In Search of a Lost Identity

By Susanna Harutyunyan

As is well known, art is a reflection of real life. This is true for cinema more than for any other art form. André Bazin expressed this feature of cinema when he talked of the skin of history that is peeling off and turning into film. We’ve grasped this thesis so well that at times we lapse into a too literal understanding. The most serious pretence to Armenian cinema of the last decade of the 20th century, which is being voiced in different ways by critics and audiences alike, comes down to the fact that it did not reflect all those important political and social events of the late 1980s and early 1990s (the national liberation movement, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the 1988 earthquake, the collapse of the USSR, the attainment of independence etc.), which fundamentally changed Armenia and the life of its citizens. It is as though life saw one reality and cinema another. As a person who has personally lived through all of this, I can understand and explain this criticism: whether you want to or not, you compare cinema with your own experience, you expect to see a particular reading, a well-thought-out interpretation of the document of reality on screen, as if demanding satisfaction—a mediated satisfaction to replace its absence in real life. This is the result of a collective aesthetic experience of events that are now not only a fact of our lives, but also a fact of social history. Instead, Armenian cinema offers its viewers pseudo-historical canvases and philosophical tales that mostly satisfy the artistic ambitions of their authors.

While understanding the roots of this criticism, nonetheless I would argue that it expresses a rather superficial look at the processes that took place in Armenian cinema of the 1990s in particular, and during the last decades of the 20th century in general. Now that we have crossed the border between centuries, we can distinguish some rather glaring strong lines and pivotal points in the contemporary history of Armenian cinema that allow us to comprehend the scale of the search for a lost identity. Moreover, the completely new historical situation in Europe and the rest of the world after the collapse of the Berlin Wall has re-shaped relations within society, particularly the relation between an artist and society. Today, culture and art function in a new inter-textual context (using Roland Barthes’s terminology), which evokes new paradigms. One of those topical paradigms is the following: the 1960s–1990s are pivotal points of the development of contemporary history and art. This new paradigm defines new ways of approaching the past, the present and the future, as well as ideas that set impulses for the evolution of national culture and arts in the new era.

The 1960s and 1990s: A New Paradigm, or The Reality of the 1990s as Reflection of the cinema of the 1960s
Many modern research of post-Soviet cinema contain references to the 1960s. There are various explanations, even one based on the graphic mysticism of numbers: the 90s are the 60s upside down. But even without believing in mysticism, the 60s—the era of the Khrushchev Thaw—form a logical bridge to the 90s: it is exactly when society gave a strong impulse to culture and art to develop. Moreover, the national consciousness, traumatized by long years of Soviet repressions, suddenly acquired the illusion that it would receive compensation and fulfillment. With regard to the socio-political life of Armenia, this manifested itself in the legalization of the issue over the Armenian Genocide, a crime that had taken place during the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and represented the first major crime of the 20th century. People started talking about it in 1965, the year of the 50th anniversary of those tragic events. The massive mourning processions on 24 April, the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, were unofficially allowed by the Soviet government (at the very least participation was not punished with arrest and exile to Siberia). The erection of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex on the hill Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan began. Regarding Armenian cinema, these events led to a new breath and new names who declared their existence with such notable and iconic films as Hello, It’s Me (Barev, yes em, 1965, directed by Frunze Dovlatyan), and The Triangle (Yerankyuni, 1967) and We and Our Mountains (Menq enq, mer sarere, 1969), both directed by Henrik Malyan. At last, the year 1969 saw the birth of two unsurpassed masterpieces of Armenian cinema: The Colour of Pomegranates (Sayat-Nova) by Sergei Parajanov and the short documentary We (Menq) by Artavazd [Arthur] Peleshian [Peleshyan].

weThe titles of the films already indicate the key terms and ideas that turned the artists’ and society’s attention to the problem of identity, first and foremost the problem of a national, collective identity that derived from the newly interpreted issue of the self, more precisely—the problem of the individual.

