Armenian Cinema in the Post-Soviet Era

By Siranush Galstyan

The collapse of the Soviet system marked the end of an era in Armenia’s history and in the history of its artistic culture, especially cinema, which stood at the threshold of changes. Along with the process of acquiring an independent statehood, Armenia’s cinema also gained independence, concurrently liberating itself and losing state support; in other words, it passed into independent production and a free market. In the past, when the film industry had been controlled by the state, the studio Hayfilm alone released six to seven films annually. Paradoxically, the first post-Soviet years were characterized by a comparative proliferation in film production. The number of films made in the crucial year of 1991 and the following years was to a certain extent a result of the inertia of the state’s previous funding.

where have you been man of godThus, in 1992 the screenwriter and director Arnold Aghababyan finished his Where Have You Been, Man of God? (Vortegh eir, mard astzo?), a five-part film based on Zorayr Khalapyan’s novel. This is actually the first and only multi-series film, an unprecedented phenomenon in Armenian cinema. This epic film spans the twentieth century, replete with dramatic turnarounds from the inception of the Soviet regime to the 1980s. The film’s protagonists lived through Stalin’s repressions, World War II and, at large, all the hardships of life, whilst remaining loyal to themselves and maintaining their human dignity. Such prominent Armenian actors as Anna Elbakyan, Grigor Manukyan (Manukov), Sos Sargsyan, Galya Novents, Karen Janibekyan, Alla Tumanyan and Azat Gasparyan splendidly performed their roles in the film. In one of the most expressive scenes, the names of the people (the list of the victims of Stalin’s repressions) are pronounced and typed simultaneously, but the sound of the typewriter resonates like gunfire. This obvious metaphor alludes to Stalin’s repressions and is striking in its simplicity; the film simply hints at the execution of people instead of showing it on the screen. By some amazing coincidence, when Steven Spielberg, unaware of Aghababyan’s film, shot Schindler’s List (1993) (co-written by Armenian-born Steven Zaillian), he included a frame recalling the names of people who managed to escape from Auschwitz: the letters of their names flow from the typewriter keyboard and fill the entire screen. These letters constitute a mighty cinematic image, an abstracted and at the same time visible confirmation of saved lives.

In 1992 Arman Manaryan reaffirmed his gift of understanding and interpreting Western Armenian classical literature through cinema by shooting the film Comrade Panjuni (Enker Panjuni), based on the novel by Ervand Otyan. The fervent ardor of advocating revolutionary ideas leads the protagonist to a tranquil Armenian village secluded from the world, whose inhabitants do not have the slightest idea of class conflict. The theater director Nikolai Tsaturyan played comrade Panjuni, creating a vivid, comic character. The pacesetting revolutionary ideas ruin the harmonious world in less than a year, leaving it in tatters. Symbolically, this almost prophetical work written at the dawn of the revolutionary era and banned during Soviet years, because it expressed the essence of the Soviet regime and to an extent predicted its collapse, was adapted for the screen again after the collapse of the system.

In 1993 Alexander Kajvoryan (b. 1944) made Ancient Gods (Hin astvatzner), based on a play by Levon Shant. This film focuses on the tragic fate of a young monk torn apart between his desire to serve God and secular seduction. The roles were played by such famous actors as Hrachya Harutyunyan, Regimantas Adomaitis, Marine Ghukasyan, Guzh Manukyan, Vladimir Msryan, and E. Sevunts.
The classic Artavazd Peleshian offered a new interpretation to the secret of existence from a universal standpoint typical of his works in Life (Kyanq, 1993) and End (Verj, 1994), a poetic-montage dilogy.

The controversial social and psychological changes brought about by the historical developments of the modern times found their peculiar reflections in the films of directors of the older, middle-aged and young generations. Thus, the protagonist of Sergei Israelyan’s film Hostages (Patandner, 1991), is a man of high social status and power, acting by the well-known slogan “the end justifies the means”. He reaches the verge of collapse, but this is not the end: an even more cruel fate awaits him. A hostage of his times and of the life he himself created, he unwittingly implicates his relatives in the same situation. The film ends with documentary footage shot by cameraman Gurgen Yeghiazaryan, where the escape of an elephant from the Yerevan Zoo and the brutality of the Armed Forces are depicted. The metaphysical force that released from the cage is visible, as is the brutal resistance of the hand of the law. The cinematic chronicle is transformed before our eyes, and this reality seemingly generates and summarizes the entire concept of the film; the heroes are conceived as “hostages” of their time.

the damned onesDmitri Kesayants made two films devoted to the catastrophe of human souls. The first is called The Damned Ones (Anitzvatznere, 1991) and depicts a jail, where the life of an innocent young man is ruined. The action of the second film, The Disaster (Aghet, 1993), unfolds in the earthquake zone, where the prisoners who have fled from the reformatory have come to search for their relatives. However, if the protagonist of The Damned Ones finds himself in jail due to the whim of the authorities, in The Disaster the elderly head of the reformatory sets off to hand-deliver written leave orders to the fugitives who are looking for their families.

