Modern Armenian Documentary Filmmaking: Issues and Perspectives

By Raffi Movsisyan

In any study of contemporary Armenian film there is an element of subjectivity. The outcome will be influenced by the researcher’s specific knowledge of the field and personal connections. Regardless of the time period in question, the issue remains the same: whether it pertains to the last twenty years or the last year, it is impossible to speak about the state of contemporary filmmaking with precise facts and figures, because there are no official statistics. The following factors remain unknown: (1) the number of filmmaking companies in Armenia; (2) the number of films made each year in Armenia—because in addition to the National Cinema Center, Hayk Documentary Film Studio, and television companies, countless films are produced by independent studios and individuals; (3) the proportion of films produced in film format versus other formats; (4) the percentage of films produced in each category (feature, documentary, animated), the proportion of full-length features versus short films; (5) the production cost of each film, the average film production cost in Armenia, the total amount spent annually on film production; (6) the number of co-productions, the countries involved, and the way in which finances were divided; (7) the number of Armenian films that participated in international film festivals and the awards that they won; (8) the average production and post-production costs in Armenia; (9) the number of distribution companies in Armenia; (10) the number of films imported through these companies; (11) the number of Armenian films bought by local and foreign distributors; (12) the number of films screened annually and the ratio between local and foreign films shown in Armenia; (13) the number of screenings per film; (14) the number of film-goers (annually, monthly, daily); (15) earnings (annually, monthly, daily, and per screening).

These issues are particularly prevalent with documentary films. The spread of digital technologies has made it possible for any individual to make a documentary film. Therefore it is absurd to even imply that it is possible to obtain concrete figures on the number of documentary films produced over the past few years in Armenia. There is no state agency charged with gathering information on the above-mentioned points (which only cover the main issues and can be expanded), which stands in the way of regulating the field and long-term planning. While we do not have exact figures, it is helpful to take note of areas where it would be helpful to acquire more information. This study is based on research conducted on the experience and policies of public and private studios, television companies, and individuals. It aims to paint a general picture of the production and post-production processes of documentary films over the last five years, the issues that arise in the process, the primary methods of distribution and screening, and prospects for development. The study is also based on interviews with representatives from public and private studios that produce documentaries, representatives from television companies, and independent filmmakers. Both direct and indirect references are made to these interviews throughout the report.

Production mechanisms and primary issues of state agencies involved in documentary filmmaking
The RA Law on Budgetary Systems was adopted on 21 July 1997. Since 2005, financing of cultural initiatives is done on a project basis, according to which policy measures are included in expenditure programs. Budget allocations related to culture are made annually according to the Law on the RA State Budget, which also stipulates that the responsibility of allocating funds for filmmaking is divided between two legal entities: the National Cinema Center of Armenia (NCCA) and Hayk Documentary Film Studio. The latter, as its name suggests, is responsible for the allocation of funds to documentaries. Hamo Beknazarian HayFilm Studio is a state non-profit organization, which operates under the Ministry of Culture. According to sections A and C (organization’s activities and purpose) of the bylaw of the National Cinema Center of Armenia state non-profit organization, the Cinema Center produces movies and TV films and has creative freedom in the genre of cinematographic art. The funds allocated by the Ministry of Culture to NCCA are given to two primary areas: the production of feature films and animated films. Even though there is no mention of the production or support of documentary films, on the NCCA’s official website there is a section devoted to the most recent documentary films supported by the organization. Since 2008, according to the NCCA’s website, around 15 documentaries have been filmed with the support of the organization. So it appears that two different entities carry out the same function of allocating state funds to documentary film production.

