Issue 27 (2010)

Albert Mkrtchyan: Dawn on a Sad Street (Tkhur poghotsi lusabatse, 2008)

reviewed by Margarit T. Ordukhanyan © 2010

dawnAbout a minute and a half into Albert Mkrtchyan’s Dawn on a Sad Street, two breathless, haggardly, middle-aged men, followed by a small crowd of concerned onlookers, are seen chasing after a dog carrying a sizeable chunk of meat in its jaws. The two men, the butcher and the would-be buyer, panting and tired as they may be, are heatedly arguing about who should be responsible for the merchandise, and Hovhannes, the buyer, points out that in Europe, unlike in the hapless butcher’s stall, the meat is packaged nicely before being handed to the customer. A third voice soon joins the exchange—a young woman inquiring whether the meat is fresh (yes, assures the butcher, the animal was slaughtered at six o’clock this morning). Whatever momentary comic relief the scene may provide quickly dissipates, however, when the young woman goes after the dog, a formidable rottweiler, with her purse, screaming that she cannot stand by and watch an animal feasting when her own children go for months on end without so much as tasting meat.

Such is the content of Mkrtchyan’s aptly titled drama that courageously and ambitiously sets out to portray life in post-Soviet Armenia of the early 1990s. The film presents a society impoverished to the degree that meat has become the rarest of treats, a population heavily dependent on humanitarian aid (in the film, women stand in line to receive boxes inscribed Aznavour Pour l’Armenie), households living without electricity, using old-fashioned kerosene lamps instead, an entire country besieged by war in Nagorno-Karabakh and reeling from a devastating earthquake that has all but leveled the city of Gyumri, where the film is set. Interestingly, while the characters’ unmistakable regional dialect immediately identifies the locale, the film itself contains practically no markers of place, and the title street, unnamed and anonymous in its lack of signs and house numbers, could easily belong to any old neighborhood in any Armenian town. While the earthquake itself is mentioned a few times, no shots of ruined houses (abundant in Gyumri to this day) actually appear in the film, enhancing the universality of the film’s themes.

dawnWar, destitution, and death are difficult subjects to penetrate, and Mkrtchyan chooses to approach them through an intensely personal angle of one closely-knit family torn apart and brought together by the demands of the epoch. The family—two young brothers of military draft age, Arsen and Armen, their father, Hovhannes (Guzh Manukyan), the would-be buyer of the meat and, as the film later reveals, a gifted concert violinist, their mother, Sona (Susanna Baghdasaryan), a painter, and lastly, an ancient, nameless grandmother—forms the nexus of the film as well as a compact microcosm of Armenian life, encompassing a wide array of political and personal opinions, and a representation of ordinary lives transformed by war. From their first appearance on the screen, the brothers appear to be locked in a conflict with each other, with Arsen displaying the necessary trappings of Armenian patriotism and Armen, by contrast, longing for personal happiness and love, both incongruous with war. As the mother, furiously waving a paintbrush, implores her sons to escape abroad, their antagonism turns violent; Arsen drags his brother down to the feet of the ancient grandmother, forcing him to listen to the pain and longing of her songs.

At first, the war enters the space of the film indirectly, through regular radio broadcasts that paralyze the entire household, and through a recurring scene of an armored military vehicle with a coffin perched on top of it, rattling its way through the cobble-stoned street on which the actions of the film unfold. In the course of the film, the men of the household all eventually follow the call of patriotic duty. First Arsen leaves, unable to muster the courage to say goodbye to his family, and it falls to his fiancée, Lucine, to deliver the news to his mother. As she embraces Sona, weeping, the latter chokes back her own tears, sternly warning Lucine that it is a bad omen to cry after a man who goes off to fight. Lucine later visits Arsen at the front, where they perform a highly symbolic wedding ceremony in an abandoned chapel, and she returns to inform Arsen’s mother that she is carrying his child.

dawnAs the parents’ repeated efforts to smuggle Armen first out of the country and later at least out of the city prove unsuccessful, we witness his moral disintegration; he hides out in the cellar, drinks, and skulks around the house. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, he drunkenly confronts his father, accusing him of not doing enough to rescue him from the inevitability of war. Armen then insists that the father play the violin while standing under the cold running shower (there is no hot running water, as the viewer is repeatedly told). When the father tries reasoning with him that one cannot play while showering, the drunken youth retorts: “You are my father, you can do anything.” The usually authoritarian father gently assures his son that he would do anything for him, and stands under the cold water, shaking, as his now wet violin emits pitiful groans. The violin falls to the floor and shatters, and the father embraces his son, imploring him to get rid of his fear and to live his life so that the churches and monasteries of the country would not look upon him with reproach. Determined to teach by example, the father also goes off to war.

