Suzanne Khardalian: Grandma’s Tattoos (Farmors tatueringar, 2011)

reviewed by Artsvi Bakhchinyan© 2016


Signs of Enduring Pain

Over the past twenty years so many documentaries about the Armenian Genocide were filmed in different countries around the world that it would seem impossible to tell anything new: the topics would appear to have been exhausted. Yet the film Grandma’s Tattoos by Suzanne Khardalian for the first time raises the topic of sexual violence and slavery in the context of the genocide.

grandmas tattooArmenian society has always preferred to keep silent about these aspects of the genocide. “The history of the people who did not die, of the young women who survived and continued to live remains hitherto untold,” says Suzanne Khardalian in the film. “History is being written by men. It is they who also write about the genocide. And in the history written by them there is no place for women. These women are glorified and branded. They are unsung heroes. They paid a terrible price. They were destined to endure the heaviest of burdens. They were supposed to recreate life”.

The narration in Grandma’s Tattoos, filmed in five countries, is in the first person: the director herself talks about her grandmother and reveals the tragedy of her life, sequence by sequence: “I never loved my grandmother,” Khardalian confesses in the film. “She never hugged me, kissed me, she never smiled at me. And when she went downstairs every morning and sat somewhere in a corner, silently spending long hours there, we all felt the discomfort of her oppressive presence. I was afraid of grandma. She was strange. I was repelled by the blue tattoos on her face and hands—these satanic signs from some dark world. As a child, I did not dare ask her about these tattoos. For years, I diligently excluded grandma from my world. And just now I realize the meaning of these strange signs. Only now I realize that they are signs of violence and slavery...”.

grandmas tattooTo understand her grandmother, innocently staring with her clean gaze from a photo of taken at a young age, the filmmaker had to piece together her story bit by bit, questioning her mother and her aunt—the grandmother’s young sister, also covered in tattoos and refusing to say anything definitive. This film is a collection of shots taken at various locations, interviews, some archival footage and family photos; but thereby it goes beyond the story of a single family. The sad fate of Khanum, Khardalian’s grandmother, echoes the fate of thousands of other Armenian women who, during the First World War, were kept as slaves and concubines in Muslim families. After the war, it was no longer safe to keep the Armenian slaves at home: it was punished by law; so they were simply kicked out on the street. Many of these women were forced to convert to Islam, others turned to prostitution. Some were saved by kind people and charitable organizations: photos of surviving Armenian girls from the League of Nation archive feature in Khardalian’s film. The Near East Relief charity prepared hundreds of court cases on violence against women and girls rescued between 1919–1926 from Muslim captivity. The silent suffering is frozen for good in their eyes, and the blue tattoos are visible on their hands and faces. As Khardalian notes in the film: “In these photographs there was something frightening. They reminded me of my grandmother—her hands, the strange marks on them and on her face... Some questions began to torture me. What went wrong with grandma? Was she also a concubine? Had she been raped? I had no answers to these questions. We never really talked about my grandma.”

grandmas tattooThe subject of conflict and succession of cultures is also important in the film. The director is an ethnic Armenian from Lebanon, married to a Swede, and an heiress of the genocide; she faces a variety of unanswerable questions. “I have nothing material that would remind me of my grandmother: no wedding ring, no bed linen or family photos. All I have are fragments of stories. And questions. But no answers... only fragments of stories... We live in blissful ignorance. Why do I feel jealous of the small handkerchiefs, family souvenirs, and other trifles that were left as a memory to my Swedish husband? It pains me that I have nothing: nothing to tell me about my origins. Who were my ancestors? What were they like? Do we even have a family grave...”

An Armenian with such a legacy cannot live peacefully in civilized Sweden. Loud memories about her grandmother emerge on the background of Swedish landscapes to the sound of the Armenian folksong “Sareri hovin mermen” [I am so fond of the mountain breeze] in this filmmaker’s investigation.

grandmas tattooUnanswered questions lead Khardalian to the Syrian desert, Der Zor, where even today one can find human remains under the sand and stones where the stories of hundreds of thousands of Armenians lie buried, including those of grandma Khanum. “This is our Auschwitz. But it seems to me that the whole world wants to forget this place and the bodies of my compatriots left under the sands. On the faces of all the people I met, in all my interlocutors, I was looking for traces of my grandma’s past in the hope of finding at least one unknown, unnamed relative.” About a hundred years ago, a young Armenian woman with her two daughters tried to cross the Euphrates, relying on the honesty of a Kurdish boatsman, hoping to reach Aleppo. Unlike many thousands of Armenian women, who rushed into the abyss of the river to save their honor, the daughters were destined to survive, at the cost of four years of sexual slavery among Muslims. Having learned from the half-confession of her mother about this sad page of their family history, Khardalian and her sisters were shocked. “I felt incredible shame,” she says. Khardalian, who writes about the Armenian Genocide and makes films on the subject (documentaries like Back to Ararat [1988] and I Hate Dogs: The Last Survivor [2005]), has realized recently that she is a descendant of a victim of sexual slavery. She does not know how her grandmother, aged 19, appeared in the Beirut refugee camp, where she was given in marriage. Being in a new place, she, like other survivors of the genocide, tried to start a new life. Khardalian’s grandmother worked a lot: sewing, weaving carpets, pickling olives, thus maintaining her family. “She loved the way she was capable of loving. She had children and grandchildren, whom she could embrace, but never embraced. She was lacking something terribly, something was unfinished. Her soul had been stolen. Even when she was happy, there was a sense of torture in her heart. We grew up, life was going on, but she remained somewhere there, on the sidelines. My grandmother did everything she could so that her shame would not spread to us...”

In the film Grandma’s Tattoos, shot in the genre of a film-monologue and travelogue, only interrupted occasionally by talking with family and other people, there is another notable and revealing episode. The 104-year-old Yerevan resident Mary, who experienced the horrors of the genocide, used to tell her son about the Armenian liberation movement leaders Andranik and Nzhdeh, but never about the terrible fate that befell the Armenian women, which caused her to live through century-long tortures again and again...

Documentary filmmaker Khardalian possesses important skills which increasingly rare among colleagues. Her current documentary is not a reportage and is almost free from unnecessary sequences. Khardalian’s directorial taste is especially evident in the few staged scenes (the photos of the grandmother and other captive girls in the sands of Der Zor). The musical arrangement is also successful: not the traditional music of the traditional Armenian instrument, the duduk, or Komitas, but less Armenian music by American-Armenian composer Alan Hovhannes.

Artsvi Bakhchinyan

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Grandma’s Tattoos, Sweden, 2011
Documentary, 58 minutes
Director: Suzanne Khardalian
Cinematography PeÅ Holmquist
Editing Toby Trotter
Sound Jonatan Kruse
Music Alan Hovhaness, Vincent Boutolleau, Long Zhou, Lena Chamamyan
Production: HB PeA Holmquist Film, in co-production with Sveriges Televison – Charlotte Hellström; additional funding Svenska Filminstitutet – Tove Torbiörnsson; NRK – Tore Tomter; Nordisk Film &TV Fond – Karolina Lidin; Konstnärsnämnden; Al Jazeera English
Developed with support of the MEDIA Programme of the European Community
Archives: Bundesarchiv, Berlin; Hubert Schonger, Schongerfilm; Nubarian Library, Paris; League of Nations, Geneva; The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute Yerevan;

Suzanne Khardalian: Grandma’s Tattoos (Farmors tatueringar, 2011)

reviewed by Artsvi Bakhchinyan© 2016