Hrach Keshishyan: Garegin Nzhdeh (2013)

reviewed by Artur Vardikyan© 2016

Any work of art must be self-sufficient: it must contain within itself all the information needed to be fully comprehended by the reader/viewer. Historical works of art are no exception. When the audience watching the biopic of the Armenian national hero Garegin Nzhdeh, they are not obliged to have any kind of (even basic) knowledge of this person’s life and times. The aim of this sort of cinema is to present the given story in such a way that even the most inexpert viewer does not get lost in a vast amount of historical events but gets an adequate idea of the historical character and the time in which s/he lived. This, of course, does not mean that the film must be a slave to historical facts. On the contrary, the author chooses the most essential, typical and expressive facts and combines them into a single narrative in a way that s/he sees fit.

So when evaluating Hrach Keshishyan’s historical drama film Garegin Nzhdeh, one must first of all separate one’s previous knowledge about Nzhdeh and his activities before seeing the film, and the knowledge one gains from the film itself. In other words, we must differentiate between the real-life Nzhdeh and the film’s protagonist.

During the premiere of the film, one of the producers mentioned in his speech that Garegin Nzhdeh was made to strengthen and assure Armenia’s active participation in the media wars of the modern world. This means that the filmmakers realize that their work would be seen not only in, but also outside of Armenia, by people who are mostly unfamiliar with Armenian history and its national heroes.

Imagine, if you will, a person who has never heard of Garegin Nzhdeh and is about to see Keshishyan’s film. His or her entire notion of Nzhdeh—and Armenia in general—will be based on this film. Imagine what that notion would be like…

gareginThe film begins with a short subtitle: “Lori province, 1918.” Armenian troops under the command of Nzhdeh (played by Shant Hovhannisyan) are battling against a small Turkish unit near the village of Darpas, while Nzhdeh himself is basically preaching hatred towards the Turks and Caucasian Tatars in pompous speeches to his soldiers. What is the political situation in Armenia in 1918? Why are Armenians and Turks at war with each other? Why does Nzhdeh hate the Turks so much? All of these questions remain unanswered. It is even unclear who Nzhdeh actually is, because the film leaves the impression that he is the only Armenian General, and his unit is the only Armenian military force confronting the Turkish invasion.

Similar questions pop up throughout the film. Why did Nzhdeh go to the province of Syunik? After all, we are neither shown nor told how the military operation in Lori ended. Did he win or lose? Was that small Turkish unit consisting of only 200 men the only menace that Armenians had to face? After another battle, Nzhdeh addresses his soldiers: “I’m leaving Syunik by force.” Why? Who’s forcing him? He seemed to have won that last battle… In his speech Nzhdeh also says a few words about the Bolsheviks. However, up until this moment Nzhdeh’s forces were fighting only the Turks: there was no mention of the Red Army. Strangely, there are not only no Russian soldiers in the film, but Russian (unlike Turkish, Bulgarian and German) is the only language that is not dubbed into Armenian. And so, without any logical explanation, Nzhdeh leaves his homeland.

Paris, 1932. At an ARF (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) congress, Nzhdeh (this time played by Artashes Aleqsanyan) is giving another speech. What is the ARF? It might have been mentioned a couple of times in the beginning, but what role exactly did it play in Armenia during the events of 1918–1921? So Nzhdeh was also a member of the ARF? He then has dinner in a restaurant with his second wife (Chulpan Khamatova). But wait: where is his first wife, whom he loved so much? Did she stay in Armenia? Of her own accord, or was she forced? For some reason the ARF sends Nzhdeh to the USA, where he does nothing except laugh at the goofy jokes of his brother-in-law. He returns to Bulgaria. Later Nzhdeh’s son complains to his mother that the other children at school make fun of him, saying that he does not belong to his parents. As she continues to comb the boys already ideally groomed hair, the mother insists on the opposite: so… was this child adopted? What is the point of including this long scene in the script, if it has no effect on the film’s progression and gets no further mention at all?