Lastly, it is Armen’s turn to heed the ancestral call of patriotism. The mother comes home one day to discover that he has joined his grandmother in singing the ancient songs about a lost homeland. He runs up the same cobble-stoned street, and his mother, chasing after him, weeps that her life and her family are both ruined. She defies her own earlier warning about crying after someone who goes to war, and the results are predictably tragic. Revealingly, she complains that he is killing her with his actions.

dawnIt is winter now. In a conclusion to one of the film’s many sub-plots, their neighbors from across the street, with whom the family has a complicated and codependent relationship, have finally sold everything and are moving to France. A black taxi takes them through the snow-covered streets of the city, as their boy, in his early teens, stares through the rear window with tearful eyes. He is the next generation. He is escaping the inevitability of war and the difficult life, but he is not happy. In this winter storm, three generations of women come together: the ancient grandmother, Sona, and Lucine, reading a letter from Arsen about the Armenian army’s gains in the war. The mother listens to her prophetic seashell, hoping for news of Armen, but to no avail.

The film then cuts to Armen storming an Azerbaijani village with his military comrades. In one of the houses, he encounters an Azerbaijani child, crying silently by the body of his dead father. They scuffle over the father’s gun, and the boy follows Armen, crying. Armen decides to carry the boy to a safer place, and his humanity becomes his downfall. The boy’s cries attract the attention of a sniper who shoots both the boy and Armen, who dies smiling as he imagines a triumphant return to his street and a reunion with his father.

A military vehicle once again rattles over the cobbled stones of the same sad street in Gyumri, carrying Arsen, Hovhannes and a body draped in an Armenian flag. While a cease-fire and a victory have just been announced over the radio, and, in the agonies of labor, Lucine has given birth to Arsen’s child, Sona is driven out of the house, hounded by a premonition of death. Sona rushes outside, her prophetic seashell clutched in her hand, observing the approaching procession, and her relief at seeing one son and her husband quickly give place to dread over whose body the coffin contains.

dawnAs the seashell falls and crumbles to pieces under the tracks of the military vehicle, we wonder whether Mkrtchyan, despite his insistence on the glory of war and the moral high ground from which Armenians wage it, does not suggest that war is about individual losses and lost lives after all. For one, in a film where every character’s life is controlled by the same military conflict, the direct representation of war occupies a conspicuously small portion of the script, relegated to two brief scenes. Even more intriguingly, both of these scenes present both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides as suffering the consequences of the war in equal measure. In the first one, we see a burning Azerbaijani village that has been abandoned by all but two people, Aziza and Sabir. In the face of the inevitable Armenian occupation, Aziza begs her husband to shoot her before the pillaging gang of Armenian soldiers defiles her, and eventually forces the trigger of the shotgun herself. Her firm, if incorrect, assumption about the Armenian soldiers cannot help but evoke the question of whether the young Armenian men go into battle over a similar misconception about their enemies. Furthermore, while Arsen’s encounter with Sabir serves to underscore the Armenian’s humanity (not only does he help Sabir clean and bury Aziza’s body, but he releases the captive in defiance of his commander’s order), one cannot help but sympathize with Sabir as well. He is a gentle, educated man who speaks Armenian with Arsen and asks him about his ambitions and goals (we also learn that Arsen is a graduate student of art history). In the other battle scene, while Armen dies because of his inability to shoot or at least abandon a small child, the camera’s focus on the child’s tear-stained, petrified face reminds us, once again, of the human cost of this war. We never see the face of the man who shoots Armen; instead, the Azerbaijani side remains represented by a widowed man and an orphaned child. The sense of national, collective victory, announced over the radio in the concluding scene by a distant, formal Armenian voice that speaks a dialect distinctly different from the one spoken in Gyumri, poses a stark contrast to the concept of individual loss. The battle scenes, crudely amateurish from the cinematographic point of view, underscore the fact that the war is fought not by professionals but untrained civilians moved into the line of fire by a haunting sense of history and nationalism.

