Issue 40 (2013)
Maria Saakyan: I’m Going to Change my Name (Eto ne ia, 2012)
reviewed by Joe Andrew © 2013
The Girl with the Mobile Phone Video Camera
I’m Going to Change my Name is the second feature by director Maria Saakyan. She was born in Erevan in 1980, before moving to Russia in 1992, where she studied film directing and animation with Vladimir Kobrin. She graduated in 2003 with her degree project Farewell (Proshchanie), which premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival in Europe and at Telluride in the USA. Following her first feature film, The Lighthouse (Mayak) in 2006, she began the long development of what would become the present feature, and also founded in Erevan the independent film company, Anniko, together with one of the producers of this film, Viktoria Lupik.
I’m Going to Change my Name is a complex and challenging film both formally and in terms of its story-line. Based on the Armenian “Sharakan,” a nine-part song that brings us gradually closer to meaning, the film is not structured chronologically, and much use is made throughout of poetry, both in terms of imagery and script. It largely concerns the awakening of Evridika (Arina Adju), who is becoming aware both of her own sexuality and her creativity. As her name suggests, her story is also a partial retelling of the Euridice and Orpheus story; she wishes to change her name to Anniko and it is clearly also a very personal film for the director. At the same time there is clear influence from the poetic cinema of Tarkovsky, while Lynne Ramsay’s tale of another troubled adolescent, Morvern Callar (2002), also leave its imprint.
Saakyan has herself written of the personal nature of this project: “This story starts with my own feeling of being lost. One day, I realized that I didn’t even feel alive anymore. And so I did the only thing that teenagers habitually do when they feel like this—I tried to hurt myself. I invented a story, a story out of my fears and pain, and it was like in the famous song ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash: ‘I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.’ From this moment the story of Evridika—a girl, who is living but who isn’t alive yet—begins.” (Director’s statement: in fact the song is by Nine Inch Nails, although the Johnny Cash version is probably more famous).
Rearranged in a more logical order than it is recounted in the film, the story tells of Evridika’s search for love. She lives in a small “Soviet” flat in an ugly, industrial (or post-industrial) town in the mountains of Armenia. Her mother Sona (Maria Atlas-Popova) is the conductor of an internationally renowned male-voice choir and has little time for her increasingly needy teenage-daughter. Theirs is an archetypically troubled mother-adolescent daughter relationship, with modern twists. Evridika finds solace and community on-line, including membership of a suicide community with Orphean resonances, HELL.COM. (In the opening sequences one of her wrists is bandaged, which is suggestive of a failed attempt). Near the beginning of the film she visits the local Registry Office, declaring that “I want to change my name” (indeed, strangely, the film’s English title is a slight mistranslation of her words). She has never known her father, but is still upset to learn that there is no father designated on her records.
Gradually, it emerges through less than fully clear-cut flashbacks that she had been conceived as a result of a passionate liaison between her mother and Petr (Evgenii Tsyganov). Although he is now married to Louise, and has a son, Sona seeks to rekindle their passion, before she departs for an international event in Italy, only to be rebuffed. At the same time, and seemingly by chance, Evridika meets Petr in a café, where they exchange poetic quotations. When Sona leaves, Evridika is packed off to Erevan, where she again encounters Petr, who, it transpires, has also been communicating with her on-line under the alias Kiku. After a couple of desultory encounters in bars and restaurants, they drive off into the mountains to the very summer house where, we infer, Evridika was conceived. They embrace, and roll onto the bed. On the verge of an incestuous coupling (although she does not know his true identity), he dies, and in the morning she abandons his body and the house and runs down the mountain road with impressive athleticism. Stopping in a field she forward-rolls into a mountain lake. At first we think that she too has died, but then she emerges, symbolically reborn, and the film ends.
This, then is the fabula of the film, give or take a few loose ends. The syuzhet is rather different, and it is only in the last third, after Evridika has decamped to a sun-lit and optimistically shot Erevan, that the two merge. Many of the earlier scenes in the film are shot in such a way as to render the actual story-line elusive. For example, the film opens with close-ups of a hot-air balloon, shot from beneath, inter-cut with the opening credits (exclusively in English, incidentally); later there are similar “artistic” shots of cable-cars, although neither mode of transport will play any significant role in the film’s diegesis. From the opening sequences onwards, there are many extreme close-ups either shot on a mobile phone, or processed to look as if they were. In many of these it is difficult to discern exactly who or what is in the frame, and harder still to interpret the point or purpose of these images. Gradually, it transpires that this imagery is shot by Evridika, and acts both as her point-of-view shots and/or as her poetic diary. One particularly egregious example of this technique is her shooting of a snail on a rail-way track as a freight train hurtles above. (We later discover that she is keeping a pet snail).