In 1982 the Documentary Film Studio of Armenia merged with Hayk Film Studio and operated as its documentary film unit. In 1990 the documentary film unit left HayFilm Studio and began to operate independently as Hayk Documentary Film Studio, a state non-profit organization. When comparing the documentaries produced by NCCA and Hayk Documentary Film Studio, there is no real difference in the fate of the films, but there are differences in the production principles of the two entities. While Hayk Studio’s budget is decided on a project basis, the NCCA, which functions as a foundation, independently manages a predetermined budget. This means that there are two different allocation mechanisms for funds that come from the same budget. According to information provided by Hayk Studio, the studio has produced around 71 films since 2008. According to the creative director of Hayk Studio, Ruben Gevorgyants, of the roughly 86 state-funded films produced by the NCCA and Hayk Studio since 2008, none have been distributed either within the country or abroad.

endless escapeRegarding the lack of co-produced films, Ruben Gevorgyants states: “With documentary films, if you don’t look around, apply to various foreign organizations here, no one will give you funding. Our studio participates in different film markets and forums, but we have not had any success yet in that regard, because we are a very idiosyncratic country. Our issues in international relations and the Karabakh issue give rise to serious challenges. That’s why nobody wants to give us money; they stay away from those topics. And, to be honest, we don’t need it, because even though state funding is minimal, there is an old group of documentary filmmakers—and some young ones, too—who don’t work for money, but because they have to work, they make films.” Some experts would disagree. According to film producer Armine Anda’s report, which was presented at a discussion about the Law on Films on 12 November 2013, “co-productions are especially important for countries like ours that produce on a small scale. Firstly, they bring down production costs to a certain extent, which makes it possible to increase the quantity of films produced with state funding. Secondly, joint productions increase the possibility for distribution and sales in the partner country.” It is hard to believe that the management of state funds and films produced with the support of state funds is in the hands of the very companies that produce the films. These films have a very short life span; after one or two screenings, they are simply forgotten. Part of the solution to this problem would be the establishment of a film production school.

The lack of producers is a major issue in contemporary Armenian filmmaking. While there are a few producers of feature films, the role of a producer is all but missing in the sphere of documentary filmmaking and in working with state entities. One of the main reasons for this is that we have not quite moved away from the idea of state studios, or from the practice of directing state funding exclusively towards state studios. For the same reason, even competitions announced in the field do not seem genuine. Independent producers are not given full authority over the way funds are spent or over the final product, and those who are listed in the credits as producers are simply the leading members of these entities’ film crews. In his 2010 analytical report, “Armenian Film”, film critic Mikayel Stamboltsyan notes: “Today, there are two expert committees operating independently of each other that evaluate applications and decide how state funds will be spent. One of the committees works alongside the Ministry of Culture, and the other within state-supported organizations. This is the same system that operated during Soviet times, when the screenplay was first approved by the studio, then by the state film board (Petkino) and finally by the Union’s film board. The difference is that in the past, subordinates could not reject the approval of their superiors, nor could they make independent decisions.” As Ruben Gevorgyants mentions, today there are instances when a screenplay that has already been approved is replaced by another. For the sake of transparency, the same principle should be applied across the board. The body that disburses state funds cannot also receive and manage these funds. When looking at international best practice, cinema centers, foundations and institutes never produce, distribute or show films. This is to avoid the risks of conflict of interest and corruption. Independent expert committees work alongside these entities, with rotating membership, made up of experts who cannot be even indirectly linked to the works they are discussing and evaluating. These committees work under regulations approved by the ministry. The activities of the committees are transparent and open to the public. In Georgia, for example, since the adoption of the National Law on the Development of the Film Industry, the Georgian National Film Center works under these principles. One of the obstacles to the establishment of independent producers (and one of the reasons why the entities that receives state funding also produce films) is related to taxes and customs. Currently, funds received from state non-profit organizations are not subject to value-added tax (VAT). But if those funds are distributed to independent (private) producers, then they are taxed. So it follows that state support is either not accessible to independent producers, or independent producers are forced to work for a subdivision of the state agency if they wish to receive state funds.