The scenes that take place in 1952 and unfold in parallel to the main storyline are just as confusing. These jumps in time are made with no inner, or at least external, visual connection between the scenes. Nzhdeh is being questioned in a Yerevan prison. Why the Soviet authorities decided to transfer Nzhdeh from the Russian city of Vladimir to the capital of the Armenian SSR remains a mystery. After all, as we find out later, he was arrested in 1944 in Bulgaria—so the questionings and the trial are long over. What is the point of transferring a prisoner from one city to another for questioning if the sentence has already been pronounced? Of course, in reality there was a reason for this; however, in the film it is quite illogical.

The KGB officer also questions Nzhdeh’s cellmate Hovhannes Devejyan, another member of the ARF. The officer asks him to define Nzhdeh’s philosophical teaching—“tseghakron.” After giving an overview, Devejyan concludes by stating that “Tseghakron is the Armenian form of fascism.” The officer is thrilled with this answer. And why would he not be? After all, Devejyan’s notion is not going to be rebutted in any way for the rest of the film. Even Nzhdeh himself, when accused of being a fascist, does not disprove the officer; instead he gets angry time and time again, starts shouting and demanding to be sent back to Vladimir.

gareginIn the end the officer decides to let Nzhdeh see Yerevan for a last time. This is quite unexpected, because earlier he had been cursing at the prisoner, marring every mild chance he got, but now—for no reason at all—he suddenly relates to him. During the walk the handcuffed Nzhdeh meets his granddaughter for the first time. Afterwards he gathers some Armenian soil in his handkerchief, falls to his knees and starts crying, probably realizing that he will never see his homeland again. This should have been a heartbreaking moment. However, in art any situation is only a sign, a symbol, which is nothing without aesthetic enrichment. A sign alone cannot elicit an emotional response: only by being set in the right aesthetic context can it have artistic and emotional value. Sadly, the illogical progression of the film in general and the poor execution of this scene in particular make it impossible to connect with the main character’s pain. The acting is (for lack of a better word) superficial, the music composed by Armenian singer Hayko is clichéd and sentimental, and it is as if the camera consciously emphasizes what is inappropriate and ignores what could have had an effect. For example, when Nzhdeh is crying on his knees, for some reason the cameraman Mkrtich Malkhasyan takes a shot where the audience cannot see the protagonist’s face or his hand, which is tightly squeezing the handkerchief with his homeland’s soil. And while Nzhdeh is weeping, the audience is forced to watch his stomach.

In spite of all this, Armenian audiences were applauding at the end of the screenings. Some even left the cinema in tears. Many people genuinely like this film. And it is interesting to understand why, because there is also a group of people who equally dislike director Keshishyan’s and scriptwriter Krist Manaryan’s work. And it is peculiar that most of the latter are film critics, directors, cinematographers etc.

When an Armenian watches the film Garegin Nzhdeh s/he does not see the historical representation of Nzhdeh, but rather the national hero, the brave and cunning general, the politician and philosopher Garegin Ter-Harutyunyan, as Nzhdeh’s real name was. The image of Nzhdeh that he has in his mind is automatically transferred onto the film’s character, and it is not necessarily formed under the influence of long historical or even textbook research. More often, it is an unconscious compilation of emotions and feelings that started forming during one’s youth. For many Armenians hearing the name Nzhdeh alone is enough to trigger heroic, emotional associations; and the same can be said about the Turks. When even the most tolerant Armenian meets a Turk (on screen or in real life), he cannot help but reminisce on a subconscious level all the horrors that the Armenian people faced under Ottoman rule, mainly the Genocide and its 1.5 million victims. It is only natural that Armenian viewers immediately accept the Turks as the antagonists in Garegin Nzhdeh, in the same way that they accept the protagonist as a hero. If the world was limited to the Armenian Highlands, this would not be a problem; however, it is much bigger than that, and today we are not only forced to establish ourselves in this world but also conduct so-called media wars.

