Issue 26 (2009)

Harutyun Khachatryan: Border (Sahman, 2009)

reviewed by Karla Oeler © 2009

borderLike Apocalypse Now, Harutyun Khachatryan’s film Border begins with the image of a seemingly untroubled landscape juxtaposed with the sound of a helicopter. But after this introductory clash between image and sound, the Armenian film rigorously evades the tight plotting and spectacle of a Hollywood film like Francis Ford Coppola’s. No orange explosions follow—only, following a cut to another shot of a field, strands of smoke rising from an already cauterized landscape. Greens, grays and browns dominate this palette.  The open warfare between Armenia and Azerbaijan that is the backdrop of the film has ended, leaving behind ruins, refugees, and a border lined with barbed wire. Following longstanding documentary, poetic, and realist traditions (Khachatryan cites Dziga Vertov, Robert Flaherty, and Artavazd Peleshian as influences) the film tells the accidental story of a buffalo, pulled out of a swamp and taken to a farm where refugees tend herds of goats and cattle, using the animals for cheese and meat.

The plot traces a loosely circular trajectory, moving from the discovery of the buffalo in the midst of fields where background structures smoke and grasses kindle (possibly signs of a post-ceasefire skirmish) to the apparent loss of the buffalo’s life following the burning of a barn on the refugee farm that is the main setting of the film. (The buffalo survives the conflagration, but the ending shows it lying, unmoving, on its side by the border fence.) In between, we see its arrival at the farm, scenes of refugee meals, goat-milking, cheese-making, house-building, two attempts by the buffalo to flee captivity and return across the border, an outdoor festival, and a wedding celebration interrupted by the final blaze. The scenes of work—milking, making cheese, cementing stones to build a wall—recall early Soviet films that show the beauty of labor, such as Mikhail Kalatozov’s marvelous Salt for Svanetia (Sol’ Svanetii, 1930): the lingering camera and tight framing encourage us to take pleasure in watching the refugees’ deft skill, as when women’s hands carefully, without waste, collect goats’ milk to make a perfect round of cheese, or when a mason balances with the balls of his feet on the edge of the very wall on which he is spreading mortar. Editing the film (as well as writing, directing and producing), Khachatryan exhibits a rare talent for arranging sounds and images to create engrossing, affective rhythms out of a world made drab by conflict and economic hardship.

But the buffalo—not the refugees or their labor—is the fulcrum of this film. The scant dialog does not privilege the human characters: it does not function as a key source of information about them or the plot. Equal to, but no more important than, other ambient sounds of the farm, human speech does not overshadow the expressive muteness of the animal. Visually, the buffalo gets the most screen time, and often dominates screen space. According it close-ups, point of view shots, and an equal role in shot-reverse-shot sequences, the film transforms it into the crucial consciousness through which we see the story world. From its initial capture and transportation to the farm, where it appears in alternating close-ups with the two men who caught it, to its reaction shot when an animal is slaughtered for a meal, to its return of the gaze of its captors when brought back after its escape attempts, the buffalo focalizes this refugee enclave.

borderWhy place the story of a buffalo at the center of a film set in the midst of an ongoing human catastrophe? Despite the 1994 ceasefire, insecurity continues among the displaced populations. In a film quietly suffused with the stylistic devices of nearly a century of avant-garde and art cinemas—Bressonian framing, Parajanovian tableaux, neo-realist elliptical narration—the film’s originality may well lie in the creation of this character. No less an authority than Abbas Kiarostami thinks so: “[Khachatryan] was able to introduce a completely new character in cinema with a very special way. I haven’t seen such a thing anywhere. A buffalo in front of you—looking at it one realizes that it has understanding and feelings as well. Today in the world films are shot with prostitutes, smugglers, murderers in them, who are difficult to be called humans. But in Harutyun Khachatryan’s film we see a buffalo, which is much more humane than all those above-mentioned characters. How can such a film not make an impression on me and not change my perception of the world?” (Press Release)

Kiarostami, while locating the film’s originality, does not answer the larger question:  why treat the destructive conflict over Karabagh through the prism of a buffalo’s misadventures?  It also raises a question: how is the film different from other films featuring sensitive and suffering animals such as Bambi (David Hand, 1942) and The Bear (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1988)? Answering this second question enables us to address the first. Border differs from Disney-style films where a sympathetic animal takes the lead role. These latter films tend to anthropomorphize the animal, whereas Border’s central character functions in reverse: the intense focus on the physicality and consciousness of the buffalo works to accentuate the “animalness” of the humans. I use “animal” here not in the conventional negative sense (when applied to humans) of acting according to selfish, destructive, ungovernable instincts. Rather, the needs of the buffalo serve to accentuate human needs: for a sense of safety (that one won’t be slaughtered or will have shelter and enough to eat), and to be where, or with whom, one feels one belongs. As Victor Shklovsky said of Lev Tolstoy’s famous mistreated protagonist, the horse Kholstomer, Khachatryan’s buffalo functions as an estranging device. He bares the fundamental illogic of the film’s foundational prop, an unlovely wire border fence.