To solve this problem without getting into amendments to tax legislation, we must study the experiences of countries that have faced and overcome the same challenge, such as the Russian Federation, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In forming the annual budget, there should be a provision in the article on “state support of films” about VAT. As a result, after funds are distributed to producers, additional funds would be returned to the budget. Most of the above-mentioned gaps are due to the fact that we do not have a law on the film industry which would both regulate legal and economic relations in the industry and clarify its infrastructure. Such a law could not only regulate the relations between the state, the people and the film industry, but it would also become the legal basis for the establishment of an independent school for producers. In addition to making films with state funding, and to involvement in state policy for documentary films and the production of documentaries ordered by the government, Hayk Documentary Film Studio is also engaged in chronicling current events. As Gevorgyants states, the studio receives instructions on the documentation of important events from the Ministry of Culture. In order to fulfill that function, the studio collaborates with Armenian television companies. That is to say, it takes pieces filmed by these companies and archives them. The documentary filmmakers who collaborate with the studio also take part in this chronicling process. The significance of such chronicling at state level and the mechanisms used as well as the technical quality represent an entirely different area for research.

Policies and production features of private documentary film studios
A vast number of films in Armenia are produced by private studios and companies. Television companies also produce made-for-television documentaries. The main reason why television companies take it upon themselves to film documentaries is the weak relationship between public and private companies, studios, and independent filmmakers, or the absence of such relations altogether. We will address this issue separately, but first we shall address a surprising fact about documentary film production by television companies. Television documentaries are typically filmed not by directors invited by the company or those who work with other studios, but by the television company’s reporters. For the most part, these productions are simply investigative reports that exceed the timeslot allotted to more standard reporting.

story of peopleContemporary television documentaries that do not prioritize the transfer of information and are more style-driven are very rare. Private companies and studios in Armenia which produce documentaries are faced with these opposing approaches to filmmaking and often try to combine them. Bars Media is one of these companies: it produces films in collaboration with international television companies, which are aired on television stations around the world and participate in festivals. Since 2008, Bars Media has filmed three full-length documentaries: A Story of People in War and Peace (Mardkayin patmutyun paterazmi yev khaghaghutyan orerits, 2007), directed by Vardan Hovhannisyan; The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia (2010), directed by Arman Yeritsyan and Inna Sahakyan; and Through the Eyes of a Donkey: Donkeymentary, directed by Arman Yeritsyan. The studio also films shorter documentaries for NGOs and through grants, which are targeted at a local audience. Over the past five years, Bars Media has released ten such films. There is one important characteristic in Bars Media’s filmmaking policy, which is rarely encountered in our local productions, even in feature films: “Our studio does not only produce films to be sent to festivals or to be sold to television companies,” says Bars Media producer Inna Sahakyan. “We try to do both at the same time. With each film, we aim to make back the amount invested. In terms of the screenings and distribution of the films, the studio is very flexible and takes into account the market demand. Bars Media can offer different versions of a film, with different formats and lengths, based on the demands of different television companies. Along with television versions of films, the studio also has director’s cuts to be shown at film festivals. In this regard, Bars Media is unique in Armenian film production. This might be the reason why the studio’s films have, along with their commercial success, been well received at festivals.” Though Bars Media’s films have been aired on television stations around the world, to date the studio has not had a single collaboration with local television companies, either in the production stage or in the airing of completed films. “Our local television companies are not prepared to invest in documentary films or to participate in joint productions,” says Sahakyan. “It is plain to see that the film policies of local TV stations are different. They invest in in-house production, meaning that they’re the ones filming TV documentaries. Of course, this gives rise to several issues because there is no clear distinction between documentary films, television documentaries, television reports and other programs. There are many issues, but the most critical one is the absence of state support. The amount of support is in this case not the main issue; what is more important is for that support to be visible. When a film is supported by the presenter’s government, there is a much greater likelihood of finding opportunities for joint productions, specifically when it comes to joint productions with international television companies, because for them it is incomprehensible why your country’s TV industry has not invested at all in the production.”