dawnThis is not to suggest that Mkrtchyan sidesteps all the trappings of patriotism deeply rooted within the Armenian ethnic identity. For one, both Arsen and Hovhannes speak about the need to defend Armenian churches and monasteries, perhaps the oldest constructions in a country with a complex and tumultuous history. Moreover, already faced with the challenge of artistically compacting into less than two hours a very complex context, Mkrtchyan nonetheless introduces the Armenian genocide and the longing for a lost homeland, a sine qua non of the national discourse. The ancient grandmother, whose Western Armenian songs and endless pining for a lost home unequivocally identify her as a genocide survivor, serves as the looming and inescapable presence of history that hangs over this and, by extension, any other Armenian household, given the deliberately non-specific nature of Mkrtchyan’s portrayal of this family’s plight. Armen’s attempts to escape what is predestined for him are thwarted both literally and figuratively, as the grandmother’s songs eventually crush his rebellious desire for an individual destiny and culminate with his tragic death. What sets Mkrtchyan’s representation of the issue apart from the traditional discourse, however, is the productive and unresolved ambiguity of never stating whether this presence is a burden or a blessing to the young generation of Armenians.

dawnIf the director’s position on war and shared historical burden intrigues the viewers, other unresolved threads of the story have a more jarring effect. One such uncertainty looms over the character of Sona, who oscillates between a desire to see her own children leave Armenia and contempt for others who flee abroad. Her fear for her children is natural and justified, and Mkrtchyan renders with piercing accuracy the threat she perceives in every phone call, every knock on the door, and every wandering headlight outside the window. However, at other times her concern for her children looks disconcertingly like control, as each male member of the family at some point accuses her of trying to hide her children under her skirts, of surrounding them with false mirrors, and of dictating her terms too forcefully. She does not think twice to hand out slaps, threats, and reminders of what her sons’ decision to fight is doing to her health and her life. The film’s most perplexing scene is Sona soaping and bathing her half-dressed son, Arsen, shortly before his departure for war. The purpose of the scene and what it intends to reveal about the relationship between the two remain unexplored. Sona’s occupation as an artist, too, receives little, if any clarification. On one hand, she seems attached to her artwork and repeatedly converses with four human-sized marionettes depicting stock characters of an Armenian fairy tale (whose very presence in the film seems incidental and unexplained). On the other hand, the only sample of her painting visible in the film turns out to be a commercialized still life with vaguely Armenian ornamental touches.

dawnSome of Mkrtchyan’s devices work, such as the chronological punctuation of the events of the film by the radio newscasts that track the military developments leading up to the 1994 ceasefire (described as victory by the film’s characters). However, considering the ambitiousness of the tasks he has set for himself, complicated by his introduction of such issues as faith, genocide, and the dilemma of immigration, some reliance on heavy-handed symbolism, at times painfully stilted dialogue, and abrupt shifts of mood become unavoidable. So, for example, the life-and-death cycle that aligns Armen’s death with the birth of Lucine’s child treads on the verge of triteness in its predictability. Arsen and Lucine’s symbolic performance of the marriage rites in an abandoned church, to the omnipresent voice of an invisible heavenly father, and their slow, silent dance followed by the news of her pregnancy appear contrived in their effort to remove any hint of non-institutionalized sensuality from the child’s conception.  The mystical seashell that serves alternatively as an instrument for escape and as a medium for foretelling the future also attains a seemingly unprecedented and unjustified prominence by the end of the film.

Despite this, Dawn on a Sad Street presents a compelling look into the state of Armenian lives in the early 1990s. Localized and narrowly focused as it may be, it successfully captures the competing and often conflicting moods of stalwart patriotism, despair and desire to escape that pervaded the nation in the face of political and economic hardship. The film offers a freshly broad perspective on war, sidestepping or overcoming nationalistic clichés to portray its true human cost.

Margarit T. Ordukhanyan
Hunter College, CUNY, New York, NY

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Dawn on a Sad Street, Armenia 2008
Color, 103 min
Director and Scriptwriter: Albert Mkrtchyan
Cinematography: Rudolph Vatinyan, Levon Atoyants, Ashot Movsisyan
Music: Yuri Haroutyunyan
Art Director: Vardan Sedrakyan
Cast: Gouzh Manoukyan, Anahit Kocharyan, Vardan Mkrtchyan, Arsen Sargsyan, Susanna Baghdasaryan, Nanor Petrosyan, Eduard Poghosyan, Turvanda Shahinyan, Zhora Baghdasaryan, Kamo Arzumanyan, Feliks Grigoryan, Yuriy Voskanyan, Susanna Gabrielyan, Natalya Khachatryan, Hayk Sargsyan, Lusine Avanesyan, Lianna Adamyan, Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, Khashatur Sharoyan
Production: The National Cinema Center of Armenia

Albert Mkrtchyan: Dawn on a Sad Street (Tkhur poghotsi lusabatse, 2008)

reviewed by Margarit T. Ordukhanyan © 2010