The Providence of the Documentarist: Harutyun Khachatryan

By Susanna Harutyunyan

In 2015 the acclaimed filmmaker Harutyun Khachatryan celebrated his 60th anniversary. His acclaim is not just for the many professional awards and A-class festival prizes he has won: he is a filmmaker who has created his own model of cinema at the intersection of fiction film and documentary, or—as they would say in expert circles—at the intersection of “feature and non-feature.” Therefore it is hard to classify his films and quite often the same film may be presented both in feature and documentary competitions at various festivals. Irrespective of any classifications, his films break through to the crux of cinema, to its ontological sources, to things that link him to pillars of Armenian cinema, such as Sergei Parajanov and Artavazd Peleshian. His films range among the works of these two masters related by national culture and poetry of the creative spirit nurturing their very sources.

He is their true successor, yet totally different from them. With his inclination to fact—this primeval basis of film art—Khachatryan comes close to Peleshian’s cinematic style, even if there is one difference: he puts an impregnable distance between himself and the authentic material, giving the latter the privilege of developing without constraints, slowly and independently. At the same time he distances himself from the material as if he is not making any choices himself. As distinct from Peleshian’s powerful and constant presence in every cell of his material, here we see filmmaker dissolve in the material: the total disappearance is the director’s ultimate bliss and will. The luxury of Parajanov’s “life as theater” ritual is alien to Khachatryan: a ritual where each image, each character being the perfect marionette of the director’s ideas and his soul, with everything being “faked,” everything is just a game, except the master himself. In all his film Khachatryan remains unconditionally true to the essence of the documentary film. (Grigoryan 2015: 92) 

khachatryanThese properties of Khachatryan’s cinema were marked right from his debut films, Kond (1987) and The White Town (Spitak qaghaq, 1989). They appeared during Gorbachev’s perestroika as striking examples of the “new wave” of Armenian documentary film of the late 1980s. It was a wonderful time, when the hidden social and political conflicts shaking Soviet society from the inside suddenly erupted. Both Kond and The White Town presented that kind of conflict, and made critics and society talk not only about the very problem or problems, but also about the author’s worldview, that would yet have to become the trademark of the filmmaker Harutyun Khachatryan.

Both Kond and The White Town are policy films in all aspects, in each segment, in every cells. They contain a new property of cinema, a new level of filmic thinking for Armenian cinema, which—as Andrei Plakhov aptly puts it—combines the “thoroughness of the documentarist and the sympathy of the poet” (Plakhov 2007: 74). I’d put it somehow different: the partiality of the documentarist and the providence of the poet.

Following the key rule of documentary cinema, which is trust of life and in the object of shooting, the director makes them the objects of a long cinematic observation; Kond, the old neighborhood in Yerevan, for the first film; and the provincial town of Akhalkalaki and its people, with their special logic of life, for the second work. This logic demands assembly, motion, and development of the material by the director—morning, midday, evening; daily chores, work, feasts; wedding, funeral, childbirth. A filmed cycle of human existence. This quite general scheme is filled with pieces from real life. But the most valuable aspect is that these cinematographically pure films (the camera just records life in its everyday manifestation) caught the inner tension and the nerve of the conflicts striking society.

In my opinion The White Town is the best film on the so-called “national issue.” Made in 1987–88, it managed to sense the pulse of the issues which a year later would burst into inter-ethnic conflicts on the entire territory of the Soviet Union. Thus, already in 1987, when everything seemed calm and Soviet ideology insisted on the “unbreakable friendship between the nations,” the film showed a premonition of events to come. Here we see the usual Lenin statue on the main square and other Soviet clichés, but they are seen as theatrical scenery along with the ancient rites of the Armenian church, the filming of a naive and amateur theater show, graveyard scenes where Armenian men killed in Afghanistan are buried, and a long shot of the farewell of recruits joining the Soviet Army. Behind such Soviet clichés, the real life of the real people with their real problems and pain is felt.

