BY BEDROS AFEYAN
Might as well ask: So you want to be an adult male Armenian? For which of us can escape the challenge of being a gregarious host, master of ceremonies, Johnny on the spot entertainer, when called upon by tradition, dates and events, relatives and loved ones, demanding a prolonged chain, seemingly endless, of self-avoiding, lyrical toasts, a troubadour’s troubled soul spilled forth with slicked back wine, cognac, whiskey, glass half full, half empty, tug of war, that is ours to bear for millennia, if not more?
Who can resist the reputation, real or imagined, cultivated, inflated, dreamt or insisted on, of being wise beyond years, witty beyond words, handsome beyond hooked noses, smallness of statures, roughness of features and solid virility beyond stages of imbibing poisons, treated as if aphrodisiacs and trampolines for love to flourish in all the odd familiar places…? Who can ever have said that his last poetic toast was worse than his first, his own words betraying a dullness of mind, spirit, spring in his step gone loose, gone soft, gone gravy while the meat and song dance alone beneath the lights, with nobody home?
No, no Armenian male could endure such a fate. He must at least be able to fake it. Stand up, look bright, speak loudly, drink and bang his empty glass. Rise above the petty jealousies and misunderstandings and accusations and retributions that make for community itchy living, for that moment of rhetorical cleansing and covering and shimmering beauty to emerge under the dark cloud of fate and humorless enemies whose existence, no one denies.
Yes, that is what it means to be a toastmaster for Armenians. It’s serious business. It is grabbing fate by its balls and squeezing till your voice is heard and your demands placed on the story telling of reality granted, which reality itself has and will always reverse. This duality or the right to take make up tests is what has kept us going one calamity after another, one large gaping hole in our culture after the other, tearing us apart and tearing us within, but failing in the long run, after the ceremony is done. Glasses raised, gliding wishes immersed in their neighbor’s bosom, wanting nothing more than the honor of rewriting fate itself in colors red, blue and orange, with draping damsels dancing, delicate fingers interlaced, across rivers and brooks, where clear options are dealt and clean living upheld.
That is the Armenian way. But how does it move from village to town, from town to city, century upon century, war, criminalized dictatorships, empires, secret police, genocide, demonization, rejection, constant deflation not withstanding? I tell you how. You render sacred your one right, and one right alone. The one without which all other bets are off. Your right to tell your story as best you can render it, and to rejoice in the telling of it, the drinking of it, the dancing of it, and the singing of it with brothers and sisters, lifting glasses saying “Genats’t or Genatsnout.” To your essence, to your state of being alive (in the singular or the plural). To you and to you, oh, brother Armenian, lost to the mainstream of history. Relegated to footnotes and attics, hidden compartments and underground caverns of worship and wisdom, from Khorenatsi onward, telling stories that mean the world to us as keys and locks and lockets, and perhaps mean very little to the other, the odar, the misbegotten Armenian wannabe’s, the world is surely full of.
So with bombast and fervor, with an arsenal of verbal spices and psychological nuances, with seduction and with sermons, squeezing the world into a question, rolled down Mt. Ararat for solid acceleration, steam picked up through diction, we raise our glasses and empty our fears and concussions, so that one may speak for the many and the many may speak through the one, called the Tamada, the toast master. Part martyr, part clown, part Jesus, part Socrates, part wine, part bread, part salt, and always ready for one more glass, one more blessing on the vine.
This tradition is the glue that binds the story in Toastmaster together, a film by first time feature filmmaker, Eric Boadella of Barcelona, now living in Venice Beach, CA, surfing and developing his craft in the strange living multicultural, liberal, no tea party for us, thanks, crucible that is the harbinger of the features that will grace and define the future of all America. This happy magic land of California. He sees Armenians and hears their plight. Lost language, lost rights, lost souls, last prayers, regrouped in LA, prolonging the decay, regrouped on the internet, strengthening the natural instinct for merriment and collective serenity, denied but demanded at each turn, at each church and school hall. Here ancient rights and remedies are dispensed to keep a nation of floating caravans of troubadours producing the best and the brightest, whether in chess or violin, medicine or research in the highest echelons of perpetual nervousness that leads to excellence in lone marches up steep hills made steeper by a collective pain and hollow chest squeezing grins, turned to laughter and dance in the hands of the toastmaster in evenings that never end and never will.