These films, somehow anchored in traditional Armenian cinema, no doubt give a certain general image that reveals contemporary and insoluble problems. The new life mentality was manifested more firmly in the styles of the new generation of filmmakers of late 80s, such as Suren Babayan, Mikael Dovlatyan, and Vigen Chaldranyan.

In 1991 Vigen Chaldranyan’s film The Voice in the Wilderness (Dzayn barbaro…) was released, based on the allegorical novel by Aghasi Ayvazyan, The Adventures of Signor Martiros. The film won the Golden Award at the Houston International Film Festival. This narrative on self-consciousness hinges upon the abstract, philosophical idea of the search for truth. In both the physical and spiritual environments, the hero Signor Martiros (Chaldranyan) crosses the Desert of Ordeals, following his own road to Golgotha. The wanderings of this Armenian monk, who preached goodness—one of the key values of Christianity—come to an end when he returns to his home.

In the same year, Harutyun Khachatryan with scriptwriter Mikael Stamboltsyan made the film Return to the Promised Land (Veradardz avetyats yerkir), filmed by Artyom Melkumyan. A young refugee couple have narrowly escaped an ethnic conflict and settle in the northern part of Armenia, a place that is far from resembling paradise. In the harsh climate and living conditions, they built their own paradise, where they and their descendents will continue to live. That paradise, the “Promised Land,” is realistic thanks the fact that it is filmed in a documentary style. This is not accidental, since the filmmaker has entered the film industry after directing a number of documentaries.

The protagonists of David Safaryan’s Lost Paradise (Korsvats drakht, 1991) grow stronger by regaining their mystical bonds with the native land. This film, scripted by Roland Sharoyan, Safaryan and G. Danielyan, further develops the theme of self-recognition and search for national identity, which was of paramount importance in the Armenian film industry.

lord have mercyIn Chaldranyan’s Lord, Have Mercy (Ter voghormya, 1997) an artist and film-maker walks through imaginary and real spaces without being able to find his place in a time lacking values. Actually, he is the author’s alter ego. The film begins with a dialogue between the filmmaker, who plays himself, and his alter ego. The composer is the jazz musician Armen Martirosyan, and the cameraman is Rudolf Vatinyan, who shot the whole film without any second takes because of the shortage of film stock. The conflict lies in the collision between a creative man and the insoluble challenges he faces, both materially and in moral and psychological terms. As Chaldranyan states, Lord, Have Mercy is dedicated to the “souls of his city.” Documentary shots often alternate with live action frames. Yerevan is presented through the documentary, black-and-white footage; there are only a few scenes shot in color. People gathered in a rally on Yerevan’s Opera Square (Freedom Square since the 1988 liberation movement) to shout “Ka-ra-bakh.” Between these chronicle frames, live action segments are interspersed. The protagonist (played by Chaldranyan) finds himself in the crowd, and subsequently under the roof of the Opera House. He is exposed to the curious gaze of people, including an amazed policeman who had beaten him and whom he met once more in a church, lighting a candle. The documentary scenes seem to accompany the live action frames, which, in turn, cast a light upon the facts of the chronicle. A scene in the square shows the dismantling of the Lenin statue. These historical documentary images are conceived as emblems of the period, which echo the live action episodes on multiple levels. A certain fact becomes generalized in the narrative film composition, especially when the protagonist stands on the empty pedestal of the statue and acts in the style of the revolutionary leader, leading the modern-day procession of humanitarian aid. In another episode the protagonist, seemingly light-heartedly, wanders through the streets of Yerevan and, turning his head, sees an armored vehicle appearing out of the blue (this had become an integral part of everyday life). This scene obviously expresses the state of the character’s soul, but also his status at a certain stage of social life and consciousness. This effect is achieved through the presence in the episode of a realistic, tangible symbol: the Soviet armored vehicle. Thus the main character’s fate is projected across the country and through time. Chaldranyan has endeavored to present history as a personal process and to crisscross the life experiences and observations of an individual with those of society.

