, Thousand Oaks, California 91362, or made online at www.armenianfilm.org.