Issue 47 (2015)

Angelina Nikonova: Welkome Home (Velkam khom, 2014)

reviewed by Joshua First© 2015

welkom homeAngelina Nikonova’s much-anticipated second film, Welkome Home, is hard to define with its strange mix of urban drama and ethnic comedy, and yet it resembles so many other films that incorporate multiple storylines intertwined with each other. The work of Robert Altman and Alejandro Iñárritu, in addition to Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations about One Thing (2001) and Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) come to mind as potential influences on Welkome Home. Set in New York City, the plot revolves around three families: a financially struggling Armenian couple, Babken (Karren Karagulian)and Tamara (Anna Pipoyan), their three children, and a large extended family that includes a cross-dressing cousin Hamomile, named Hamlet (Ara Woland); Johnny (Edward Baker-Duly) and Sandra (Mona Depena), a wealthy British/Swedish couple, the former making an independent film about his life called Babylon Affair; and Maria Ivanovna (Galina Perelomova) and Sasha (Olga Dykhovichnaia), two unrelated Russian women who have developed a mother/daughter-like relationship. The New York of Welkome Home is a city of immigrants and insular immigrant communities, whose interactions with each and with native-born Americans appear stilted, unnatural and ridden with conflict. And yet, Nikonova’s film, along with Johnny’s film within the film, affirm the cosmopolitan and multinational character of the city, although perhaps the shared post-Soviet experience of the Armenian Babken and Russian Sasha, who eventually get married, reveals an older and Soviet origin to such multi-nationality.

welkom homeWelkome Home begins at a film festival somewhere in Europe, where rug salesman and aspiring actor Babken wins an award for Best Performance in an apparently low-budget black-and-white film. As he accepts the award, he says to the audience, “I’m not even an actor,” revealing his anxiety about an occupation most in the film refer to as his “hobby.” He returns to his Queens apartment only to see his wife pregnant with their fourth child and disappointed with her husband’s meager earnings. Meanwhile, Johnny finds his mundane existence with his accident-prone wife increasingly unbearable and searches for meaning in an affair with Sasha, who is in turn trying to liberate herself from her financial dependence on him. Sasha attempts to get a job at Babken’s shop, but eventually starts dealing drugs, only to end up in jail for reckless driving and forced back under Johnny’s tutelage. He casts her as herself in his new autobiographical film, Babylon Affair, about immigrants who fall in love in New York City, while Babken successfully auditions for the lead male role, as a Middle Easterner named Mohammed. Sasha and Babken fall in love with each other on the set and, once the film is released, also acquire fame as the film’s plot rapidly comes to resolution with an impossibly upbeat Hollywood ending.

While the film opens with a dark and weighty tone in its focus on financial destitution, exhausted marriages and urban alienation, comedic elements become increasingly common in Welkome Home during the second half, although they remain largely external to the serious plot. Instead, such comedic elements form a series of episodic sketches. In one example, Babken’s relatives charge him with procuring a sheep for the Armenian ritual of matagh, but then realize no one in the family knows how to slaughter it. As the sheep is now tied to a tree and the children play with it, the men have to Skype with relatives in Yerevan to figure out where to cut the animal’s neck. A no less sketch-like interlude involves Sasha’s attempts to help Maria Ivanovna acquire a new apartment after she’s kicked out of a building for the disabled. Sasha finds a building intended for gay and lesbian seniors, but tells Maria Ivanovna (who doesn’t know English) that it’s for “creative types.” The ruse works, and the final shot of the film finds her next to an indoor pool as old, overweight women give each other massages. In another scene, Hamlet (dressed as a woman) meets a man in a club and, while having sex in a bathroom stall, one of her silicone inserts falls into the toilet and the man calls her a freak, saying “I thought you were a she-male.” While perhaps not explicitly homophobic, such a theme will nonetheless play to conceptions of the decadent homosexual “lifestyle” among some Russian audiences who see the film. However, Boris Ivanov (2014) interprets the Hamlet character differently, arguing that “this hero is not for us, so much as [it’s intended] for Western festivals, where they react to such personages like cats on valerian.” Regardless of its intentions, the representation of gay New York is one of the dominant comedic tropes in the film.

welkom homeWhile Welkome Home frequently makes use of ethnic stereotypes, as some of the previous examples attest, the few native New Yorkers on display here hardly fare better. Nikonova sees Americans as overweight simpletons, friendly but naïve and child-like. In one scene, a group of young actors invite Babken to a poker game, where they speak in stupid clichés. The Armenian demonstrates the ease with which he could have beaten them, but is scared they will not invite him to return, thus ruining his chances in his new career. In another scene, Americans at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting condescendingly coach Sasha on the correct use of English, all of them spelling the word “exhausted” in unison as she looks on incredulously. 

welkom homeAfter watching the film at Karlovy Vary IFF in July 2014, the critic André Crouse suggested that Nikonova’s English-speaking characters are so wooden because the director fails to understand the subtleties of the language. A less generous reading holds that Welkome Home is hostage to the contemporary political moment. Indeed, the Russian poster for the film (and the image on the film’s website) shows the lower half of Sasha dressed in light blue leggings, high heels and denim shorts. Her legs are splayed with the Manhattan skyline between them in the background. Above her torso is the tagline, which weds such a sexualized image with politics: “An ironic comedy from New York—without borders, bans or sanctions.” The synopsis stresses the characters have “lost a sense of belonging […] to the place that we call home.” By comparison, the English-language facebook page for the film (the film’s website lacks English-language content) contains an image of Babken in the likeness of the Statue of Liberty, with the tagline: “A group of immigrants become hostage to their life choices.” Depending on the audience, we can read Welkome Home as either a struggle to survive the battlefield of Western urban space, or as a film about immigrants struggling with personal choices, but some (Babken and Sasha) ultimately fulfilling the American dream. More generally, Welkome Home constantly moves between making the audience feel invested in its clichés, and providing commentary on those same clichés. Therein lays the film’s complexity, its comedy, and also its unevenness.

Joshua First
University of Mississippi

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Works Cited

Crous, André. 2014. “Movie Review: Welkome Home,”, 11 July.

Ivanov, Boris. 2014. “Retsensiia na fil’m ‘Velkom khom’: Ponaekhali tam!”, 21 Aug.

Welkome Home, Russia, 2013
Color, 115 minutes
Director: Angelina Nikonova
Scriptwriters Angelina Nikonova, with participation from Ol’ga Dykhovichnaia and Karren Karagulian
DoP Jonathan Miller
Music Oleg Sadko
Production Design Tatiana Dolmatovskaya
Cast: Karren Karagulian, Ol’ga Dykhovichnaia, Edward Baker-Duly, Galina Perelomova, Ara Woland, Mona Depena, and Anna Pipoyan
Producers Ol’ga Dykhovichnaia, Angelina Nikonova
Production Company: Baraban Films

Angelina Nikonova: Welkome Home (Velkam khom, 2014)

reviewed by Joshua First© 2015