Beyond foregrounding the buffalo as its main character and de-emphasizing dialog, the plot allows the simple, animal existence of its human characters to come to the fore by downplaying cause-and-effect structures that depend so much on human psychology and expectation. We see the immediate physical being of the refugees and not the inwardness of memory and hopes for, or fears of, the future (apart from the expectation implicit in the activities of building a home and getting married). Like the elliptical narration of Rossellini’s Paisan (Paisà, 1946), Border’s plot leaves us wondering how its “facts” came to be, even what the facts are. How did the buffalo come to be in the swamp? How did the men find it?  How did the fires start?  Is the buffalo dead at the end?  A synopsis accompanying the film’s publicity information states that one of the men who find the buffalo is an American Armenian who funded the farm and its canteen in order to help the refugees, but for the viewer reliant on subtitles, nothing makes this detail clear. The lacunary narrative diffuses the teleological momentum between the initial disequilibrium, the capture of the buffalo, and its resolution, the buffalo’s apparent death. 

Avoiding clearly delineated cause-and-effect structures, the plot also skirts explicit political signification to emphasize, simply, that the war has resulted in physical and spiritual deprivation for Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. Beyond the fact that it is pointedly set among displaced Armenians, not Azeris—thus signaling a historical awareness that it was the Armenians of Karabagh who suffered both the geopolitical whims of the Soviet empire and the discriminations of the Baku government—the film presents a largely apolitical view of the war. Such a view is always valid, but, by itself, not sufficient. 

Thoughtful mise-en-scène, however, powerfully cues further political and historical reflection. Perhaps the most outstanding instance involves a panning shot along the walls of a room where the two initial captors of the buffalo join an older couple in celebrating Christmas. The scene begins with the camera panning down the length of the Christmas tree. Jazz plays on the radio.  Foods and liqueurs, many of them imported, are scattered about. From a shot of the four people seated at the table, the film cuts to colorful Christmas cards and photographs of children hanging on the wall. (It seems likely from the snapshots that these children live elsewhere, and in easier circumstances.) The camera continues to pan to the right until it holds within its frame two plastic Barbie-like dolls encased in a cellophane bag that hangs (as if it were a painting) on the wall and three Persian carpets, rolled up and standing in the corner. This arrangement gives Western, mass-produced plastic toys a place of prominence in stark contrast to the artisanal carpets, which are stored rather than displayed. A casual sign of globalization, this montage of household objects subtly speaks to the economic aftermath of the conflict over Karabagh, which was also initially a rallying point for an Armenia looking to cast off unwanted Soviet power. Now, rather than an empire, Armenia faces a globalized economy and the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. An inability to ameliorate the hardscrabble existence of its refugees is a testimony to the challenges it faces. Such larger, inhospitable political and economic systems, which form the implicit, complicated backstory of the film, look strange in their incommensurability with the buffalo’s simple desire to be at home.

Karla Oeler
Emory University

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Border, Armenia, 2009
Color, 82 minutes
Director: Harutyun Khachatryan
Scriptwriters: Harutyun Khachatryan, Mikayel Stamboltsyan
Director of Photography: Vrezh Petrosyan
Production Designer: Ararat Sargssian
Costume Designer: Gohar Sargssian
Set Decorator: Harutyun Hakobyan
Music: Avet Terteryan
Sound: Karen Tsaturyan, Paruyr Baghyan, Mikayel Stamboltsyan, Hayk Israyelyan, Anahit Kesayan
Editing: Harutyun Khachatryan, Karen Baghinyan
Cast: Liparit Liparitian, Manvel Mkhitaryan, David Gasparyan, Nvard Gasparyan, Parandzem Chakhalyan
General Producer: Harutyun Khachatryan
Producers: Gevorg Gevorgyan, Denis Vaslin
Executive Producer: Hasmik Hovhannisyan
Production: “Golden Apricot Fund for Cinema Development,” Armenian National Film Center, and Volya Film B.V.

Harutyun Khachatryan: Border (Sahman, 2009)

reviewed by Karla Oeler © 2009

Updated: 02 Oct 09