For instance, in Hello, It’s Me “Me”/“I” is the film’s hero, a personality, whose individual outlook on the world and on historical events are represented. “I” is going through a hard time of self-identification with the world and society. It is precisely this “I” that becomes a countdown point. Against the background of the dark years of Stalinist repressions, when personality was—as the Russian writer Andrei Platonov eloquently put it, “wiped with the revolution”—the appearance of the individual “I” on the screen was a genuine shift towards lost universal values and lost identity, both individual and collective. These attempts at regaining and re-evaluating the “I” naturally lead to a new quality of the nation’s collective portrait—the “we”—in a number of films (for example, in the above-mentioned films by Malyan, but first above all, of course, in the eponymous film by Artavazd Peleshian). “We” is not a faceless crowd of “builders of communism” and not a reflection of the collective unconsciousness, which was manipulated by Party leaders: “We” is the nation, Armenians, with a rich and tragic history, which Soviet ideology tried to remake or at least put away as far as possible, like an unwanted book in a library, so that nobody sets eyes on it. “We” have been living on our land for thousands of years, under the shadow of biblical Mount Ararat, where no one can stop us from erecting the temples of our faith and lighting candles, every one of which is like a glimmer of the ancestral fireplace, lost or devastated somewhere on the cruel crossroads of history, and also—like a glimmer of hope of returning and finding ourselves on the promised land.

So, who are “We”? Peleshian’s film condenses this principal question of national self-consciousness and attempts to provide an artistic answer. The novelty of the content is backed by the novelty of the form. This is an audio-visual symphony, realized through means of montage-documentary cinema or, as Peleshian calls his method and innovative theory, through the means of distance editing. Without delving into the details of theoretical thought, after Sergei Eisenstein’s work on montage and audio-visual editing in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Peleshian’s theory of distance editing, although not well known in the West, was the first truly innovative breakthrough in the theory of cinema. Distance editing allowed Peleshyan to create such a versatile and bulky collective portrait of the nation, wherein the logic of construction of the artistic image (the collective portrait) moves in exactly the same direction—from “I” (the static close up of the girl, long-lasting and constantly returning to the audience) to “We” (the final general shot of a typical Yerevan apartment complex with the inhabitants “hanging out” over the balconies and Mt Ararat in the background). The director succeeds in fitting hopes and doubts, the entire uncompensated trauma of the national consciousness, the whole individual and collective energy of creation (which is visualized in the incredible and massive scenes of national action)—into that extremely concise, yet at the same time endless space between “I” and “We”.

WeThe above-mentioned films (and Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, of course), are undoubtedly a reflection of the turning points in the understanding of the world, people and history. This was an emanation of the national spirit, caused by its humiliation and suppression under the ideological Soviet dictate; it was the reaction of a coiled spring that was equal to the action and caused by it. The elasticity of this spring transformed into a clot of artistic potential and one fine day it spouted out films, paintings, and symphonies that were yelling about everything that had remained unspoken and kept inside.

The same spirit and the same coiled spring came into play in 1988, at the dawn of the Gorbachev era. Here, finally, I want to build the bridge to the 1990s, because a retrospective gaze in the context of the given paradigm allows us to see in Peleshian’s We an incredible insight and premonition of things to come twenty years later: from 1988 to 1990. The energy of the collective national “We”, created by the director on his editing table, twenty years on became a document of history; the impressive crowd scenes materialized in the massive demonstrations in Yerevan’s Theater Square in 1988, which signaled a new era of national independence and the beginning of the end for the USSR.

New Armenian cinema inhabits the space of this new era. It expressed itself in vivid debuts in the dawn of the 90s—a period of fermentation of the national spirit, which put forward the same questions (who are “We”?), the same search of lost identity, which never was satisfied in the 60s, but instead was forced to stagnate during Brezhnev’s rule.