For a person who has a different world-view, a different national and cultural background, proof is necessary, because nothing binds him/her to Garegin Nzhdeh, and the Turks are just another nation on planet Earth. Upon watching the film, Nzhdeh will appear as a man who hated Turks, who spoke only in a didactic–moralistic manner, even when talking to his wife, considered himself to be smarter and above others, and invented “Armenian fascism” (let us repeat that after this statement is made, the film in no way tries to illustrate what the difference is between fascism and “tseghakron”).

The many technical shortcomings make it even harder to like Keshishyan’s film. For no reason in many scenes, when the actors are in a medium shot, their heads are cut off—the upper parts are out of the frame. Often there are dull and uninteresting shots, such as the one in Nzhdeh’s crying scene. The battle sequences leave the impression as if a maximum of 20 people were involved in making them. Because of the camera’s drastic movements it becomes quite hard and confusing to tell where the Armenian and the Turkish troops are positioned. Nzhdeh magically jumps from one side of the battlefield to another, and when one of his officers kills a Turkish machine-gunner, he takes his place and starts shooting at the exact direction without changing the line of fire. So, an Armenian is shooting at Armenian positions…? In another scene, Nzhdeh has dinner in a crowded restaurant and despite all the noise and music we can plainly see in the background that the extras are sitting quietly and the accordionist is just standing there without even pretending that he is playing an instrument.

Many characters just appear and then disappear, without adding anything to the film. Nzhdeh’s possibly adopted son is one example; another is the young transcriber. At first it seems as if he will play a major role in the film, because—although he serves the Soviet system—it is apparent that he likes and respects Nzhdeh: he even calls him “commander” at one point. Apparently Nzhdeh is also fond of the young man. Unfortunately, after appearing in a couple of scenes, the transcriber just vanishes for a large chunk of the film and it turns out his only function in this story was to give Nzhdeh an apple at the very end, so he can present it to his granddaughter.

The character of Nzhdeh is basically flawless, and every other scene serves to further pinpoint his divine perfection. No matter who he speaks with, he talks down at them, and every line is a pompous aphorism. All of his conversations follow a basic scheme: the interlocutor says something so that Nzhdeh can put him in his place with a bombastically wise response. For example, in one of the last scenes the KGB officer warns Nzhdeh not to attempt an escape. The only reason of including this in the script is for Nzhdeh to have an opportunity to look at the officer with his proudly disdainful gaze and say: “Nzhdeh has never run away from anybody.”

In short, the film’s hero is simply a sign and not a character: a sign which, because of certain historical circumstance, can excite Armenian audiences just by being present on the screen. However, this alone does not mean that artistically speaking the film is a success, because for more specialized and experienced Armenian viewers, and for a foreigner, that sign will mean absolutely nothing. Garegin Nzhdeh could have been considered successful if, as a result, the Armenian world-view and historical experience had become elatable and understandable to everyone.

First published in Armenian on 8 December 2013

Artur Vardikyan

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Garegin Nzhdeh, Armenia, 2013
153 minutes
Director Hrach Keshishyan
Screenplay Krist Manaryan
Music Hayko
DoP Mko Malkhasyan
Cast: Artashes Aleksanyan, Mikhail Efremov, Robert Hakobyan, Nazeni Hovhannisyan, Shant Hovhannisyan, Chulpan Khamatova, Khoren Levonyan, Yervand Manaryan, Armen Margaryan, Arman Navasardyan, Narek Nersisyan, Vigen Stepanyan, David Tadevosyan, Ashot Ter-Matevosyan, Viktor Vasilev, Frida York     
Producers: Mushegh Adamyan, Hrach Keshishyan

Hrach Keshishyan: Garegin Nzhdeh (2013)

reviewed by Artur Vardikyan© 2016