story of peopleInterestingly, Hovhannisyan’s A Story of People in War and Peace, a Bars Media production on a topic of local relevance, whose main characters were participants in Artsakh’s fight for independence, has had more success in terms of sales and distribution abroad than in Armenia. This example further proves the absence of film distribution in Armenia and the systemic failure of policies meant to bolster the development of the film industry. The Media Initiatives Center (MIC, known prior to 3 July 2013 as Internews Media Support NGO) plays an important role in making the interrelations between documentary films and television more visible. The Center produces films whose first area of distribution is television. So the Media Initiatives Center’s documentary films must first be considered as additions to the scope of television offerings. Over the past five years, the MIC has filmed over 50 documentaries. “For us, documentary film is primarily not just an art, but an opportunity to voice issues that we think are important, and to begin conversations around them. At the Media Initiatives Center, we value films that are based on information that is circulated in the news and media,” explains the director of Media Initiatives Center, Nune Sargsyan. “We can’t say that our films have achieved success in festivals, and we don’t necessarily strive for that. Often their filmmakers are young or are coming from the field of journalism and are taking their first steps in non-feature film. In that regard, the documentary non-feature films we produce serve as teaching tools. An example of this is the documentary series about the antagonism of different countries.” The Center’s films are distributed free of charge to television companies. One of the MIC’s documentary film production policies addresses engaging young journalists in the documentary film process and forming a new generation of documentary filmmakers. For the MIC, formalizing the collaboration between television and documentary film is not an end in and of itself, because according to the organization’s experts, television is the first avenue of dissemination for contemporary documentaries. “In my opinion, purpose and distribution policies of many documentaries filmed in Armenia today are not clear from the start. And this is the reason why the majority of them are sleeping on the shelves,” says Sargsyan. “As for the documentaries that are in demand by foreign television companies, but not by our television companies, I think it’s caused by a lack of cooperation and incongruous goals. If the films are in demand in the external market, then internally their screening should be encouraged in some way. Those films should definitely be broadcast by local TV companies. It’s important for the Armenian audience to see them. Of course, copyrights and other related rights should be protected. Nowadays, only showing documentary films on TV is not enough; different avenues must be found. Otherwise, cooperation will end because ‘it doesn’t get the ratings’. The presentation, the allotted time slot and other factors play a role in determining ratings.”

Ordfilm Production Company primarily produces commercial documentary films targeted towards the local market. The company was founded with the intention of making documentary films with both public and private support, but as the studio’s founding director Hayk Ordyan notes, it became apparent fairly quickly that this model for a documentary film studio was not possible. “It’s obvious that favorable conditions are not yet in place to cooperate with private and public studios or foundations,” says Ordyan. “I tried to complete a project with the support of the Ministry of Culture, but it became apparent that it would only be possible if I were to work with the National Cinema Center of Armenia, which has its own stipulations for allocations of funds, and based on those stipulations, you can only apply as an independent producer or director. In the end, negotiations with the National Cinema Center broke down on the premise that they were not that interested in documentary films. The other avenue through which to receive state funding is Hayk Documentary Film Studio, which is primarily concerned with the production of its own films.” One of the primary goals of the Armenian government in providing state assistance, which is also manifested in our national policy on the development of the film industry, is the establishment of private film companies. Presumably this relates to all genres of film, including documentaries, for which a clear path for public-private partnership does not currently exist. In a joint production effort with H1, the public broadcasting company, Ordfilm produced the first three of a series of 15 profile-documentaries on Armenian national heroes. Production was later stopped because H1 considered the project to be too expensive and did not even cover the studio’s production cost. Currently, the studio produces commercial documentaries for a number of companies, the earnings of which allow them to produce one non-commercial documentary per year. Since its establishment, Ordfilm has produced ten such documentaries. Of course, there are more private companies that produce documentaries than the ones mentioned above. These companies were chosen because—although they differ in their production methods and goals—the issues they face are characteristic of other companies in the field.