In the 1990s the documentary film industry took an interesting turn, reflecting life more ingenuously and becoming its chronicler. Almost all documentary filmmakers had films on the devastating earthquake of 1988 before that period. A documentary dedicated to the Karabakh (historically, the province of Artsakh) liberation struggle was made with participation of Shavarsh Vardanyan, Boris Hovsepyan, Levon Petrosyan, Vrej Petrosyan, Ruben Gevorgyants, Karen Gevorgyan, Armen Khachatryan, Arus Arestakesyan and the Bulgarian journalist Tsvetana Paskaleva. In 1992–93 Ruben Gevorgyants and Ara Mnatsakanyan kept their own Artsakh diaries with the help of a film camera, while Gagik Stepanyan depicted the daily life of an Artsakh hospital in his factual documentary Forest Hospital (Antarayin hospital).

Also in 1993 Karen Gevorgyan repatriated from Russia and established the independent film company Navigator; he took the decision to devote himself wholly to documentary film. In one of his interviews he declared: “Now it is time for the documentary genre.” In 1998 he made two full-length documentaries; the film Our Cross (Mer khache) reflects through time symbolism what the Armenian people had gone through in the first years of independence, and the dilemma that revises our national mentality and that of the Artsakh liberation struggle. Then Gevorgyan initiated a huge project, New Chronicle (Nor taregrutyun).

In 1996 the cameraman Vrej Petrosyan shot The Break that Lasts Forever (Anverj dzgvogh dasamijoc), a full-length documentary showing the schoolchildren of Artsakh, who find themselves directly in the battlefield after leaving their classes. In 2001 Gagik Harutyunyan scripted, directed and filmed The Widow’s Bread (Ayru hace), a factual documentary about the inexorable fate of the Karabakh widows. Hrant Hakobyan’s Inhabitants of Forgotten Islands (Moratsvatz kghzineri bnakichnere, 2003), which won the major award of the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival, tells the story of refugees bunched up in shacks. Hovik Hakhverdyan made the full-length documentary The Country of Crying Stones (Aghaghakogh qareri erkire, 2001), portraying the pilgrimage of Armenians to the historical country of their Western Armenian predecessors. The producer and cameraman Vardan Hovhannisyan scripted and directed the full-length documentary film A Story of People in War and Peace (Mardkayin patmutyun paterazmi ev khaghaghutyan orerits, 2007), where he successfully interwove Karabakh war footage shot by Vahagn Ter-Hakobyan and Hovhannisyan with exciting stories of survivors. Twenty years after the war the filmmaker sought out war heroes, whom the spectator remembers from the footage; he traces the people involved in the war over the course of a year to find out how the war has affected their lives, creating an overwhelming and truthful image of war and peace times. This striking film was considered the best documentary film at Yerevan’s Golden Apricot festival, winning the major award and the FIPRESCI prize. A universal film, it was shown in a number of European countries and the United States, winning multiple prizes, including the special jury prize at Mexico’s International Film Festival. At Tribeca, Hovhannisyan was regarded as the best documentary filmmaker of modern times.

last collageIn 1990 a considerable number of films were dedicated to Sergei Parajanov, telling about the personality of a genius director and his equally amazing human character. Among those films are Mikael Vardanov’s Parajanov: The Last Spring (Parajanov. verjin garune, 1992), which won the Golden Globe and the Russian NIKA awards; and Ruben Gevorgyants’s Parajanov: The Last Collage (Parajanov: verjin kollaje, 1995), which won the Special Jury Award at Saint Petersburg Film Festival.

Vardanov’s film contains exclusive shots, depicting Parajanov on the location of The Color of Pomegranates, and ten minutes of footage from Parajanov’s last, incomplete work The Confession. Moreover, Parajanov’s voice can be heard in the film. Parajanov: Last Collage, written by Zakoyan, Gevorgyants, and Krikor Hamel, tells in a peculiar manner about Parajanov’s life and performance. The film also includes chronicle footage from the director’s return from jail, and comments by Jean-Luc Godard, Tonino Guerra, Marina Vlady, Robert Hossein and others; it was the first joint Armenian-French film production and entered into the Cannes Festival.

A few years later, in 2007, Gevorgyants made his Autumn of the Magician (Tonino Guerra and Armenia) (Hrasahgortsi ashune (Tonino Gueran yev Hayastane)), jointly with his son Vahe Kevorkov. The film is a monologue with deliberations on the life of the world-renowned Italian scriptwriter, presenting the multiple talents of the grey-haired poet. Guerra’s consecutive visits to Armenia in 2006 and 2007 led to the creation of this film, which was screened in Italy in Guerra’s amazing mansion. The film has won several awards at festivals worldwide. At Minsk’s ListopadInternational Film Festival it was named the best CIS film, and it was nominated for the Russian NIKA award.