The mise-en-scène also intrigues and bewilders in equal measure, as does the editing. At first some visual clues suggest that we are in an ugly suburb of Erevan, while we switch from extreme close-ups of faces, interiors and gastropods, to scenes of post-industrial wildernesses, shot to look almost like monochrome. For some reason we first encounter Sona’s ensemble rehearsing in a disused factory, while Evridika first meets Petr in what looks like a workers’ café after being chased through desolate disused factories and lanes by a pimp. Although, as with the fabula-syuzhet disjunction, the editing and mise-en-scène eventually become less disordered, this viewer at least found the Tarkovskian ‘poetic’ staging, framing and editing more irritating than impressive.
Clearly, then, this is not a work of social realism. This also applies to character and relationships. We first see mother and daughter together, for example, at the dinner table on the evening of some unnamed celebration. Evridika has only just returned from the traumatic scene at the registry office. In the order of things, it would seem unlikely that a daughter would have reached the age of fourteen before enquiring of such matters, but chooses this moment to ask her mother whether she had loved her, Evridika’s, father. After a silence lasting many seconds, Sona stands up, we have a point-of-view close-up of her midriff and breasts (beneath her dress, of course), before Sona silently leaves the room. In a later scene, Evridika appears outside the bathroom window asking to speak to her mother, who just closes the window. But then Sona decides that Evridika must have some “proper” clothes before she abandons her to stay with an unknown aunt in Erevan while she is away. Ultimately, this relationship never really convinces, still less involves or moves the viewer.
Equally, the almost incestuous relationship between father and daughter suggests a great deal, but the implications are never fully explored or resolved. Does he know that she is his daughter? Was he really planning to have sex with her? Why had he communicated with her on-line? Does she in fact kill him by something she put in his glass at the restaurant? There are possible answers to these questions, but the film does itself no favors by leaving so much unresolved. And while we can accept his death on the level of poetic myth, at the same time it has to be said that it seems frankly preposterous.
At the centre of the film’s world, and its most original feature, are Evridika and her mobile phone. The troubled world of the adolescent boy or girl has been a staple of literature and film for decades, probably centuries in some guises. Arina Adju does a commendable job of investing her character with sufficient angst and hope for a better future. While unnecessarily opaque at times in terms of its meaning, the use of the contemporary medium of the ubiquitous mobile phone video of YouTube fame is a clever conceit. Certainly, it does lend Evridika and her inner life a particular poetic resonance, and the very fragmentary nature of many of the shots from her phone suggest the fractured state of both her emotions and consciousness.
Evridika is reborn at the end of the film as she emerges at dawn from the mystical waters of the mountain lake, having almost slept with her father and left him dead on the bed where she was conceived. Clearly, I’m Going to Change my Name has pretensions to poetic myth-making, and uses new(ish) technology to bring Euridice and Orpheus bang up to date. Unfortunately, for this viewer at least, there is too much “poetry” and not enough clarity. In the end, do we care about any of this?
Keele University, UK
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I’m Going to Change my Name, Armenia, 2012
Language: Russian, with some Armenian
Colour, 98 minutes
Director: Maria Saakyan
Script: Maria Saakyan, with Kakha Kikabidze, Astgik Simonyan, Tigran Xzmalyan
Cinematography: Mkrtich Malkhasyan
Music: Polina Nazaykinskaya
Cast: Arina Adju, Maria Atlas-Popova, Evgenii Tsyganov,
Producers: Gevorg Gevorkyan, Victoria Lupik, Armen Manasaryan
Production: Anniko Films, Paradise Film Distribution Company, National Cinema Centre of Armenia, in association with Oscar Films, Flying Moon, Tau Pictures
Maria Saakyan: I’m Going to Change my Name (Eto ne ia, 2012)
reviewed by Joe Andrew © 2013