BY ANI BOYADJIAN
I first met Melik Karapetyan in 1994, when I was working in Armenia. A mutual love of film provided endless topics of conversation. Melik is one of many dedicated young Armenians in Armenia quietly and persistently working to make impossible dreams come true. And as is true with most intellectuals in our country, he’s been consistently short on finances but always long on passion and creativity. Although his formal educational background is applied mathematics, he currently happily resides in the world of the arts.
When I was in Yerevan a few months ago, he took me to the home of an amazing—and reclusive—artist named Gamo Nigarian, arguably one of the most impressive Armenian artists living today. Melik managed to not only meet Gamo and visit him regularly—no small feat since the artist has no desire for self-promotion—but also managed to get him to participate in a project, commissioning the artist to create original posters meant to coincide with Melik’s film programs. It was meant to be a one-off project, but now, nearly a year later, Gamo is still producing artworks for Melik.
This, however, is only a side endeavor. Melik is the official distributor of Taschen art books in Armenia, and is currently producing an Armenian feature-length film, “Chnchik”, with Ara Mnatsakanyan. The film is currently in post-production. Here is Melik in his own words:
ANI BOYADJIAN: How did you fall into the world of film? How and when was this interest in film born?
MELIK KARAPETYAN: In the mid-90s, I found myself in Washington, after winning the green-card lottery. While in DC, I attended the film programs at the National Gallery. A kind of envy rose within me: why don’t we have such programs in Armenia? When I returned to Armenia, I decided I wanted to have film programs in our National Gallery. I began a collection of DVDs (eventually surpassing 900 by 2002) mostly with my own money but with some help from friends as well. In 2001 I began showing the films in Erevan. I first decided to screen operas, so there would be no issue of language or translation. Attendance was incredible.
The National Gallery of Armenia was still being refurbished at that time. Since the Gallery hall was unavailable, I tried to find a suitable venue to show the films. Not finding a suitable place, I began showing them in my own home, beginning January 2003. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I would show between 10-15 films in my home. I sent the programs via e-mail to friends, and little by little the group of attendees got larger and larger.
By 2004 the Gallery was reopened, and Lana [Karlova, a mutual friend and director of Tempus Armenia], introduced me to the director. I presented my project, the director was interested and agreed, and that year we began by presenting a film program featuring American independent cinema, sponsored by the US Embassy.
Concurrently at that time, the Golden Apricot Film Festival idea was beginning to take form and shape, and I brought my participation in those early days. In 2006, with the help of Vigen Chaltranyan, I organized an exhibit in the National Gallery, highlighting Armenian film posters. We published a book with the help of the Swedish Aid project, and sent it to galleries and film centers all over the world.
And you know that it all started in 2003 with an idea of publishing a calendar to bring attention to Armenian silent films. In 2002, within my own means, I published a 2003 calendar highlighting Armenian silent films, and came to Los Angeles and gave presentations that shed some light not only on the wealth of Armenian silent film and their current state, but the bigger issue of film preservation. We made a few strides, but this larger issue of film preservation in Armenia still stands.
A.B.: What is the state of film preservation in Armenia today?
M.K.: The whole issue of preservation is slowly coming to light. Even the American government at one point financed the refurbishing of one bunker for preservation purposes. However, the climatic (temperature, humidity) issue has not been resolved and the humidity is very damaging to the films. This is really a very important, global issue.
A.B.: How many films, roughly, are we talking about?
M.K.: I can’t say with certainty how many films there are, but I can tell you that they are in a state of deterioration. There is a building housing the films, but the conditions are not optimal. This is a very important issue that deserves immediate attention.
For the next year, I’ve planned a new project in conjunction with the National Gallery and my new capacity as advisor for the Armenian Film Center. It’s called “Armenian Film in Chronology.” We’re starting with the first film ever produced in Armenia, and showing all the films in chronological order.
This will serve other purposes as well. Firstly, we’ll know exactly which films exist in the archives. Secondly, we will be able to archive them properly by assigning a numerical code, and then we can begin showing them in order at the National Gallery. The Film Center is very excited about this project.
A.B.: What are conditions at the National Gallery for screening films?
M.K.: The hall in the National Gallery is basically the same as it was when I first began screening films there in 2004. I didn’t get the financial support that was necessary to turn the hall into an optimal projection venue, and that was due in part to the more pressing needs of the country at that time. With the help of my friends, I was able to secure a projector for the Gallery, but the sound system we use is very old, a leftover from the 1950s. We have two DVD players as well. The bulb for the projector burned (a $200 setback) and the Gallery has been unable to replace it due to its financial constraints.
What I had in mind when I first started showing films in the Gallery was to eventually create a Film and Photography Center, where projects could be developed—more like something of an Institute within the Gallery. The approach at the Gallery towards my work there is somewhat outdated; that is, it was construed as more of a pastime rather than something important or germane. I wanted the showing of films to develop into something more, for it to be institutionalized in some way. Of course, the Gallery has allowed me to use their hall, which is no small thing, and has given me carte blanche to show whatever films I wanted, and we have shown quite a huge number of quality films over a six-year period.