In 1995 the cameraman Ashot Mkrtchyan made a wonderful documentary sketch, following his own script: Winter Melody (Dzmran meghedi) is a montage of footage he made from 1991–93, years that were unspeakably hard and gloomy for our country. This astonishing image series, accompanied by the music of Eduard Mirzoyan, is a document of the time in a concise, seven-minute fashion.

Also in 1995 Ara Mnatsakanyan shot the film Why? (Inchu?), dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and consisting of a unique synthesis of photos and newsreels. In 2005 Tigran Khzmalyan used the German writer Armin Wegner’s photos, which show horrible scenes of the Armenian Genocide, for the factual documentary Armin Wegner: the Genocide Photographer (Armin Wegner. Ceghaspanutyan lusankarich). Before that, using excerpts from the films of Artavazd Peleshian, Anatoli Mokatsyan and Laert Poghosyan, in his film Ararat 73 (Forever) (Ararat 73 (Mekendmisht), aka Soccer of 73, 1998), Khzmalyan—with an interesting and fresh attitude—endeavors to reveal the inner ties that bind the Ararat football team and its style of playing to the national disposition and mentality, and to reveal the significance of their victories for the nation’s self-realization. The sequel to these contemplations leads to the next work, Death of King (Arqayi mahe), dedicated to the 35th anniversary of Tigran Petrosyan winning the chess championship, but moreover pondering on the links between chess and politics.

In the 1990s a number of film essays dedicated to Armenian rituals and traditions were made. These included Ara Vahuni’s Faith, Hope, Love (Havat, huys, ser, 1991), Alexander Kajvoryan’s Armenian Rites (Haykakan tzesere, 1996), and Edgar Baghdasaryan’s The Country of Holy Rites (Surb tseseri yerkier, 2001) —a large-scale full-length film dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in Armenia. The filming took place in Armenia and in various sanctuaries and religious centers all over the world; it was filmed by Vahagn Ter-Hakobyan and Ashot Mkrtchyan. This director’s work shall be discussed a little later, in the context of his feature films. In 2010, a few years later after making The Country of Holy Rites, Baghdasaryan shot another full-length documentary film called From Ararat to Zion (Araratits Sion), written by Father Mesrop Aramyan, which presents the stories of Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. The filmmakers follow the pilgrims’ path that lies between two historical, sacred mountains, Ararat and Zion. Also in 2010 the documentary filmmaker Artak Avdalyan produced the documentary From Ararat to Europe (Araratits Yevropa), where he focused on the influence of Armenian architecture, and particularly church buildings, on Europe.

Gagik Stepanyan made the documentary Our John (Mer Jone, 2005) about the Foreign Minister of Soviet Armenia, the historian John Kirakosyan. Cameraman Armen Mirakyan shot The Alikhanyan Brothers (Alikhanyan yeghbayrnere, 2006), written by Suren Hasmikyan and Bogdan Gasparyan, about the life and scientific activities of famous Armenian physicists. In the same year, the cameraman Armen Khachatryan completed a rather attractive documentary called Hope, Faith, Love (Huys, havat, ser), where he reveals his attitude towards life and times in general, based on the example of the faith of three women: a scientist, a pedagogue and a strumpet.

In the first post-Soviet decade several independent studios were established in Armenia, most of which ceased their operation not as a consequence of competition, but simply because they had used up their production capabilities. Armenian cinema professionals faced indescribable challenges because of war, blockade, and social and economic issues. The state film studios Hayfilm and Hayk found themselves in a very difficult situation and could survive only after overcoming formidable obstacles.

In 1995 Mikael Dovlatyan completed the phantasmagoria Labyrinth (Labirintos), made jointly with France and the Czech Republic and written by the filmmaker and Eduard Khald-Asoyan. The chain of time is broken and the chasers and their victims, who have let the chain slip from their hands, have become ghosts lost in the labyrinth. The cameraman was Vahagn Ter-Hakobyan, and the film was made with the participation of Albert Yavuryan and Vrej Petrosyan. The roles were performed by Frunze Dovlatyan, Karen Janibekyan, Levon Sharafyan, and the actors of Armenian Diaspora, Serj Avetikyan and Nora Armani.