Nevertheless, both Kond and The White Town, for all their novelty, are examples of documentary film. But in his next film, The Wind of Oblivion (Qamin unaynutyan, 1990), Khachatryan engages in a risky experiment, trying to combine what would seem to be impossible to combine, i.e. documentary film observation and the rough construction of a feature plot. This is a loose interpretation of the Biblical topic of the “prodigal son” with a departure, wandering, and a bitter return. Real people—our compatriots who left the homeland and settled in various corners of the Soviet Union (an entrepreneur from Moscow, an artist from Tallinn, a director from a taiga village), people who are interesting for their documentarily recorded personal uniqueness—on the set come across the “main characters,” other real people playing concrete dramatic roles (Rouben Hakhverdyan, Gevorg Agekyan) as designated by the director. The director stands in front of the camera with them, asking inconvenient questions and pushing them to make amazing revelations. The director wonders whether our compatriots, displaced from the homeland by chance, have managed to preserve the national codes within themselves. Or maybe they have been wiped out by the everyday fuss for the daily bread?

wind of oblivionVahan, an artist based in Tallinn, speaks about love—or rather the lack of it in people; he speaks with a heavy heart and in broken Armenian, selling his Armenian paintings for Swedish kronas and American dollars. The Armenian director who produced William Saroyan’s play Hello Out There! in the taiga with the Chukcha and tries to explain his pain in a foreign language speaks out about the misery and his sense of being superfluous in the homeland. The fate of each of the film’s characters is part of our common Armenian fate, which we tend to idealize. The truth is that the nation finds itself in a very limited space of a nervous, abnormal existence in a time of change, which pushes out anyone who does not fit into the given circumstances.

But the actual reality includes also the documentary reality of the time of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the blood of the victims of natural disasters and interethnic cataclysms, the destroyed Armenian cities and villages in late 1980s, through which the returnee to the homeland (played by Rouben Hakhverdyan) drives in a car and wanders as if in a nightmare.

This risky balancing on the intersection of the documentary and feature elements, this courage to break taboos and stereotypes of conventional “filmic thinking,” elicited extremely polarized reactions back in 1989. Due to its experimentation, the film was more in demand in the West and remained underestimated in Armenia. But amazingly, after over a quarter of a century later, many people discover The Wind of Oblivion anew and watch it, as if it never lost its urgency neither in form nor content.

Moreover, national identity issues and questions about moral self-preservation are today highlighted not only in Armenian, but also in world cinema, and lean towards a more global scale. Certainly, some interior motifs can be found that signal the birth of a new large-scale project by Khachatryan: the documentary tetralogy Endless Escape, Eternal Return (Anverj pakhust, haverzh veradardz, 2014), in which he refers to the characters from The Wind of Oblivion, wandering around far from their homeland for more than a quarter of a century. What happened to them? What is the destiny they have been awarded? This project will be discussed below.

In 1991 Khachatryan made The Return to the Promised Land (Veradardz avetyats yerkir, 1991), one of the most significant and emblematic films from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. It was a difficult time: Armenia, which had just gained its independence, was half-destroyed by earthquakes and found itself dragged into a bloody inter-ethnic conflict and war with Azerbaijan. Tens of thousands of refugees from the neighboring republic poured into Armenia. The Return to the Promised Land tells about them, about a family of refugees. But neither the film nor the characters show any sign of aggression and hatred. True to his style of thorough recording and a partiality for “pure cinema,” the director unhurriedly conducts his observation of the young couple, who make home in a half-ruined house in a village on the promised land of the historical homeland. We follow the young family returning to normal life step by step, building their house, making the household, plowing the field, bringing up the child born in the homeland. We witness the creation of a new life with the bricks of difficult, but natural relations between man and the land, nature; we follow the alternation of day and night, the changing seasons. The slow pace, reserved and monochrome style, minimalism in details, moderated sound and absence of dialogues create a tense atmosphere of correlation and compassion. The tragedy of the people who have lost their loved ones, expelled from their homes, is overcome with difficulty and wisdom by their harmonious and natural existence in the “Promised Land.” Basically, that is a universal formula of existence not only for the film characters, but for the whole nation, for the entire country, and for the director himself.