A.B.: How did you finance these mini film festivals?
M.K.: During the course of the year, we did some film retrospectives in conjunction with various embassies in Armenia (for example, the British Embassy financed the Charlie Chaplin retrospective, the Polish Embassy the Kieszlowski retrospective, the US Embassy did several programs). They helped finance the brochures for each and sometimes even provided the films.
With the films every month were printing costs for brochures, which crept up to $1,000 a month. I began to print them on a quarterly basis, and in English only, in order to cut costs. In some cases there were special film retrospectives, and we began publishing posters in conjunction with those programs. It was in 2006 that I met Gamo Nigarian.
A.B.: How did you meet Gamo?
M.K.: I met him through his wife, Marine, who works at the National Museum of Art, one of the few places where a fantastic archive has been developed and kept. It’s a wonderful museum with lots of potential, but small financial means.
Gamo had seen the Armenian Film Posters we had published, and not only had he loved the book, but created many posters himself during the Soviet era.
And so it happened that if I could give him notice before the start of a specific film program, he would paint a poster for that program. To date we have 17 Nigarian posters, 11 of which have been printed at 300 copies each and are certainly collector’s items. Gamo has done all this work at no charge to us, and his only stipulation was that we cover printing costs.
The first poster we commissioned from Nigarian was the the first Krystztof Kieszlowski retrospective, which the Polish Embassy helped finance. After a few days Gamo phoned me and said, “I’ve finished the second one as well, come and pick it up.”
At this point I began to understand what an incredible artist I had begun to work with. And at that point Gamo revealed himself as a man and an artist to me.
A.B.: This “side” project with Gamo is in and of itself a fantastic one.
M.K.: Yes, I see it as a beautiful synthesis of the National Gallery film project and Gamo Nigarian the artist.
A.B.: And how did you fall into the role of producer in your current project, the film “Chnchik”?
M.K.: My work at the National Gallery was more of a labor of love; and certainly there was really no question of income from that work. In 2004, there was a Swiss-sponsored program to promote film development in the Caucasus region. They invited directors from the three countries, and started working on the screenplays for 12 year-long projects which entailed working with producers, directors, and screenwriters, basically working as a studio. In the beginning, I hadn’t even applied to be a part of the group. I was actually invited as a member of the “jury” as a representative of Armenia. It so happened they had a slot open for a producer, and that’s how I fell into the role, somewhat by chance. Based on my interest in Armenian silent films, I had an idea for such a theme in a new film. I asked if I could petition to work on such a project, and they agreed. I passed the first stage (there were eliminations), and at that point producers were paired with directors to work on projects to completion.
Since I was new to the world of film, I was afraid to push a project forward by myself, so I worked as a second producer on two of the four projects developed by the Armenian group. Ultimately only two of the projects were to receive 50,000-euro grants to continue. Both of the projects I was a part of were awarded grants. I declined as producer for one of them so that I could continue working on the other. My friend and I continued working on the one project that is called “Chnchik”, and since then we have completed the film through post-production.
A.B.: Tell us a little about “Chnchik”.
M.K.: “Chnchik” was considered the best of all the projects presented, not only by the participants, but an independent group of six European producers. When we first pitched the idea of “Chnchik” and outlined the story, there was a lot of silence. It is a very heavy theme, quite serious. We took that silence to mean that we had failed. There were no questions or answers after our presentation, and then we took a coffee break. We were quite surprised when after the break the European producers approached us and asked for the screenplay.
“Chnchik” is based on a tragic true event that happened in 1997. Anyone who hears the story is terrified—a sort of horrific reaction that results in silence—and we understood that silence on the part of the participants, because we had lived that intensity for nearly a year developing the film. “Chnchik” is the story of how a mentally-ill young woman becomes pregnant and is then killed by her own parents. We based “Chnchik” on that true story, but in reality nothing is left of the real event except the tragic killing, and how society and social pressure can lead a parent to kill his/her own child. The screenplay itself was lauded at film festivals, and we were able to receive two grants from the Rotterdam Film Festival.
The screenplay was also worked on by script “doctor” Dagmar Benke, a great champion of our film, who unfortunately passed away. Dagmar worked on Derek Jarman’s films and was very fond of Egoyan’s work. Krzysztof Zanussi, the Polish film director, has also been a consultant for our film. Zanussi used to participate in the Golden Apricot Festival every year, and was always irritated that we had not yet filmed the screenplay. It was difficult to raise funds for the film: whoever heard the story asked: “Isn’t there a better story about Armenia?” This was the attitude and it was difficult for most to approach the story objectively. Eventually we were able to get a little funding from the Armenian Film Fund after receiving some help from the Berlin Film Festival. It’s difficult for an investor without a feel for film to see beyond the tragic story and want to fund it. There are Armenian film producers in Moscow who had the means to help, but they were looking for a more commercial film to finance and turned us down.