color of pomegranatesBut before focusing on the 1990s, I shall take another retrospective look at the end of the 1960s and another remarkable event in the history of Armenian cinema: the premiere of Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. It was and still is remarkable, not least for the crushing blow it dealt on the aesthetics of Socialist Realism and one of its fundamental requirements. In accordance with Socialist Realism, the whole diverse palette of expressing the national element in the arts was squeezed into the superficial ideological formula: “Art must be national in form and socialist in content”. This means that the national was relegated to a formality: ethnographic décor and nothing more. Incidentally, it was in the 1960s that the ethnographic became popular in Soviet cinema as a way of working with signs and attributes of the national component. In those years it was considered an appeal to the origins, a return to the national roots. However, The Color of Pomegranates raises ethnography to a qualitatively new level, which is based on a new interpretation of national material culture and its attributes. In that sense, Parajanov truly discovered for us Armenians the whole world of our own culture—just as he had discovered the Hutsul culture in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv, 1965) for Ukraine, Georgian heritage in The Legend of Suram Fortress (Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa, 1985) for Georgians, and Azeri culture in Ashik Kerib (1988) for the Azeris. In The Color of Pomegranates Parajanov filtered the life and work of the medieval Armenian poet Sayat-Nova through his own self and gave it back to us in a completely new quality. The image of a poet’s return to our world—to an earthly world after death—is visualized in the episode of a long shot of a field, ploughed and dark, while the poet moves through it accompanied by angels. Thus closes the mythological cycle of life, where life is a continuation of death and vice versa.

Hence we have defined three pivotal points and fundamental concepts that determined the vector of the search in Armenian cinema during the 1960s: from “I” to “We”, followed by a re-interpretation through the “return”.

Yet the most striking fact is that the same pattern can be applied to the search of a new generation of Armenian filmmakers in the 1990s. It is no coincidence that the principal film of this period, and new Armenian cinema in general, is called Return to the Promised Land (Veradardz avetyats yerkir, 1991), directed by Harutyun Khachatryan.

New Armenian cinema: New names
What were the components of what eventually became “new Armenian cinema”? New names, plus a new thematic axis, aligned in accordance with the vector defined above: “I”—“We”—“Return”, plus a search for new ways of expression and visual storytelling.

return to the promised landSome of the new names are Suren Babayan, Harutyun Khachatryan, Vigen Chaldranyan, Mikael Dovlatyan, Narine Mkrtchyan and Arsen Azatyan, David Safaryan, Edgar Baghdasaryan and others. Even at a quick glance, the common features for this generation become apparent: for example, many of the above-mentioned filmmakers came to feature films through documentaries. And this is not just a fact of their creative biographies, but a principal point, which in many ways determined the direction of the creative expeditions on the brink of the 1980s and 1990s. The new generation directors, brought to prominence at the end of the 1980s on the wave of documentary films, did not cut the umbilical cord that connected them to reality. Finding their heroes, themes and plots in real life, constructing their dramaturgy on the principle of juxtaposing documentary fragments, and arming themselves with the technique of observation and fixation, they crossed the border between fiction and non-fiction film. Strictly speaking, the notion of a “border” (a line of demarcation) itself is not appropriate in this case, because the techniques of documentary filmmaking effortlessly flow into the domain of fiction film, and fictitious elements are integrated into the documentary texture. Good examples are the films Wind of Oblivion (Qamin unaynutyan, 1989), Return to the Promised Land (1991) and The Last Station (Verjin kayan, 1994) by Harutyun Khachatryan. The hero of the first film is the popular Armenian singer and songwriter (bard) Ruben Hakhverdyan, who plays himself. The filmmakers accompany the bard and his friend on a long journey through the vast spaces of what was then the Soviet Union: the protagonists travel to places, where the Armenian diasporas have now settled. All of them are real people: a painter in Tallinn (Estonia), a stage director from a taiga village in the Far North of Russia, a man of an unspecified profession from Moscow, and so on. We see all of them on screen in their authentic, “documentary” environment, spontaneously talking and explaining why they could not find themselves in their homeland, why they had to leave Armenia and what they gained (or didn’t gain) while being thousands of kilometers away from their native soil. Khachatryan stays true to this thematic line in his next two films. The protagonists of Return to the Promised Land are refugees: a young family that fled from ethnic discrimination and settled in a rundown village on the north of Armenia. This film is about creating a new life: the protagonists are young, they are expecting a child, and they are building their new home in Armenian tradition. The next film called The Last Station explores the same issues (national affiliation, roots, home, family), but on the basis of a completely different dramatic material: the complex relations between a couple from the artistic diaspora (starring Nora Armani and Jirayr [Gerald] Papazian).