from ararat to zionMany directors make documentaries alongside private studios and foundations with state funding. These are usually independent low-budget initiatives that are short lived, because their distribution is at the discretion of the director. Assessing the effectiveness of the main channels for broadcasting local documentaries, it is an undeniable fact that the final target of film production, distribution and screening is the viewer, or the consumer. In the entirely state-funded Soviet film policy, the viewer was the final destination and target of the creation and distribution chain. Today, however, the role of the viewer has been completely reversed. The viewer is now the starting point of the production-distribution-consumption chain. This is how it works in countries with more experience in filmmaking, where the consumer is viewed as the primary investor in the film, with the money that s/he pays to view it. This is the result of a well-functioning distribution mechanism. In Armenia, unfortunately, it is still too early to talk about distribution, especially when it comes to documentary films, whose distribution path is especially riddled with obstacles. The same primary means of the dissemination of films are used around the world: cinemas, television, DVDs, and the internet. In Armenia today, we have five functional cinemas: three in Yerevan, one in Gyumri, and one in Berd, with a combined total of around 2,500 seats. For a country with a population of more than 2.5 million, this is a very small amount. For documentaries, the cinemas in Yerevan usually serve as a platform for premieres, which are one time only, free-of-charge events.

from ararat to zionSince 2016 only three locally produced documentary films have been released in Armenian cinemas: Edgar Baghdasaryan’s From Ararat to Zion (2009), Hovhannisyan’s A Story of People in War and Peace and Aram Shahbazyan’s The Map of Salvation (2015). It is important to note that Hovhannisyan’s film, produced by Bars Media, which he directed, was very well received internationally and achieved great success at festivals, but went virtually unnoticed in the local market. Baghdasaryan’s From Ararat to Zion was also produced by a private studio, Vem Media Arts; it was relatively successful in the local market. According to the director, around 25,000 people went to see the film. Taking into account the scarcity of cinemas, the primary means of disseminating local films to the public should be television. But relations between local television stations (both public and private) and documentary production companies (both public and private) are practically non-existent. Our television companies do not even take the basic step of broadcasting local films, let alone following the international practice of using television as a significant means to promote the development of the local film industry. In searching for the root of the problem of the current unfavorable conditions, the objective is not to lay the blame on one side or the other, especially when it comes to private television companies. The issue is more visible with public broadcasters, because TV stations funded by the state should at least be more interested in broadcasting films made with state funds. In this case, again, the issue is the failure of cultural policies. This should be one of the main points in the as yet non-existent Law on Cinema. The only television station in Armenia that has a spiritual-cultural focus is Shoghakat, which does not air commercials; that means that ratings are not their main objective. Regarding the company’s policy on local documentary films, the director of Shoghakat, Ara Shirinyan, notes: “Our station does not have a specific mode of operation or policy towards documentaries. Shoghakat functions according to TV regulations. Though we do not consider it of prime importance, we try to attract a wide audience. We’re never driven by ratings and we think that, if the station has its regular viewers who know that when they turn on our channel, they will come across spiritual and cultural programming, then we are fulfilling our function. The amount of airtime we devote to documentaries is in keeping with the accepted demands of the Armenian television audience. This approach is long overdue for review, the policy is quite outdated, as are all assumptions about today’s television viewers. In this sense, we don’t see the whole picture. The only real marker in today’s terms is ratings, which is not enough for us. I think now is the time to work a little bit against ratings.” Interestingly, TV companies spend the majority of their airtime on their own productions. They often produce made-for-television documentaries, although productions presented as documentary films can, upon examination, be classified as a separate category of television production in terms of their production quality, but not as documentary films per se. “When necessary, Shoghakat, too, films its own documentaries with in-house directors. These are typically filmed as investigative journalism reports. For the most part, our documentary filmmakers are journalists, who also prepare news reports, says Shirinyan. “Of course, in filming TV documentaries, they are freer in terms of time and the depth in which they can cover the topic. We also film documentaries that are in line with international standards. Of course, there are fewer of these—maybe one or two a year. They are mainly filmed by independent artists and writers who apply to us. Often, they are joint productions, such as Vahe Yan’s short, Two Paths (2011) which was commissioned by the French-Armenian Development Foundation.” “We do not have the means to pay for the rights to show films that we like. And those films that are offered to us free of charge typically do not meet our station’s artistic standards,” continues Shirinyan. “Of course, it’s not the station’s role to evaluate the film, but if you are showing a film, it means that you accept its artistic quality. Documentaries that win awards at festivals are not usually suitable for TV viewing in terms of format and length. And the approach of preparing a director’s cut of documentaries for TV viewing is still not practiced here. Maybe this is the primary reason why studios and TV companies can’t find a way to work together.” It is obvious that airing local documentaries is not a priority for TV stations. Another means of dissemination is through DVDs, a culture that is not fully developed in Armenia, and does not even work in the case of feature films. This relates particularly to state-funded films, because several films produced by private studios come out on DVD after being released in cinemas.