A.B.: How were you able to complete the filming of “Chnchik”, given these limited means?
M.K.: With enormous difficulty. We managed to bring all of the filmmaking equipment we needed from Germany, after having scouted various connections in different countries for such equipment. The film equipment we needed is simply not available in Armenia.
Another difficulty was that we needed to film through at least three seasons. After having filmed through summer and fall, we had no funding left for filming through the winter. After many travails and pleas for funding, we finally finished filming in the winter of 2009 (over the course of one year). We tried to get some funds for post-production and fell short. We have somehow managed to get enough funds for a rough cut. We need approximately $200,000 to finish editing, add the sound, do the color correction, etc. We need to complete this in Europe, and this is the reason that it will cost so much.
A.B.: I remember the funny story you related during the location-scouting process in Lori.
M.K.: [Laughs] It’s a wonderful story. Before filming began, a location-scouting group went to a small village in the Lori region and found some locations including a home where it was decided filming “Chnchik” would be ideal. The villagers were asked if their home could be used, and they readily agreed.
When the producers returned a year later to begin filming the scenes in the home, they discovered that the entire house was remodeled in the latest “Evroremont” style. What would have been the perfect typical village house was now a shiny, newly painted home. The villagers couldn’t bear to think their humble home would be featured on film in such a run-down condition!
A.B.: And now, if the remainder of the needed funding is somehow financed or found, what are the next steps?
M.K.: We are not alone in this: we have two very serious co-producers, one from Holland and one from Germany. For example, the producer from Holland has also co-produced Dogville and other Von Trier films. We’re talking serious producers.
They wanted us to complete editing ASAP to reach major festivals. They see great potential in this film.
We’re in a great bind now as far as completing the editing. The editing room we used for free was no longer available—it was used to prepare Christmas television programs—and we have fallen behind. We are doing everything we can to finish editing in order to show a working copy of the film at the Berlin Film Festival.
A.B.: The filming of soap operas has seemed to take off in Armenia. What is your take on this?
M.K.: Of course the budget of filming a soap opera is incomparably smaller than that of a feature movie. The larger issue is what is being presented: what is the story? In terms of cultural caliber, the quality is low. Having said that, I am not out to criticize these soap operas. If the development of this industry makes filmmaking any easier—by way of modern equipment purchased, etc.—it can have a positive influence on the Armenian movie industry as a whole.
Our aim is to make films in Armenia to a European standard. Quality acting and quality stories are made possible with quality equipment. Sound, for example, is critical to the success of a film. For these things, funds are needed. The problem is the lack of infrastructure to provide such funding.
Swiss television has already purchased the rights to this screenplay [“Chnchik”]. In Armenia, the opposite is true: in order to screen the film on television, we would probably have to pay for the airtime. It’s a distorted relationship.
A.B.: The filming of “Chnchik” seems to herald a new era in Armenian film. What do you think about that and the current state of Armenian film in general?
M.K.: For all intents and purposes, there is no creation of Armenian film in Armenia today. Anything that is filmed is on a small scale and quite haphazard. There is an allocation of funding on behalf of the government for Armenian film, which is an important reality, especially for the independent films that are being made. Receiving an initial sum to start a film before finding producers and other funding avenues is critical. However, the entire process of how funding is distributed is problematic. HayFilm itself was privatized, and in terms of the legal aspect, the government does not consider funding of film a priority. This has contributed to an utter collapse of Armenian film today. The government should at the very least help to make the process of filmmaking in Armenia a little bit easier for the independent filmmaker. Let me use an example to illustrate this: if you are bringing filmmaking equipment from outside Armenia, or editing a film—taking it outside the country, bringing it back in, the whole customs process—all the red tape makes everything so difficult that one begins to wonder if the work can and should be continued.
For example, the movie “Here” was filmed entirely in Armenia, and is currently being screened at Sundance. Although many of the actors were Armenian, the crew was primarily from abroad. The entire process of filming in our country was a very trying one for the crew, as you can imagine.
Digital filmmaking in Armenia is much more easier than conventional film, and the quality is also very good. We went old-school with our film and even brought in lighting equipment from Georgia. The government of Georgia has made many reforms in order to develop that country’s film industry.
Armenia has beautiful scenery for filming and presents great potential for the filmmaker. A filmmaker with a budget of a couple million has many wonderful locales and opportunities at their disposal, but the infrastructure does not yet exist to lure more filmmakers to film here. Whoever creates films in Armenia, despite all these difficulties, is truly a hero.
Ani Boyadjian is Manager of Electronic Services for the Los Angeles Public Library system. She hopes this article will shine a light on Armenian film, and inspire potential funders to back worthwhile projects like “Chnchik.” Melik Karapetyan can be contacted at [email protected].