Issue 38 (2012)

Artak Igityan & Vahan Stepanyan: Sunrise Over Lake Van (Vana Tsovi Arshaluise, 2011)

reviewed by Margarit T. Ordukhanyan © 2012


lake vanHardly does an Armenian film (or any other cultural product, for that matter) come about that does not touch upon the foundational core of the modern Armenian identity, which invariably includes the cultural trauma of the Armenian genocide and an Armenian’s longing for the lost home. The fascination, not to say, obsession, with the illusory return to an equally illusory and long defunct homeland holds a special importance for the millions of diasporan Armenians, for whom the loss of the homeland lays at the root of family lore as much as collective identity. In the more recent Armenian discourse, the issue of immigration has taken on yet another degree of complexity, wherein many residents of modern-day Armenia, disenchanted with the country’s course following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and unable to make a living, seek better lives abroad, adding to the growing numbers of the Armenian immigrants all over the world. And while the Armenian genocide serves to unify Armenians, the diasporan Armenians’ fantasy of repatriation clashes with the Armenian urge for emigration, pitting the two communities against each other to a certain degree.

The topic, a source of endless academic and cultural fascination, presents a challenge to any film-maker: unless it is given a new twist or placed in the appropriately obfuscated background, it imbues most projects that treat it at length with some triteness, a formulaic quality that cannot be eclipsed by good acting or even good script-writing for the simple reason of being overdone. Lamentably, for Sunrise Over Lake Van, co-written by Armen and Aren Vatyans and directed by Artak Igityan and Vahan Stepanyan, this unresolved relationship to the past and the longing for a return serve less as a departure point than a millstone that drowns the film’s creative possibilities beyond redemption.
The film’s plotline is simple and straightforward enough. It portrays a single day, April 23, in the lives of three generations of males of the Pambukchian family, Armenian transplants in California. The son, Tigran Pambukchian (Jean-Pierre Nshanian), is a successful lawyer who is anxiously waiting for the arrival of his fiancée, Mane, whom he has met during a recent visit to Armenia. We are given to understand that this is not his first attempt at finding happiness, and occasional episodic female characters step in to hint at the fact that Tigran is something of a heartbreaker (a role in which Mr. Nshanian is woefully miscast). Tigran also possesses all the trappings of a successful transplant: the directors spare no effort to convey that he has attained the American dream (and gone beyond)—a beautiful house, a sprawling, breath-taking view of the Californian mountaintops, a Range Rover, and an endless fascination with money. This discussion of money, a rather taboo subject in Armenian culture, also underscores the degree of his Americanization.

lake vanHis son, Gevork Pambukchian (an ardent but unconvincing Aren Vatyan), is a multilingual heart-breaker in his own right. A law student and a handsome lad, he first appears on screen gyrating to pounding house-music with a French-speaking girl, leaving the nightclub at the crack of dawn to take her back to his father’s mansion with rather unambiguous intentions. Despite his profligate tendencies, he proves to be in possession of a tender heart, affection towards his intransigent grandfather, and, inexplicably, a life-long dream to have a little sister. He, like his father, believes that Americanization and assimilation far supersede one’s concern with ethnic origins, and despite being fluent in Armenian—admirable considering that he is a second-generation American, speaks of globalization and the need to look beyond narrow definitions of belonging.

Gevork’s plan to have sex with the beguiling Elise goes awry because at his father’s house, he discovers his grandfather, who adamantly refuses to make himself scarce and offers his grandson a small lecture on morality. The grandfather, Garabed Pambukchian, is the son of genocide survivors, and we learn that his mother’s stories of the horrors she had to endure have left an indelible mark on his identity. At about the same time as his grandson leaves a nightclub and heads home with a girl, Garabed, having secured a bag of Armenian soil, leaves his place (later we find out that he lives in a nursing home in yet another nod to the detrimental effects of his son’s Americanization) and also finds his way to his son’s house. He pours over images of the genocide (piles of skeletal child-sized corpses, people herded into cattle cars, rows of executed males flanked by a firing squad) in preparation for his yearly tradition of setting a Turkish flag ablaze on the steps of the Turkish consulate on April 24, the date that Armenians around the world mourn the genocide and its victims.  His son disrupts this early-morning reverie and the two engage in the first of the many disagreements and fights they will have for the remainder of the movie, which contains enough of generational tension material to make Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons pale in comparison. At the root of most of their tensions lies the same problem: Garabed, the representation of old-world Armenia and proper Armenianness, does not like Tigran’s ardent desire for complete Americanization whereas Tigran finds his father’s intransigent clinging to his roots silly and whimsical.

lake vanThe character of Garabed, then, becomes the mouthpiece for the film’s cultural agenda and the embodiment of the national ideal. In him, we see a man on the brink of death, desperate to know that his cause (vague as it may be) will be continued after his demise until some day, all Armenian children get to experience what should have been theirs as a birthright—seeing the sun rise over Lake Van. Interestingly, Garabed, a Syrian-born offspring of Armenian genocide survivors, has never seen the lake himself, but his mother’s stories have endowed him with a shared national memory of its beauty. This fact is easy to overlook because the flashbacks to his childhood generously interspersed throughout the movie always portray him near an unidentified body of water. His urge to pass something on to the future generation manifests itself in his attempt to teach Gevork the proper way of making Armenian cheese and herb sandwiches, and much of his portion of dialogue verges on the propagandistic and thus often forced and unrelatable even to an Armenian viewer. Perhaps in tacit acknowledgement the world is not so easily dichotomized as Garabed’s heated diatribes suggest, in one of the minor plot twists, Gevork’s girlfriend turns out to be Turkish. Garabed, who likes the girl at first, flies into a rage when he overhears her speaking Turkish on the phone and kicks both her and the grandson out of the house only to experience a change of heart at the end of the film, when he walks away from her muttering “how is any of this her fault?” (a question that his grandson was desperately asking him earlier on). The directors’ concession that a Turk, too, could be a nice person, far from serving its purported function of making the film more open-minded, actually emphasizes its own prejudiced ideological perspective.