return to the promised landThese films by Khachatryan, as well as some other films by directors of his generation, demonstrate the search for a national identity on all levels: social, historical, individual. The questions are the same: who are Armenians? Where did they come from and where are they going? How does an Armenian perceive the modern world and how does he feel in it? Straight or indirect, these questions are present in most of the films. It is from these questions that the living tissue of contemporary Armenian cinema is woven. Basically, this is an indirect and personalized answer to all the political and social convulsions that shook Armenia during years of independence. A refugee family builds a new life in its historic motherland from the fragments of their shattered life (Return to the Promised Land). A monk, who has travelled around the world, returns to his motherland in search of a higher truth (A Voice in the Wilderness [Dzayn barbaro... ], directed by Vigen Chaldranyan, 1991). Émigré actors see Armenia as a sanctuary and a spiritual peace, the keeper of a lost identity (The Last Station). The characters in David Safaryan’s Lost Paradise (Korsvats drakht, 1991) gain strength and wisdom through a genetic connection with their homeland.

The word “homeland”, in fact, has always played a key role for an Armenian’s national consciousness; for those born in Armenia, for whom homeland is also a specific city or village where the ancestral house is (the so-called “small homeland”); and for those who carry Armenia in their hearts as their historic homeland—the homeland of their ancestors, whence they were banished once upon a time. Hence the recurrent themes in Armenian art of exodus, travel and an invariably tough return; hence the permanent correlation with a geographical space called Armenia, overshadowed by the majestic contour of Mount Ararat.

New realities: From Peleshyan’s We to Egoyan’s Ararat
Post-Soviet reality, namely the existence in a world without an east-west divide, without political opposition, and with open borders, suggested a totally new aspect of identity and integrality of the issue of national consciousness. This applies not only to Armenia, but also to a number of other countries in the post-communist sphere. For example, the united Germany faced issues of different and conflicting mentalities of West and East Germans, which is reflected in contemporary German cinema. During the 20th century, many Armenians faced separation and isolation from their historic homeland, which was off-limits for most people in the Soviet times. The idea of open borders was first of all an opportunity to return, to unite separated families and recover lost roots. This manifested itself on the level of social consciousness in the popular (or better—populist) slogan of the 1990s: “One nation—one culture.” Even setting aside populism, it is impossible to ignore that the search for and transformation of national identity brings many foreign artists to Armenia (both literally and figuratively). Of course, foreigners have visited Armenia in the past as well: Ruben Mamoulian, William Saroyan, Henri Verneuil, Charles Aznavour and others. However, in Soviet times these almost official visits were authorized by Moscow and thus invariably used for propaganda purposes.

calendarIt is appropriate to “quote” a wonderful and emotionally tense sequence from Peleshian’s We, which may be called “The Return” (the same old “return to the promised land”). A confused elderly man comes down the ramp of an airplane at Yerevan airport and lands in the embrace of his relatives from whom he had been separated for decades: he cannot hold back his tears; he kisses the soil on which he stands, but never hoped to see again. A forest of hands linked in embraces—these and many others—appears over and over in close-ups, eventually combining into a montage sequence of a collective cheer, dance, and a visual cry—“We”. These were the 1960s, when tourists from the Armenian diaspora were allowed entrance to Armenia for the first time.

Everything changed radically as a result of independence. Today Armenia really is perceived by Armenians from all over the world as a lost, yet regained historic homeland, which is reflected in their oeuvre on one hand, and in the attempts of Armenian art critics and culturologists to restore the lost “thread of times” and integrate the scattered islands of national culture into the context of the new borderless world on the other. With regard to cinema, the first such attempt was made in 1993 within the frames of a grandiose retrospective of Armenian cinema (over 120 films) at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, where—alongside Armenian classics such as Beknazarian, Martirosyan, Parajanov, Peleshian, Malyan, and Dovlatyan, and the new Armenian filmmakers of the 90s—there were screenings of films made by directors from the Armenian diaspora. The catalogue published on this occasion represented a first attempt of systemizing the information, crossing geographical borders of modern-day Armenia and evaluating Armenian cinema as part of a single national culture. It emerged that the motive of the search of national identity is dominant in the work of many directors of Armenian descent, no matter what part of the world they work in. 