But post-Soviet reality of the 1990s proved far from this kind of harmonious co-existence. After independence, Armenia was thrown into permanent economical, political and social crises, which led to the collapse of the film industry. For Khachatryan, this meant temporary retirement from cinema and a forced, almost a ten-year pause in his career. The film The Documentarist (Vaveragrogh, 2003), conceived in mid-1990s, was completed only in 2003; and it was The Documentarist that won Khachatryan the Special Prize from Karlovy Vary IFF and marked his triumphal return to cinema.

documentaristThe black-and-white newsreel of the transitional 1990s in The Documentarist is an example of the balanced combination of feature and non-feature film. Through pictures from real life, the director records his eight-year-long (the period of the making of this film) existential wanderings on the dividing line of the reality and fiction. The film is realized on the intersection of genres and with the means of a rough selection and editing of compelling images that it uses to build the portrait of post-Soviet Armenia in seven chapters: stone quarry, maternity, orphan-hood, homelessness, stray dogs, prisoners. It is a society stricken with poverty, crime and violence. And it is far from that “Promised Land.” Nevertheless, these fragments of reality shaped into a black-and-white mosaic contain an even deeper comprehension of the truth about the transition period, about its heroes and victims. The director not only records the lives of the people behind the poverty line, but he also tries to protect human dignity in the hopelessness of the poverty and crisis. He interferes in whatever goes on in front of the camera all the time, crossing the line and breaking the unwritten rule for a documentary filmmaker: he separates fighters in the episode “The Feast of the Homeless;” he interviews the head of the prison; he pushes characters to a revelation, and then tells them: “And now you must cry!” By the way, would it be just a coincidence that the homeless boy is also called Harutyun?

Basically, therefore, the film character is the director himself, the “documentarist” who tries to make his way to the essence: humanity and hope. Not accidentally is the huge meaning and emotional load carried by the scenes from the maternity ward: we follow pre-natal pains, the chronicle of a Cesarean, the birth of twins—but we hear no cry of the newborns. The anxiety is condensed on camera, because the hope for the future is extremely uncertain.

“Khachatryan originally intended to make a ‘classic documentary’ about his homeland, a nation ravaged by war and poverty, but funding proved impossible; instead, he crafted this mosaic of various episodes: a birth, a wedding, a prison visit, streams of refugees and orphans, interludes among the homeless and dispossessed. Shot in an exquisite, silver-tinged B&W, this is a breathtaking vision of a ruined country, lit by its maker’s unerring compositional sense, and his absolute belief in the resilience of the human spirit”—in those terms The Documentarist was presented at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2004.

return of poetIn 2006 Khachatryan made perhaps his most lyrical film, The Return of the Poet (Poeti veradardze). It is a film dedicated to Armenia’s national poet Jivani and the land that raised him, Javakheti—the birthplace of Harutyun Khachatryan himself. Yet the film is far from just a costume biopic, recreating “the life and the art of…” The material for the film is the very process of creation: it is “co-creation.”

Remaining true to the documentary stylistics, Khachatryan recreates on the screen the phases of Jivani making a sculpture. He records this thoroughly: from the first drops of water falling on the clay, which would become the malleable material in the hands of the sculptor for the embodiment of the concept and the image of the poet; from the long roaming of the master at the quarry searching the very stone which “contains the body” and which in the process of creation—as we witness it—acquires the face and the body of Jivani; to the very moment when the sculpture would be “crucified” on wooden braces, to be “risen” by crane and placed on a military truck’s gun carriage to set off on its journey throughout Armenia, from Yerevan to the native village of the Poet in Javakheti, which is nowadays in Georgia. Then the director in the same thorough manner records the “journey” of the Poet through the country, which is shown in its full grace and controversy, in a variety of images of the surrounding poverty of daily life and inexhaustible cultural richness.

However, most strikingly the process of sculpting is recorded with a documentary camera, with all the everyday details, and at some point this turns to a new level and acquires a totally different meaning, as if repeating the experience of divine creation. The stone is revived; it acquires a soul in the hands of the sculptor, and we follow the process along with the director, thus becoming the witnesses of co-creation and we see how screen reality “turns into the art.”