In 1990 Suren Babayan made the psychological drama Blood (Aryun), based on Vahagn Grigoryan’s novel Closed Room. The young protagonist of this drama with surrealistic overtones is given an opportunity to live his life once again, revealing some obscure moments in the course of the film. The film was shot by cameraman Hayk Kirakosyan in his very idiosyncratic style. In 1993 Babayan initiated the project Crazy Angel, a large-scale film with populous scenes based on the novel Barrabas (1950) by the Swedish writer and Nobel Prize winner Pär Lagerkvist; the film was shot by cameraman Armen Mirakyan. The director focused not so much on the hero, Barrabas, but upon another character, the Armenian Christian Sahak. The film was devoted to the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in Armenia. Yet the making of this expensive film gradually became an unrealizable task in the light of the economic crisis and trade blockades. Only in 1998 it became possible to continue work, and even then with an extremely limited budget, completing it in 2001. So, through skillful editing of the footage, the filmmaker created a film about the making of a historical film in our times. The film revealed unhealthy phenomena in everyday life. The role of the filmmaker was played by Harutyun Khachatryan, and that of the “crazy” angel Gabriel by Mikael Poghosyan. The ambiguity found in the figure of the angel expresses the instability of values intrinsic to our times, when the boundaries of good and evil, divine and diabolic set by humanity are shattered or eliminated altogether. Poghosyan is one of the leading actors of post-Soviet Armenian cinema, and without exaggeration “a hero of our time.” His musical skills and plasticity of movement brought him great success in musicals. But this genre did not have the desired outcome and was mostly replaced by low-grade revues.

symphony of silencePoghosyan played in Chaldranyan’s film Voice in the Wilderness, but he had also acted the main part in the film Symphony of Silence (Lrutyan simfonia, 2001). Since the 1990s Chaldranyan has tried to reflect the new times and the changed reality. Thus, the past and present collide in Symphony of Silence, when the past of the protagonist – a former criminal living in Yerevan—“meets” his present self—a wealthy businessman living in the United States; the story was written by Chaldranyan and prose writer Grigor Khanjyan. The protagonist pretended to be insane while he lived in his country during Soviet era to avoid punishment, and, upon learning that he is incurably ill, he buys his former abode, the lunatic asylum, to repair it. In addition to a wonderful lead performance, that of Karen Janibekyan is outstanding, as is that of the Georgian actress Nino Kasradze and the amateur actor and novelist Vachagan Grigoryan, who created the role of the “president” of the asylum. One of the oldest inhabitants of the asylum constantly hears the sounds of the “Symphony of Silence:” this part was played by Vladimir Msryan, an actor of the older generation from the Yerevan Drama Theatre, who achieved international fame by his unrivaled embodiment of Paganini in a five-episode film by Leonid Menaker, Niccolo Paganini (1982). The complex, psychological image of the asylum’s chief doctor was performed by Jean-Pierre Nshanyan. His character stands in the way of the protagonist played by Pogosyan, hindering him in the realization of his projects and thus taking on the functions of the old regime. Obviously the filmmaker was interested in the protagonists’ transformations after the fall of the Soviet regime, and the film is remarkable for its fresh outlook on the characters, dissecting the impact of the regime’s pressure on an individual that leads to personality disorders. On the other hand, money plays an important role in the new system, and the protagonist, who serves this new power, becomes emblematic of the times. The cameraman in this joint Armenian-French production was Artyom Melkumyan, the composer Gari Kyosayan. Poghosyan received the main prize at the Minsk Listopad festival for Best Actor.

black wallIn the 1990s new names appeared in the Armenian film industry, bringing with them a new type of cinema and a fresh outlook. Thus, in 1990 Edgar Baghdasaryan (b. 1964), who had made his debut with the short film Games (Khagher), shot The Black Wall (Hosq) in 1996, which distinguished itself through its stressed disclosure of modern times. The prevailing theme throughout this black-and-white film is the impossibility of dialogue between people, and in human relationships in general. Communication problems have a morbid nature in the film. The man standing on the threshold of a new era is embarrassed and intimidated by successive natural disasters and social and political situations. He has lost his harmony with the world, his relationship with nature, and finally his confidence in the future. The protagonists (Hovhannes Divanyan and Anet Harutyunyan), who confront the “black wall,” once had a harmonious childhood. The dynamically shot footage by cameramen Ashot Mkrtchyan and Vahagn Ter-Hakobyan is skillfully combined with chronicle frames of Yerevan during the 1960s. Most importantly, the scenes of the past are full of love. In contrast, the protagonists’ mature age is depicted mostly through static shots, since this period of their life falls into a period that is beyond time and space, which made them confront that “black wall.” The inevitable collision of past and present is also reflected in the structure from the perspective of film language: childhood and maturity seem to be taken from two different films, embracing different aesthetics and belonging to different times. The disaster, the death of the boy’s mother, forms the border between these two films. Here they are: these two who have nothing and encounter themselves in a black vacuum, where—as they state—nothing is going on, so there is no life. Outside, the human “flow” of life passes indifferently. That odd organism, the literally “flowing” masses, represents the metaphoric, abstract image of the outer world rendered in the definite, tangible language of cinema. In this film space, not only the relationship of two loving souls is ruled out, but also their communication with the outer world. The segregated worlds cannot communicate or help each other. Thus, they sit at a table veiled in darkness, facing each other. As the woman’s fist hits the table, a glass filled with water shakes, almost flies off the table, as if trembling in the face of the heroes’ helplessness. The splashing of the water is edited in such a way as to appear as a continuous upward movement, with the movement of the fist cut into the sequence, an allusion to how time seems to escape us: a person may blink and, upon opening their eyes, they are in a future without knowing how they got there. The splash is only interrupted by the woman’s hands desperately knocking on the table; this becomes the gloomy, metaphorical image of solitude and despair, sticking in the minds of the spectators.