calendarA fine example here is the oeuvre of the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, the luckiest and most famous filmmaker of his generation. Born in Egypt to an Armenian refugee family (his ancestors were from Western Armenia), he grew up in Canada and visited Armenia for the first time in 1991. This led to Egoyan’s first Armenian film, Calendar (1993). The Armenian theme was certainly present in his previous films (Next of Kin, 1984; Family Viewing, 1987; The Adjuster, 1991), but as a background, as something hardly noticeable—in the names of some characters (Van and Armen in Family Viewing; Noah and Hera in The Adjuster), which sounded strange to the western ear; in the dialogues and words in a foreign language; and in musical motives from Armenian songs. This was an encoded sign of something long lost and forgotten, yet constantly present, residing somewhere in the consciousness. Perhaps that something was the lost identity, the ancestral memory and the ancestral language. When Egoyan was eight years old, his grandmother was placed in a nursing home: what may be considered a completely normal decision for a rational western man was something out of the ordinary for an Armenian family. Perhaps therefore little Atom was so shocked: according to the director, he was so upset that his grandmother was sent away that he stopped speaking Armenian at home. While he could only visit his grandmother, the 18-year-old Van from Family Viewing not only visits his Armenian grandparent, but also “snatches” her from the nursing home in the end.

calendarThe plot of Calendar is simple: a successful photographer, Armenian by descent and played by Egoyan himself, comes to Armenia with his wife (who is also his translator) to take 12 photographs of Armenian churches for a calendar. Egoyan is very honest with himself, his protagonist and his audience. He does not get euphoric about beholding the ancient stones of his historic homeland; he is in no rush to free himself of the “Armenian faith of losses” and shorten the distance between his personal “I” and the lost memory of his people. Moreover, the more pictures he takes, the deeper he gets into the history of the churches and the people, and the closer a new loss comes: his wife prefers to stay in Armenia, and the photographer is forced to return to Canada alone. 

Calendar was released in 1992 and left a deep impression as a sincere, “natural” film; that impression remains unchanged, and has actually gained new semantic overtones, which were added through Egoyan’s following works and directly correspond with his film Ararat (2002). There is a key scene in Calendar, where the main characters—the photographer, his wife (Arsinée Khanjian) and their guide (Ashot Adamyan)—have an important conversation. The guide is tired of his own enthusiasm and his vain attempts to establish a spiritual connection between the photographer, an Armenian by descent who doesn’t speak Armenian but just wants to do his job professionally, and those silent objects (the churches), which he is photographing. Suddenly the guide stops and asks the couple a personal question: why does this young and successful couple not have children yet? After receiving no clear answer, the guide himself starts to explain why he asked this question: if you had a child, you would have all the more reason to come to Armenia—after all, a child needs to see the land of his ancestors. In other words, a child can help these people regain their lost connection with their national roots and self-consciousness. Then, in 1992, that scene sounded like a guess, a presentiment; today it has gained a prophetic significance. It seems quite unbelievable, but in fact right after Calendar, Egoyan and his real-life wife Arsine Khanjyan decided to have a child that—while still in the womb of his mother—starred in Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), which earned the director a triumphant victory in Cannes (FIPRESCI prize). On the title page of Exotica’s script, published in book-form, the director wrote: “To my son Arshile, who was born with this film.” Egoyan named his first-born Arshile, in honor of the renowned 20th-century Armenian painter Arshile Gorky. Making a film about his idol’s tragic fate (that reflected the fate of the Armenian people) was Egoyan’s cherished dream: partially it came true with Ararat, whose complex dramaturgical structure features a plotline related to the childhood and later biography of Arshile Gorky and the 1915 Armenian Genocide in general. What is Ararat to Egoyan, if not an attempt to overcome the trauma of the national and individual consciousness through creation? What is it, if not a return to origins, to his national identity? A return to the promised land, under the shadow of biblical Mount Ararat.


Translated by Artur Vardikyan, edited by Birgit Beumers
Published in Russian in the book Hajkakan Kinomitq, Yerevan: Soyuz kinematografistov Armenii, 2014

Susanna Harutyunyan

Susanna Harutyunyan© 2016

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