The splendid shooting, the excellent work with light and the almost tangible portrait-like-ness of the content recreate the poetical atmosphere of Jivani’s art, which lives up to the present day in the soul of his soil. Here poetry and chants are alive: they are sung in towns and villages during the entire journey of the Poet, at cheerful festivities and moments of loneliness, through thick and thin. But the film’s poetic dimension is born not only from the recorded testimonies, the presence of the Poet and his rich cultural heritage in the reality of modern Armenia; the poetry runs through the entire structure of the film: it is born from the rhythm and the unique soundtrack, flawlessly derived from Jivani’s own singing and poetic heritage in its many different interpretations, and in the symphony of real noise. Breathtaking in its simplicity, this film became a reflection of the spirit of his country.

borderThree years later, at the Rotterdam IFF, Khachatryan’s next film had its international premiere: The Border (Sahman, 2009). This film is a unique example of how a plot based on actual events, so typical for the post-Soviet Armenia of mid-1990s, develops into a truly epic tale about Time. The narration is convincing and gains significance because for this epic piece, the director uses restrained documentary language with slow filmic observation to create an artistic world-view, and thus facilitated an immersion into the lives of his characters. Not accidentally the acclaimed Russian film critic Ol’ga Shervud called him the true “witness of time” (Shervud 2003)

Khachatryan does not compromise his aesthetical principles, which were shaped at the very beginning of his artistic career in The Return to the Promised Land (1991), later developed and are vividly shown in the works that followed: The Documentarist and The Return of the Poet. The Border is a piece of auteur cinema, which records the deep, sweeping changes of our time, thinking over what has happened and still happens to our country, its people, and to each of us. At the same time, the motif of the “border” as the cornerstone reaches a metaphorical meaning: it is not just a border that separates hostile parties of a conflict, not only a border between yesterday’s hopes and today’s reality, but it is a barbed wire which is inside us and fetters the free and harmonious development both for the individual and the nation as a whole. Yet it is impossible to take issue, because the film has a she-buffalo as its main character. This makes the quite human yearning for breaking the border, crossing beyond it—to freedom, the “promised land”—even more acute. This yearning is so strong and primordial that it forces us to ignore the fear of death. The newborn baby buffalo, entangled in the barbed wire at the end of the film, is a symbol for the new life, which questions the legality of any boundaries.

Once again The Border has proved the uniqueness of Khachatryan’s filmmaking, his mastery in not only focusing his eye on key hot-spots of the modern world, but also his ability to “see through” to the root of problems, voicing them through cinema, and cinema only. This invariably catches on widely and emotionally with global audiences, and therefore the film had unprecedented success at international film festivals and received dozens of prizes, including several Grand Prix.

The Border concludes the documentary trilogy by Khachatryan on “zero faces.” Along with The Documentarist and The Return of the Poet, The Border gives evidence of time filtered through the heart of the author. And I am not afraid to make the high-flown statement and say that many years later our time will be judged by these pieces.

Khachatryan’s most recent film, titled Endless Escape, Eternal Return (Part 1: Hayk) opens a totally new page in his career, harking back at the late 1980s and the above-mentioned film The Wind of Oblivion. The characters of that film—real and non-fictional—with all their differences were united by a common factor of their biography: almost thirty years ago all of them made the crucial decision to leave their homeland and seek their fortune in foreign lands. Each of them had strong reasons for that decision and their own ideas of self-fulfillment and success, which was basically the pivotal fact for the film’s content. At the same time, the director distanced himself from any moral judgment: he followed them, tried to listen to them, find answers in the documentary fragments of the life that the characters made for themselves, far from the homeland.

endlessHayk, the main character of Endless Escape, Eternal Return, is one of them: the very theatre director who tried to reach the reasoning of the inescapable melancholy in Saroyan’s Hello Out There! among amateur actors in a remote taiga village, and who argued over his right to escape everybody and everything. This striking, extremely emotional episode is the starting point for the new story of Hayk, from the late 1980s to the present: a resuming story of a single human life and of a whole period in the modern history of the nation. For 25 years Khachatryan has kept his eye on the character; their paths have periodically crossed, mostly when Khachatryan wanted it, and the documentary evidence of the meetings have been kept in an archive, like parts of a jigsaw to be eventually pieced together to an awesome picture of a “roadside picnic of life,” namely infinite loneliness, unclaimed hopes, wasted life forces. Endless moving, wandering, struggle for existence, thousands of kilometers of roads, a family left somewhere, a garage instead of home… The character’s monologues for the camera, with which he shares the most sacred things, are all about what he has gained and what he has irretrievably lost in his escape. Behind the camera stands his friend, the filmmaker Harutyun Khachatryan.