In an astutely observed gem of a movie that tries far less to explain and explore, than to sample and adore, I recommend Toastmaster to you. It is a movie that exposes a culture’s inner sanctum and lands on its (cultural) feet, away from the surety of fate that is the Spanish aura, away from the sophistication of Western European traditions, towards the native Armenian male, belonging to no land but a culture, belonging to no police state, no army, no political corruption machine, but to the proposition that our wit is unsurpassed, that our voice is graced by God, that our tone is like the buttery spoils of a virtuosic violin, that our women bewitch us, just through the power of our own thoughts, that they bewilder us, just by the feebleness of those same thoughts, that they beguile us till we turn into guard dogs and pets for them to stroke and to discard, if cruel gods so demand, or take pity on us and inflate our egos some and deflate them far more often, thus rendering us as tough as we may endure to become and still remain poets at heart…
Eric Boadella knows the possibility of this life-long dance played out on-screen or off, whether in the school hall, over Armenian coffee and fate/cup readings, or not. Whether in Kapriel himself, or that old towering man’s memory banks, or whether in the camera of his agile nephew, young Alek, hiding behind the viewfinder of his hand held, hand-me-down movie camera, laughing at a world with a mere black and white 35mm jest, a bon mot, a caress. They each have an agenda and the most important element of each man’s agenda is to ignore the others’! For they are men and they have mountains to climb and seas to cross. Homer is always nearby to record the journey. Except their journey has a muse and an angel. A marvelous stroke of genius, in the guise of a little step sister to Alek, Mariella. She is the bonfire that truly lights up the screen with her innocence and fractious reflections, her bold presence and deflections of the male dance the two must engage in, for they are animals in the wild of another man’a making. It is Mariella that allows us into this scene and shows us that there is a way out.
Some folks get all absorbed in the drama of others. Armenians tend to do this too often. But Mariella is an odar. She is innocence and shrewdness personified. She wants to have fun and to learn and to grow and to sample and to judge, in short, to live. And to live now, today, and not later, when she is thought to be old enough. Between a bull of an uncle, an ex-opera singer, now drinking, cigar smoking, puffing roaring and sleep walking. Before the young, fragile, bespectacled, camera-bound half brother (to be) whose mother will soon many her father and yet, here they are in the home of the wedding-uninvited uncle, learning about the skills and rituals of becoming a toastmaster, with the passing of the traditional horn-shaped wine cup, brought from the old country, the generation to generation bounty of belonging, of being an Armenian in this world of the other, the odar, amidst assimilation leading temptations aplenty.
But of course, you must ask, can one “become” a toastmaster or an Armenian for that matter? Must you not be born that way? Born to become that which is inevitable but that which you can only fathom, if you think you have free will and full say in the matter, and thus fool yourself into submission to this thankless fate?
The answer is always yes. Yes, yes, yes, uncle Kapriel, I will make movies that trivialize you, and trivialize me, and shred away the veils and vagueries that stop us from trusting one another enough to open up and embrace our fears and ignorance-driven uneven keels. But through drink and tradition, wit and exposition, music and the belief in the story surviving through a culture which is less able to control its physical fate than the richness of the stories of that culture itself that lives within us and through us and shines through our eyelids and out our ears into the echo of the world where it is heard in dreams and screams and howls of dead bones and blood spilled for the beast that sees no merit in this tarantella we call Armenian spirit, our stories, our hymns.
Eric Boadella as writer and director, David Hovan as Kapriel, Sevag Mahserejian as the young filmmaker Alek, and the wisdom of an angel packed in a compact serenade, Mariella, played to perfection by Kali Flanagan, is an ensemble to be congratulated for having engulfed a tattering storm of stories and made a quiet poem of it, as bright as daylight and as somber as peaceful night after the toastmaster has said a final, half-serious, goodbye.