Tigran Khzmalyan’s (b. 1963) film Pierlequin or Lighter Than Air (Pierlekino kam Odic tetev, 2000) reflects the vestiges left by past and present relationships on the hero’s biography. The focal point is the fate of the old buffoon (Vladimir Msryan) broken during the Soviet regime – the story of his life and love. In 1996 Khzmalyan had shot Black and White (Sev-spitak), a short parable without dialogue which relayed the tragic consequences of war, relying on symbolism rather than words, in the sense of silent cinema. Both films were shot by Vahagn Ter-Hakobyan, whose high professionalism and taste are visible in each of his works. From seven women in the village, the husband of only one returns; like the widowed women, the land itself had become “widowed.” The title hints at the conventionality of the subject-matter: life has indeed lost all colors for the protagonists of Black and White, becoming a black-and-white world of segregated forces. The film won the main prize at Antalya’s International Film Festival, as well as the main short film prize at Kinoshok in Anapa.

merry busThe theme of the liberation of Karabakh found its reflection in Albert Mkrtchyan’s The Dawn of the Sad Street (Tkhur poghotsi lusabatse, 2008). Another film by Mkrtchyan appeared in 2000: the tragicomedy The Merry Bus (Urakh avtobus) is dedicated to the director’s birthplace Gyumri, where the earthquake of 1988 took the lives of tens of thousands of people. The film was shot by Vatinyan. Mkrtchyan’s best films The Song of the Old Days (Hin oreri yerge, 1982) and Tango of Our Childhood (Mer mankutyan tangon, 1986) were also dedicated to his native town, to the people who live there and stand out through the brilliancy of their characters, especially their amazing sense of humor. So the merry bus passes along the devastated streets of the town as a consolidated symbol of the people who never lose their ability to laugh.

The reality of modern times is depicted through turnabouts in the heroes’ faith in Suren Babayan’s Jeano (2004), filmed by Ashot Movsisyan. The film was surprising by its style and structure. The protagonist Jeano (Jean-Pierre Nshanyan) is a film director with memories replete of sophisticated images; in a nutshell, he has had an “aesthetic” childhood, but is forced to earn his living by filming weddings and burials as well as advertisements. Unable to find his place in life, he spreads the news of his own death and even organizes a memorial service for himself. Finally Jeano actually passes away, a casualty of an accident.

jeanoNshanyan acted in another film by Babayan Don’t Look in the Mirror (Mi nayir hayelun, 2009), based on Perch Zeytuntsyan’s story. The protagonist is a former artist, who is forced to sell his household utensils to survive. When he decides to dispose of a relic he had inherited from his parents, all of a sudden odd things begin to happen to him. His split personality has lost his reflection: instead, other reflections appear in the mirror of his house, while his own reflection sits in the mirror of another house. Referring to the image of modern times, the film reveals a typical situation where nobody and nothing is in its place. Having undergone many severe trials, the protagonist ultimately repents by his parents’ grave and becomes a man of faith. Staying loyal to his perception and taste, Babayan finds and applies a number of cinematic techniques, together with the cameraman Gevorg Sargsyan. The film also stands out by the attractive performances of the actors.

The mystery film On the Threshold (Nakhashemin) by the famous animator Lyudmila Sahakyants (b. 1950) is a synthesis of feature film and animation and a unique work in Armenian cinema from the standpoint of form and content. The film was shot by cameraman Hayk Kirakosyan. Struggling for eight or nine years to realize this film project, Sahakyants was finally able to complete it in 2002. However, those difficulties did not in the slightest impact on the film’s powerful integrity. The main part in the film is played by the renowned Lithuanian actor Regimantas Adomaitis. In several mise-en-scenes one can behold the shadow of Komitas, if not his direct embodiment. The director Henrik Malyan was also concerned by the tragic fate of this great composer. However, he refrained from an exact depiction of his image. The doleful memories of national tragedy have driven him crazy. The illusions are depicted through the brilliant usage of 3D-animation techniques. Human consciousness crashes coast to coast in the infinite ocean of suffering. This narrative explores the path of the human soul, the visible narration of the turmoil of its inner life, the human soul and its dialectic. On the threshold of the underworld, man roams in mental and spiritual domains, arriving at the threshold of remission. The cosmogonic music of Avet Terteryan greatly contributed to the impact of the film.