The internet is as yet the only free channel of distribution, where a person who owns the rights to the film can essentially give up these rights and distribute the film through online channels or websites. It is difficult to foresee a format for profiting from online distribution, or at least protecting copyright and related rights, in the near future. Along with the many issues that arise in the production process, there are issues in post-production and film distribution. The life of a large portion of documentaries ends after participation in a few local, or very rarely international film festivals. Even success at festivals does not guarantee that a film will be shown in the country where it was produced, to the audience it was made for. Films that do not have the chance to participate in festivals lay dormant in storage, despite the fact that at least 3 million AMD is spent on the creation of each film.

Based on this study, it can be concluded that the primary obstacles for the development of the documentary film industry in Armenia are infrastructural uncertainty, the lack of clarity and ineffectiveness of the mechanism for disbursing state funds, and the absence of a distribution and sales system. In these conditions, it becomes impossible to take on the practices of countries with more established film industries (private initiatives and competition in the production, distribution and screening of films). It is important for private companies to have the opportunity, as independent legal entities, to access state funds for documentary filmmaking. This will encourage producers of documentary films to come to the forefront. To this end, reviewing tax legislation in relation to film production will also be a significant step. A separate and equally important issue is the absence of state-approved procedures to protect and revive the country’s cinematic legacy. In Soviet times, after completion of each film, the studio was required to give the original materials (negatives, optical and magnetic disks, etc.) to the State Film Archive (Gosfilmofond) or the State Archive for Film- and Photo-Documentation (RGAKFD). In fact, this practice continues in many countries today. Thanks to this accepted method, Armenian films produced up to 1991 are safely kept in the film archives of Russia, and copies of some of these films (dupe negative or positive) are kept in the Armenian State Archive. Some time after independence, the Film Library became separated from the State Archive, so that it would perform the functions that are performed by Russia’s Gosfilmofond or the film archives of other countries. But a few years later, the Film Library was returned to the State Archive. Today, it is not important what body the Film Library is under; what is important is that its operations are up to international standards. It is hard to say where the original materials and copies of films produced after 1991 are kept. It is not entirely out of the question that in a few years, these materials will be impossible to find. Films are archived in the same public and private studios and television companies where they are produced. A method must be developed by the state for film archiving to be carried out by a state body, according to which the documentaries filmed each year will be stored and archived. This, in its turn, will make the process of establishing official statistics easier. Without precise statistics, the regulation and long-term planning of any field are impossible. The majority of the existing problems in the field are the result of the absence of a Law on Cinema. The adoption of such a law is imperative, and must include measures to solve the problems brought to light by studies in the field. Solving these problems will make it possible for Armenian documentary non-feature films to overcome to current situation and enter a path of development.

The study was ordered by Media Initiatives Center in the framework of CAUCADOC Project.

Raffi Movsisyan


Raffi Movsisyan© 2016

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