Jivan Avetisyan: Tevanik (2014)
reviewed by Artur Vardikyan© 2016
Ending at the starting point
The late Armenian writer and director Arnold Aghababov wrote the screenplay for Tevanik back in the 1990s, yet for various reasons the film was not produced during his lifetime. However, 2014 saw the premiere of director Jivan Avetisyan’s Tevanik. Along with playwright Karine Khodikyan, Avetisyan rewrote the original script, making it a three-part story about a single day in the life of an Armenian village caught in the fire of the Artsakh Nagorno-Karabakh war. Eventually, the film went on to win the Grand Prix of the Golden Apricot IFF in the Armenian Panorama competition.
In contrast to Avetisyan’s previous work—the short film Broken Childhood (Yndhatvats Mankutyun, 2013)—Tevanik is devoid of blind and artificial patriotic pathos, which, of course, is a good thing. It should also be noted that certain scenes display quite pleasant camerawork and overall there are some interesting details. But sadly, as a whole Tevanik is neither a screenwriting nor a directorial success.
Tevanik’s three novels are meant to depict a day in a village from three different points of view, which are provided by the village kids named Aram, Astghik and the eponymous Tevanik. This is a writing technique that has more than once proven its effectiveness in world cinema. Yet in the case of Tevanik the clumsy division is exactly what ultimately destroys what is considered a fundamental element in a work of fiction: the drama. The problem is that if a given film has three intertwined stories, then they have to enrich and convey new depths to each other. The connection between Tevanik’s novels is so superficial that the drama simply ends up being mangled, turning the film into an incoherent compilation of “fictitious facts.” This is unacceptable, considering the themes Tevanik is trying to explore.
The first novel is the story of young Aram’s family. His father is Armenian; however, his mother is an Azeri woman, who gets harassed by the locals (we see this one time in the second novel when the village kids throw rocks at Aram’s house). Some villagers dismissively call Aram “a Turk’s bastard.” The father is forced to send away his beloved wife and Aram’s younger brother to Azerbaijan, while he and Aram remain in Karabakh.
One must understand that this family’s situation is just a sign, which can grow into art and drama only in case of artistic interpretation and stylization. Obviously, the film wants its audience to sympathize with Aram’s family. Yet how can we sympathize with people we know almost nothing about and whom we have first seen just 20 minutes ago? More importantly, how can we care about them if it is obvious that they are not real people, but fictitious characters in a film and every new scene, every new line of dialogue only confirms their artificiality? This is not real life, where the above-mentioned fact alone would have been enough to evoke sympathy in the heart of the beholder. A work of fiction has to go a few steps beyond that in order to prove its validity. It has to seek out and trace all the strings that eventually lead to a father making a decision to separate his family by sending his wife and youngest son to an enemy country. In the process, the filmmakers have to acquaint the audience with these people and make them believe that the separation of the family is the only solution and that there is no other way out. Only then will drama be born.
However, in Tevanik this hard decision is made instantaneously, without preparing the audience. And it is actually quite evident that the filmmakers did not exactly think everything through. For example, if the Armenians are openly expressing hatred and revulsion for their compatriot and his Azeri wife, than what makes Aram’s father believe that the same will not happen on the other side of the border? He fears for the safety of his family, so he splits it up. But is he not concerned that the Azeri’s, in turn, will call his youngest son “an Armenian bastard” and pursue his wife for being married to an Armenian? Apparently this does not even cross his mind. For all these reasons the scene of the family’s separation remains ineffective.
Wars destroy families and separate loving souls. This alone is a subject for an entire movie, and it probably is not right addressing it in passing. But because Tevanik’s authors have decided to divide the film into three parts, the “Aram” novel is given a mere 20-25 minutes of screen time. During this short time, several one-dimensional characters appear on screen, the shallowest being Aram’s grandfather who has disowned his son for bringing an Azeri woman into their house; and Aram’s uncle, who is unsuccessfully trying to make his brother and father reconcile. The scene involving the two men is meant to present the family situation to the audience, but it does so through a rather clumsily played-out dialogue. The characters discuss the situation, yet their conversation remains without consequences. This means that the scene serves the purpose of providing an exposition rather than deepening the drama. At the end of the novel, there is a short little scene where—after nearly a decade of agitation—the grandfather enters his son’s house, but it is too late: at that moment Aram’s father is accompanying his wife to Azerbaijan. The soundtrack desperately tries to convey emotions, yet the way the scene was shot—the hammy acting, the flat angles, the overall rhythmic disharmony—stop it from having any artistic value.
In the second novel there is an attempt at deepening the family drama. We witness a long conversation the couple had before leaving. Unfortunately, this dialogue does not contain anything the audience did not already know from the first novel, and leads one to believe that more than anything else the filmmakers were betting on bare expository dialogue, because yet again the images are flat and non-expressive, without any sense of rhythm or style. On a side note, it is laudable that the characters are speaking in their natural dialect, which may be hard to understand, but does not sound phony (for example if they spoke in high Armenian). However, it is also obvious that some actors are having a hard time speaking this language. It is as though they are not always sure whether they are pronouncing it right or not. You do not have to be a linguist to feel that uncertainty. But of course, there are also actors who look extremely comfortable speaking the Karabakh dialect.