Baghdasaryan’s Mariam (2005) and Chaldranyan’s The Priestess (Qrmuhin, 2007) are also worth mentioning from the point of view of a fresh plot. The protagonist of the first film is a teacher who works at a specialized school for deaf-mutes. Janet Hovhannisyan played the lead role, and her self-restrained and convincing performance is one of the most vivid achievements of the film. Together with professional actors, teachers, pupils and graduates of the school for pupils with hearing impairment are filmed for this feature. The protagonist Mariam suffers from loneliness and hears a constant high-pitched sound while she is at home. The sound violently echoes in the house, breaking windows and an anxiously aggressive light floods inside. The mystical nature of things that happen inside the young woman’s self bring her onto the verge of losing her sanity. Mariam discards the odd phenomena haunting her when she falls pregnant and gets ready to become a mother. The film is technically skillful and distinguished by high-level cinematic imaging performance and the work of cameraman Ter-Hakobyan. This is the first Armenian film with the application of computer technology and synchronized sound.

The Priestess (a joint Armenian-American film) is an idyllic drama based on historical materials and written by Anahit Aghasaryan and Vigen Chaldranyan. The glamorous portrayal of the past is a novelty in Armenian film history. Ter-Hakobyan and Vatinyan served as directors of photography on this project. Through editing synthesis, the present (the 21st century) and the remote past that incorporates the pagan’s fall and the spiritual renaissance of Armenia, the adoption of Christianity as a state religion, all relate to each other. The priestess’s oracle of the pagan temple (Ruzan Mesropyam), who had no right to lead a secular life, falls in love with an ordinary mortal (Hovhannes Babakhanyan), arousing the wrath of the Head of Priests (Karen Janibekyan) and the people at large. The love and care of the priestess’s father (Karen Jangiryan) cannot protect her. The oracle’s beloved perishes and, cursed by her God and religion, alien to the new religion, she is doomed to eternal suffering. Finding herself in our days, she is involved in a car accident when the historian (Chaldranyan) appears at the right time and in right place and attempts to help her. An effort is made to create the lost, and actually unknown visual image of Armenia’s pagan past, giving the filmmakers the possibility to follow imaginary traces.

In Khachatryan’s The Documentarian (Vaveragroghe, 2003), written by Mikael Stamboltsyan, Khachatryan and Valeri Gasparyan, the director’s concept involves the removal of the boundaries between feature and documentary film. Even when producing a feature film, he remains loyal to the documentary style of depicting the material. This is a peculiarity of his style, together with his unique outlook on people and life. The Documentarian tells about a documentary filmmaker and his style. Filmmaker Babayan plays the role of the documentarian (as has already been mentioned, Khachatryan in his turn had played the role of the filmmaker in Babayan’s Crazy Angel). Other members of the film crew, as well as beggars, homeless people, orphans, prisoners, doctors and other sons and daughters of Yerevan participated in the film. The crew went to different places, meeting various manifestations of the bleak reality captured by cameramen Ter-Hakobyan and Armen Mirakyan, with participation of Levon Petrosyan. This film, which reflects the hardships of the transition period, required eight years of hard work to be completed. It has been honored at numerous festivals, most notably in Rotterdam and Karlovy Vary, and has brought the director international fame.

In 2005 Khachatryan filmed the feature Return of the Poet (Poeti veradardze), co-written with Stamboltsyan and dedicated to the great Armenian poet, philosopher and minstrel (ashugh) Jivani. In this film, again shot in a documentary style, both methods of filmmaking are interwoven. Jivani appears on the screen as a statue; he is presented by his poetry; and his songs sound from time to time in the film. Except for the songs of Jivani, the music of Avet Terteryan and Georg Händel features in the film. When viewed from a cinematic standpoint, the protagonist is the poet’s statue, its throes of creation being preserved on the reel. The cameramen were Vrej Petrosyan, Armen Mirakyan, Ashot Movsisyan, and Artyom Melkumyan. From a huge rock the poet’s image is “derived.” The statue travels through Armenia to the poet’s birthplace of Javakhq, which is now on Georgian territory, and which is also where Khachatryan was born. So the statue is the poet’s soul embodied in stone, the poet himself “seeing,” “hearing,” “smiling,” “looking” sullenly or pleased or appeased. The filmmakers have reached such artistic excellence by skillfully using elements of cinematic expression such as angles, smooth rotation of frame compositions and, of course, the subtle play of light. The poet’s statue is met everywhere and seen off with drums and the zurna (a wind instrument) and national rituals, but like the “eternal pilgrim” it is eventually left on the road under the snow, as if waiting for more favorable times to return.