The level of the trust obtained in the process of shooting, as well as the respect for his character, pushes the director to a conceptual solution, letting “an alien element” into his film, which is the word, the direct speech of the first party. And not only letting it in, but also making it a shaping force. The image of the lead character is built upon close-ups and long monologues. But this has nothing in common with the “talking heads” inhabiting documentaries and TV screens: the close-up brings the character out of daily life, from the “here and now”, closer to us, enabling us to watch his/her facial expressions to underline the inborn artistry of the character. In this case, the close-up is more of a trick from the feature film. This is very untypical of Khachatryan’s cinema, which is mainly non-fiction.

The majority of Khachatryan’s previous films were without dialogues; the characters used to live their lives on screen in their own natural environment, without wasting words. And this was considered his trademark, a kind of inalienable feature, evidence for the purity of the cinematic language. Particularly key is the decision to partially retreat from the “trademark style” and to present a different cinema on the screen in its perception, more focused on the single character and using mostly close-ups. This is not the director whimsically exacerbating a new formal method to prove that he can do that as well; the choice is imposed by a sense of responsibility for the material on the part of both director and his character. Deep down, with this decision he offered Hayk a unique and maybe the last chance for self-realization and re-evaluation of his life.

But if the film was only to focus on private revelations and Armenian problems of emigration, it would not have had that international response confirmed with the Grand Prix at Torino IFF in November 2014. The motif of “endless escape and eternal return” acquires a universal perception thanks to the peculiarity of enlarging the borders of what is seen and caught on camera that is typical of Khachatryan’s cinematography: it is also what brings an epic dimension into the real flow of time and the events, and what makes us see a character of classical tragedy in our own contemporary.  “The bare dialogue” itself counts for a lot! You cannot make this up, put it down in a script, or perform it. What you can do is just reach it within the turbid depths of the character’s memory—the guy in front of the camera—within all that is ostentatious, superficial, and insignificant, that sometimes does not allow you to get to the core, the soul, and the reasoning. And Khachatryan manages to clearly see the essence in the flow of life, in its everyday and non-artistic manifestations, and cloth it in a cinematic form that is in his power only. He is able to see the other side of the material he works with.

The wording of the international jury in presenting the award at the Torino festival is quite telling: “With his sense for the genuine filmic elements and its conscious and careful use, Harutyun Khachatryan brings the audience in contact with the transforming flow of history and in an almost physical touch with reality. Through the profound beauty of the images, the use of time and the atmospheric sound and music the loneliness of man in this world is transcended to a metaphysical level where it connects the audience with the bare human being and its quest and struggle for happiness, freedom and affiliation.”

The second part of the documentary series Endless Escape, Eternal Return will be titled “Levon:” another destiny to be followed over 25 years, another variation on the escape/return theme. How many human stories like this does the director’s view catch? According to the Khachatryan’s concept there are four or five at least. Whenever they line up, or rather make a complete polyphonic score, then it is going to be a new monumental cinematic form, which will be tuning in with the thoughts and sensations of the author over the fate of his nation.

Instead of an Afterword
Since 2004 Harutyun Khachatryan is the founding head of the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival, one of the brands of the new Armenia, with the huge role it plays in cultural exchange, attracting A-list film stars to Yerevan, opening new perspectives for the new generation, and boosting the local film industry. In 2014, 1,500 films from 100 countries applied for participation in the festival.

Translated into English by David Vardazaryan, edited by Birgit Beumers


Susanna Harutyunyan
Yerevan, January 2015

Works Cited
Grigoryan, Anelka. 2015. “Return of the Poet”, in Filmmaker Harutyun Khachatryan, Yerevan.
Plakhov, Andrei 2007. Text for the Prince Claus Awards, Prince Claus Fund.
Shervud, Ol’ga. 2003. “Svidetel’. Uchastnik.”. Vechernii Peterburg, September.

Susanna Harutyunyan© 2016

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