The second novel is the most harmless of the three, which is probably the virtue of the young actress who plays Astghik. Sure, her acting needs some work, but the young girl actually has enough natural charm to somehow carry (although stumblingly) the novel on her shoulders. But basically nothing of importance happens in the second novel. Instead, we see some ethnographic observations, which, however, are not presented lively enough as to replace good solid drama.
It is just Astghik running around from one side of the village to another. She meets her grandma and mother. We learn that every man in their family is on the battlefield. Astghik herself apparently has feelings for young Tevanik, but this plotline goes nowhere. The commander of the local Armenian squadron is also living in Astghik’s house. A letter addressed to him falls into Astghik’s hands. It is the wife of the commander writing from the US–Armenian diaspora. The letter describes how she did not share her husband’s decision of leaving peaceful America for Nagorno-Karabakh. Now she regrets it and promises to reunite with her husband shortly. The director cross-cuts the shot of Astghik exploring the letter with shots of a coward villager pushing his children into the car and preparing to leave. While a gentle melody is playing, the voice of the commander’s wife reads the letter over both shots. Obviously, the filmmakers are creating a contrast: some Armenians come from overseas to fight, yet some locals prefer to run. However, the film would have gained artistry if they had rejected this publicistic and obvious metaphor, and perhaps focused their abilities on creating an emotionally touching sequence. The contrast between the two types of characters would have manifested itself anyway.
The third novel is mostly based on Aghababov’s original script, and it shows: it really feels like a separate story, independent from the other two; independent, yet not satisfactory… First of all, this part of the film strikes the eye with incredibly muddled direction. The novel begins with a battle scene, during which it is quite hard to tell who is Armenian, who is Azeri, who wounded whom etc.
Young Tevanik destroys an enemy tank. The villagers are proud of him, yet the experienced commander of the squadron is angry: because of Tevanik, they lost an opportunity of seizing a functioning armored vehicle. He decides to teach the boy a lesson and takes him into the forest on a scouting mission. The forest, however, is the nest of an enemy sniper who immediately takes the life of the commander. A mere second before his death the commander notices his foe, turns around and yells: “Tevanik!” Surely the sniper saw or heard this, surely he figured out that there is another target nearby. But apparently he did not, because despite all logic, he climbs down his nest, investigates the commander’s body and goes to a waterfall not far away… to shower. Tevanik follows him. This sneaking and following could have made for a really tense and interesting sequence, yet because of the muddled direction and clichéd heartwarming soundtrack it just turns into a long and monotone walk in the woods.
Anyway: the waterfalls. The sniper starts undressing, and suddenly Tevanik, who has been hiding behind some rocks, realizes to his surprise that it is a woman! And possibly the first naked woman the boy has ever seen. The situation is so promising that the only thing left to do is to follow Tevanik’s lead, namely—to sit and wait with an open mouth. The woman notices the boy and shouts at him in Russian. Eventually the two come face to face with weapons blazing and—fade to black. Gunshot… The film ends with Aram’s uncle, who was also the commander’s lieutenant, remembering the supposedly wise words of the commander, leaping out of the trenches and leading the attack of his outnumbered troops.
Certainly, films have the right of ending drastically and vaguely. However, those kinds of finales cannot be self-serving. They have to be earned. An ending like that has to carry a meaning. And all the action that happened before has to be impressive and satisfying, excluding any other kind of ending.
Tevanik’s finale, on the other hand, is a joke. The film ends exactly where it should have started, when the plot was just beginning to get interesting. And sadly, this could be said about all of the film’s plotlines. Like Tevanik’s adventure, the drama of Aram’s family and the commander’s love story remain incomplete, because they end at the moment they were supposed to begin. The “day from multiple POVs” technique has limited the filmmakers and forced them to stuff these fragile subjects into 25-minute long defective novels.
Did these subjects not deserve better? And did Aghababov’s original screenplay not have a more of classical structure? Perhaps it would have been best to follow that structure. Of course, there is no guarantee that the film would have turned out better. But one thing is certain: in its current form Tevanik is, sadly, an artistic failure. And the word “sadly” is not just for politeness, because it truly is sad when themes with so much potential and an event that has affected the identity of a modern-day Armenian do not get their worthy cinematic expression.
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Tevanik. Armenia, 2014
Director: Jivan Avetisyan
Script: Arnold Aghababov, Jivan Avetisyan, Karine Khodikyan
Music: Jonas Jurkunas
DoP: Narek Martirosyan
Production Design: Anton Qeshishyan
Cast: Rehina Budnik, Babken Chobanyan, Grigor Gabrielyan, Marineh Gabrielyan, Vahagn Galstyan, Satenik Hakhnazaryan, Sos Janibekyan, Karen Jhangirov, Hovhannes Khoderyan, Sergey Magalyan, Arthur Manukyan, Mary Movsesyan, Narek Nersisyan, Ara Sargsyan, Henrik Shahbazyan, Greta Titelman
Producers: Masis Baghdasaryan, Kestutis Drazdauskas, Gevorg Gevorgyan
Jivan Avetisyan: Tevanik (2014)
reviewed by Artur Vardikyan© 2016