Issue 54 (2016)

Harutyun Khachatryan: Deadlock (2016)

reviewed by Raisa Sidenova © 2016

Can an individual life be reflective of the fate of a nation? To what extent are they intertwined? What is the price of emigration, and is it worth leaving everything behind in search of a better life elsewhere? Harutyun Khachatryan’s Deadlock is the second installment in a four-part documentary film project, which seeks answers to these uneasy questions. The first film in the work-in-progress series, Endless Escape, Eternal Return was released in 2013 and followed the life of Hayk, an Armenian theater director, who settled in Moscow after working and traveling across Russia. Although he lived his life in a self-imposed exile, Hayk longed to return home to Armenia, a dream that was not meant to come true as he died on the streets of Moscow.  

deadlockDeadlock tells a story, no less bleak. Filmed over the past two decades, it focuses on the life of Levon Avetisyan, a 60-something Armenian living in Los Angeles. In 1996, he and his family won the Green Card lottery, a government-run immigration scheme, which allows its winners to relocate to the United States. Using original footage and home movies, the film gradually unfolds Levon’s story and the failure of his “American Dream”: over the years his family disintegrated, and now, divorced and estranged from his children, the man works as a car mechanic and lives alone. Today’s crisp digital footage—although in a washed-out color palette—shows the protagonist almost in total isolation: he talks to the filmmakers at home, at work or in his car, while driving around the sunny but uninviting city. The grainy black and white video footage is full of life and laughter, documenting sporting events and merry family gatherings, a life long lost for Levon. The juxtaposition is simple yet emotionally effective.

Interviews with the protagonist drive the film forward. Levon is not the most charismatic interlocutor, but he is remarkably candid in his thoughts and observations, which present a rich material for the filmmakers. His emotional openness and sincerity give them an opportunity to elevate his personal story into a meditation on emigration and the fate of the Armenian people, the majority of whom live outside of Armenia.

deadlockWas it worth moving overseas for Levon and his family? From Levon’s perspective, it is difficult to find a positive answer to this question. After almost twenty years in the United States, he finds himself poor and lonely and dreams of going back to Armenia to retire. Unable to earn enough to support his family, over the years Levon had to work long hours and neglected his relationship with his wife and children. He does not overlook his personal responsibility in the breakup of his family ties, but also points at the larger structural issues in the American way of life, which prevent working class people from enjoying a balance in their working and family life. He also puts some responsibility for what happened on his former wife, saying that she was not supportive and appreciative of his efforts. Many of his comments sound nostalgic for the socialist way of life in Soviet Armenia: then, Levon was an engineer and could afford to take a month-long summer vacation and take his entire family to the sea. In the U.S., he says, he was never able to take time off work. From his point of view the American system has a purely utilitarian approach to people: using them up while they are young and healthy and throwing them away when they are old and fragile. Then they end up on a “human junkyard,” as Levon puts it. The filmmakers confirm his words with a not-so-subtle visual metaphor filmed at a car junkyard, where a car crusher compresses derelict cars to prepare them for recycling.

Economic hardship leads to disintegrated families; disintegrated families lead to such problems as drugs and crime among youth. Although not directly connecting the issue to Levon’s family, the filmmakers film Armenian youth at an L.A. county correctional facility and at a meeting of former drug-addicts. The filmmakers see the problem not only as a social and spiritual issue: the race for economic survival breaks down families and the community once glued together by the Armenian Orthodox Church. Levon does not speak of being religious, but the film constantly returns to the issue in scenes of rituals such as baptism, funeral and wedding. 

deadlock khachatryanThroughout the film, Levon speaks of his fate as intrinsically connected to one of his people. Every generation of his own family lived in different countries: in Syria, in Armenia and then in the U.S. This dispersion of the Armenian diaspora around the world is the main concern for the director Harutyun Khachatryan, who in interviews emphasizes that one of the reasons for making this film series was to make Armenian people aware of the challenges of emigration and encourage them to settle down in their home country. While stories like the ones of Levon and Hayk reveal undeniable personal tragedies, the film’s attempt to overgeneralize the experience of the Armenia diaspora is the film’s the weakest point. In a way, even the short glimpses into the Armenian-American life outside of Levon’s personal story reveal a contradiction about the film’s view of emigration: with California having the largest Armenian-born population in the country, there is a strong community, which preserves the language and the traditions and provides support for its members.
Deadlock  (and Endless Escape, Eternal Return) is most touching when it manages to speak to the universal issues of émigré experience, feelings of uprootedness and homesickness as well as success or failure of establishing oneself on a new turf. In this regard, Khachatryan’s series reminds us of Wu Wenguang’s At Home in the World (1995), a continuation to his groundbreaking Bumming in Beijing (1990), where he revisits the community of Chinese artists, who emigrated to various European countries and the U.S. and have to face the dynamics of emigration.

Currently, Khachatryan works on the two films that would conclude the series, one about the Armenian singer and songwriter Ruben Akhverdyan and the second one about an artist named Vaan, who now lives in Estonia.

The film premiered at the Vision du Réel International Film Festival in April 2016, and was shown at the Fajr International Film Festival and Moscow International Film Festival.

Raisa Sidenova
Yale University

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Deadlock, Armenia, 2015
94 minutes
Director: Harutyun Khachatryan
Scriptwriters: Mikayel Stamboltsyan, Harutyun Khachatryan
Director of Photography: Gevorg Sarkisian, Vahagn Khachatryan
Sound: Hayk Israelyan
Editing: Harutyun Khachatryan, Tigran Baghinyan
Producer: Harutyun Khachatryan
Production: Golden Apricot FCD
Production: Studio SLON

Harutyun Khachatryan: Deadlock (2016)

reviewed by Raisa Sidenova © 2016