borderKhachatryan’s Border (Sahman, 2008), was again co-written with Stamboltsyan. Faithful to his style, the director based the film on a series of images and without dialogue, with his cameraman Petrosyan. The music of Avet Terteryan, his favorite film composer, is in tune with the times heavy with the threat of anxiety and disaster. The events take place in the 1990s on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Refugees find shelter in the bordering village, work on the farm and eat in а soup kitchen built by an American of Armenian descent. One day they see a buffalo in the bordering swamp. Of course, there are no borders for that son of nature. The camera view becomes identical with that of the animal, which is shown as an extremely artistic and rational being. The cycle of the seasons is now and then interrupted by the buffalo’s revolt, expressed in periodical escapes. But each time it is caught and brought back to the farm. The people live and work and build in spite of the war, but everything can stop forever: for example, when a marriage is brought to an abrupt halt as a fire breaks out in the farm because of a bombardment. The people’s joy is like a short ceasefire. After the disastrous night the buffalo has found its last resort again, in the border zone between the barbed wire. Khachatryan makes broad generalizations on the basis of particular facts. The border is real, but at the same time abstract; it is more than a defined boundary. This film with a universal story was shown in many countries and won numerous prizes.

The year 2009 saw notable activity in Armenian cinema: several features were shot. Apart from Babayan’s Don’t Look in the Mirror, it is worth mentioning Chaldranyan’s Maestro (2009), written by Chaldranyan and Gurgen Khanjyan; and Hovhannes Galstyan’s Bonded Parallels (Khchchvats Zugaherner, 2009), scripted by Galstyan with participation of Marine Zakaryan and Thomas Schlesinger, and co-produced with Norway and France. Bonded Parallels is Galstyan’s debut feature. At the Congress of the Armenian Filmmakers’ Union in 2009, the former head of Russia’s Goskino (Ministry of Cinema) and film historian Armen Medvedev defined this love story of a Norwegian woman and an Armenian hostage at the end of World War II as a “fine film on eternity, without cosmic problems.”

return of prodigal sonIn conclusion of this survey of Armenian film history, we should mention an eternal theme that is touched upon in the film by Arsen Azatyan and Narine Mkrtchyan, The Return of the Prodigal Son (Anarak wordu veradrdze, 2008). This biblical story repeats itself in different places and times, seeking to remind us again and again that God is everyone’s father and that He is a God of love and forgiveness. Armen Dzhigarkhanyan performs the role of the father, and his face bears the expression of forgiveness. Beneath Dzhigarkhanyan’s silence pulsates the happiness of seeing his sons together, but, alas, the children are separated. The ties that bound them together no longer exist. Even the father’s love and determination to exercise his authority are not powerful enough to bind them together again. Such are our times. And, it seems, there is no need for the prodigal son to return. The directors have found a situation that reflects recent changes. Over centuries, the family and close relationships of family members, together with the church, were the pillars on which Armenian society, bereft of statehood, relied. Today, in the vortex of new times, when man is forced to establish his individuality, the traditional relationships of Armenians and other peoples and their value systems are shattered. The Return of the Prodigal Son raises an alarm. The film was a success on the whole, although it has some dramaturgically vulnerable places.

This survey has covered films of the last two decades to provide a general picture of contemporary Armenian cinema. A new generation of interesting young directors has emerged, including Aram Shahbazyan, Arman Yeritsyan, Vahe Kevorkov, Lusine Maritrosyan, Mariya Saakyan [Sahakyan], Diana Kardumyan, Hrant Vardanyan, Ruben Khachatryan, Mikael Vatinyan, Nika Shek, Aren Vatyan, as well as cameramen Mkrtich Malkhasyan, Sirakan Abroyan, Sargis Kharazyan and others. Hopefully, they will master the best traditions of Armenian cinema and engage in a debate with the filmmakers of the past, thus asserting their viewpoints.

Of course, the image of new times cannot be fully produced while in development. Time leaves its imprint on films, but it gives them meaning from the distance. If, despite censorship, it was possible to get an idea on the state of affairs and the way of life in the Soviet era through the films made during that time, then the history of contemporary Armenian cinema and the new Armenia is still in the making. The white spots of the remote and close past are waiting for revisioning with a new and free view. The comprehensible and incomprehensible present equally needs artistic expression. And the future will tell what tomorrow’s film industry will be like.

Siranush Galstyan

Siranush Galstyan © 2016

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