More promising is the fact that Elise, upon seeing Garabed, tells Gevork that he looks much like her own grandfather. When at some point Garabed stumbles and pulls a back muscle, Elise fixes the problem with one deft move and explains that her she has had much practice setting her own grandfather’s back right. This helps the viewer recognize that the difference between Armenians and Turks is perhaps not as great as Garabed imagines. It also distances the film from current-day political issues, by acquiescing that modern-day Turks have little, if anything to do with the genocide and the trauma it has inflicted on an entire nation.

lake vanDespite these small gestures, the film’s heavy-handed patriotic spirit turns it into a parable of Armenian nationalism. It spares nothing, not even Garabed’s attendant mention of Tigran the Great who ruled over the peak of Armenian expansion, or the Armenian empire that stretched from sea to sea. Paradoxically, Garabed’s character is perhaps the most redeeming aspect of the otherwise uninspiring film. Despite his predictable speeches, the viewer cannot help but feel affectionate towards him. For one, he captures the spirit of the “universal grandfather,” to whom both Armenian and foreign viewers would relate at once. Stubborn, argumentative, affectionate, quirky, full of wonderful memories and mysteries, comical and empathetic at the same time, Garabed is the only fully developed character. It helps that Garabed’s part is played brilliantly by Mr. Jhanibekian, a veteran of the Armenian cinema, who brings a masterfully comical touch to the otherwise tragic character. His harangues often conclude with an “ishu mege,” literally “moron” in Armenian, but even that he manages to pronounce with the perfect combination of disdain and affection to show that behind his obsession with his past lies tremendous love for his family members. In one of the film’s lightest and best episodes, upon noticing a beautiful young woman on horseback passing by, Garabed rushes back into the house and emerges moments later, wearing a tie and a jacket, and carrying a pipe, which he then picturesquely smokes while striking a theatrical pose for the girl to admire; only he is so wrapped up in his performance that he fails to notice that she is no longer there. The subtle genius of Jhanibekian’s performance rescues Garabed from ridiculousness and banality.  

lake vanNo amount of masterful acting on Jhanibekian’s part, however, can resuscitate the other characters or the film overall. Tigran remains inexplicably fierce and pettily materialistic through the whole film. Mr. Nshanian, perfectly suited to play villains, appears a little out of character as a man struggling to find happiness and love.  His sullen Tigran is given to extreme emotions and disproportionate responses. When his fiancée arrives and reveals to him that she has a daughter from a previous marriage, his reaction is swift: he insists that she must return to Armenia at once. Incidentally, Mane’s arrival and the way their romance plays out also reveals the inherent tension between diasporan and Armenian women. One of Tigran’s exes rails that Mane must be after his money, and the existence of the daughter seems to confirm his own worst fears about having served as nothing but a ticket out for this young woman and the rest of her family. Garabed, the embodiment of the Armenian spirit, however, sees the true nature of this woman, who shares many of his feelings, down to admiring his flag-burning ritual. One does not have to stretch to far to recognize her as the true heir of the Armenian soul that Garabed so ardently wishes to find, and now Garabed can die with a light heart, knowing that his demise will not bring oblivion to the history of his family and his nation. Garabed’s death, filmed as a sequence of childhood reveries and fast-moving shots of hospital ceilings and lights, brings Mane and Tigran together and takes Gevork back to Lake Van, where he scatters his restless grandfather’s ashes in a conclusion that stands out as much for its predictability as for the sheer visual beauty of the footage that it contains.  In death, Garabed has managed to teach his grandson what he persistently failed to teach him in life: appreciation for the past and the value of identity. As Gevork looks away into the distance, the film once again returns to Garabed’s memories as a child.

The traumatic impact of the shared national tragedy has left a permanent mark on the national consciousness of the Armenian people, and will continue to shape much of its imagination for as long as the historical injustice remains unresolved in the minds of the Armenians living everywhere in the world. One cannot wonder, however, how much longer it will also be the cross of the talented, promising filmmakers in the burgeoning Armenian film industry. After all, it is understandable that a shared national trauma of this magnitude brings about the imperative of retelling as a means of cultural self-preservations, but, if not treated carefully, retelling simply turns into mere repetition.

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

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Vana Tsovi Arshaluise, Armenia, 2011
Color, 93 min
Directors: Artak Igityan and Vahan Stepanyan
Producers: Mikhail Bagdasarov, Martun Adoyan, Artak Igityan, Taguhi Karapetyan
Script: Armen Vatyan, Aren Vatyan
Director of Photography: Ruben Shahbazyants
Music: Hayko
Costume designer: Inna Sevunts
Make-up: Nelly Khachatryan
Sound: Gennady Beknazarov and Anahit Arakelyan
Cast: Karen Jhangiryan, Jean Pierre Nshanian, Aren Vatyan, Arevik Martirosyan, Gunisigi Zan,

Artak Igityan & Vahan Stepanyan: Sunrise Over Lake Van (Vana Tsovi Arshaluise, 2011)

reviewed by Margarit T. Ordukhanyan © 2012

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