BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
Some might remember the problem-plagued tunnel that was built in the 1980s to channel the waters of the Arpa River to Lake Sevan to halt the precipitous decline of its water levels. I hope that its namesake organization, Arpa Foundation for Film, Music, and Art (AFFMA), will not be similarly impacted after a troublesome episode at this year’s annual Arpa International Film Festival.
I became aware of the issue by being included in a long string of e-mails among the festival’s organizers and protesters. The point of contention was a film entered by an American who fought in Libya with the rebels and now is supporting the rebels in Syria. In the interest of full disclosure, please know that I have not seen the film. I will not name it or its maker since I have no desire to promote that cause, and because the point of my writing this piece is to suggest better ways to handle similar situations in the future.
The film is billed as a documentary, but by all accounts is more of an advocacy piece that, according to one of the e-mails, will be used to help convince members of the U.S. Congress to support U.S. military involvement in Syria. The problem lies therein. Since the rebels pose a threat to the Armenian community in Syria, promoting something that supports them in an Armenian forum is at best problematic.
Those protesting inclusion of this film called for its removal from the festival’s roster. They also objected to the filmmaker being awarded the Armin T. Wegner award (Wegner was the German soldier who photographically documented scenes from the Genocide). At one point the film seemed to have been pulled from the line-up. But ultimately, it was shown. There was a Facebook exchange by partisans on both sides of this issue. As to the award, it was rescinded, and some other award given to the filmmaker. Of course, no one was pleased with this situation—not the protesters, not the filmmaker’s supporters, and not the festival organizers. Harsh words and mutual recriminations rarely lead to pleasing outcomes.
How can such an escalation of passions and negative impacts on our community’s organizations be avoided?
On the first level, organizers must be more alert to sensitive issues. In this case, the film’s advocacy of a faction that is damaging our community should have been a red flag. Once this opportunity (i.e. not accepting the film for screening at the festival) was missed, the die was cast. If in response to the protests, the film had been pulled, Arpa’s reputation as the host of a film festival would be damaged. Keeping the film in promoted a cause that’s currently detrimental to our community. The award just compounds the mess.
At this point, Arpa really had not much of a choice but to screen the film. But what should have been done was to make a strong statement about the damage the film’s advocacy does to Armenians while simultaneously touting Arpa’s commitment to promoting the arts and deep discussion of issues.
On the other side, it seems that the protesters missed an opportunity to challenge and discredit the position espoused by the filmmaker in the after-film discussion. If the comments there were as rambling and sometimes over the top as some of the comments on Facebook or the e-mail discussions I saw, then what happened during the discussion probably undermined the otherwise appropriate concerns and positions of the protesters. Accusing Arpa of being willing to support Turkish denialism helps no one, nor does attacking Arpa’s legitimacy. The comments should have been focused on and limited to addressing the issues raised in the movie and the flawed motivations of its maker.
So please, in the future, anyone organizing public, high visibility, events, be VERY attuned to our communities’ and nation’s needs and concerns. Future protesters, please, focus the criticism and attacks on the offender(s) and keep them sharp but appropriate. Let’s prevent problems and when they unavoidably do rise, let’s solve them without creating other problems or damaging our community.