National Cinema Centre of Armenia: Yesterday and Now

By Naira Paytyan

The National Cinema Centre of Armenia (NCCA), established by the order of the government of the Republic of Armenia in 2006, is a non-commercial state organization which operates within the structure of the Ministry of Culture of Armenia; it is the successor to Armenfilm Studio named after Hamo Beknazarian (Amo Bek-Nazarov), founded in 1923.

The NCCA sets state cultural policy in the film sector, providing state support to national cinematography in the following four sectors: assistance in production of domestic filmmaking; national project implementation; participation in international festivals; and promotion of the national cinema at international film markets.

The Cinema Centre encourages, preserves and develops the traditions of Armenian cinema, focusing upon issues of national importance; it assists in the production of high-quality national fiction and animation films; it ensures equal opportunities for everyone during the selection process of submitted projects; it fosters the production of films for youth and children as well as debut films; it encourages cooperation and project realization with relevant international film structures; it ensures participation in film festivals and other film-related events; it is involved in preservation, restoration and conservation of films, which form an inseparable part of Armenian cultural legacy; it defines the mainstream of the national cinema development strategy, its methods and ways; it develops and implements state programs in the field of cinema; it considers and selects projects submitted to the Cinema Centre; and so on. Henrik Malyan’s Theatre and Drama Studio is also within the structure of the Cinema Centre, along with the Animation Unit.

After independence in 1991 Armenia suffered through a severe period of political, economic, social and cultural crisis, being totally unprepared for this change. Recourses were mainly targeted at tackling the following problems: economic decline; conflict zones and seismic (earthquake) zones; the blockade; the power crisis; high unemployment; thousands of unsheltered refugees; and immigration. 

Armenian cinema, which had reached a peak only a few years earlier, declined rapidly. Even the idea of making a film seemed ridiculous at that bitter time, when people had to tackle one day at a time, dealing with financial problems and survival.

Previously, Armenia had sufficient film production resources: under the Soviets system, Hayfilm Studio was rated one of the most advanced, following after Mosfilm. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the studio went into decline. Hayfilm used to have 1,200 assigned employees, including film directors, cinematographers, common workers, sound and colour recording specialists. It produced four features, two television films and three to four cartoons annually. Some of Soviet-Armenian films made at Hayfilm had been presented abroad, participated at the international film festivals, and received prizes: for example, Hello, It’s Me (Barev, yes em, 1965) by Frunze Dovlatyan was the first Armenian film to compete in the Cannes International Film Festival (1966).

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the collapse of the entire system, destroying both its advantages and disadvantages. And at the time it was impossible to maintain such a huge structure as Hayfilm. There was no more funding, no specialists; the equipment, production units and pavilions were slowly becoming outdated, so that in 2005 the decision was made to sell Hayfilm, because it could not be maintained on the state budget, and selling it seemed the only way out. The studio was purchased by the Gafeschyan (Cafesjian) Foundation for just 600,000 USD; they made a bold commitment to turn it into a real Hollywood-like film production structure, promising to equip it, to digitize films, to boost production and keep the traditions of Hayfilm, adjusting them to modern standards; some co-production projects were also introduced. However, as the years passed, all those promises remained unfulfilled, and not a stone was moved.

Andranik Margaryan, then Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, proposed to establish a National Cinema Centre, which could become the successor to Hayfilm, with the aim of supporting domestic film production as its core task; so, finally, in 2006 the National Cinema Centre of Armenia was established. 

Gevorg Gevorgyan, the director of the Cinema Centre, initiated a gradual but steady growth in the field, establishing an elaborated policy that would consolidate cinema enthusiasts around the newly-formed structure. New ways and directions for modern Armenian filmmaking loomed ahead. The Cinema Centre was committed to assist and support the implementation and realization of new film projects, despite limited state funding, endeavouring to bring back the audience’s love for and interest to Armenian cinema. 

In fact, the first steps to encourage young film professionals in the realization of their projects were taken just after the disastrous crisis of the 1990s, when positive moves in cinema were insignificant and hardly perceptible. The Soviet system, which had dominated all cultural sectors including cinema, had left the majority on the edge. The generation of filmmakers, who had been actively involved in the film production process, was no longer available in the 1990s and 2000s, and few cinema professionals were able to take their place.

The names of Sergei Parajanov, Artavazd Peleshian, Frunze Dovlatyan, Henrik Malyan, Arnold Aghababov, Bagrat Hovhannisyan, Albert Mkrtchyan and many others have always stood for the good traditions of Armenian film-making, and it has been extremely difficult to continue the standards that had been set by them and hold the flag high. However, a new generation of filmmakers, who have tried to give a breath of fresh air to Armenian cinema, is growing.

Despite limited state funding allocated to the cultural sector, the Cinema Centre endeavours to provide support. However, regrettably a number of projects often get rejected or postponed because of the funding limitations. The annual budget allocated to the Cinema Centre is 293 million AMD (700,000 USD). Every year, about ten features, shorts and debuts are funded with this money. Apart from that, 65 million AMD are allocated to animation. Also, the Cinema Centre assists in the production of four debut and four student films annually. 

“The funding is small; however, it gives some opportunities for realization to our oncoming film directors. Some foreign film professionals find it difficult to understand how it is possible to make a film with just 10,000–20,000 USD, but if you are enthusiastic, which is so common among young people, you can make a film as we do in Armenia,” says Gevorgyan.

The Cinema Centre also helps national film directors find partners abroad. In 2010 the Cinema Centre first participated in Marché du Film in Cannes with its own stand. Gevorgyan observes that, if in 2010 the Cinema Centre felt like a fresher in Cannes, over the following years it managed to draw the attention of foundations and companies from different countries; in 2014 the Armenian stand was one of the busiest in the market.

If Armenian scriptwriters and directors previously had to make incredible efforts to draw the attention of the foreign investors, during the past two years the cooperation process has advanced a lot thanks to the quality of scripts and the experience gained. The confidence is growing; the experience shows that Europe finds Armenian projects unusual and appealing. In Cannes, Armenia presents 10–17 projects annually. Jivan Avetisyan, Maria Saakyan, Aram Shahbazyan, and Hovhannes Galstyan have sought and found co-producers and partners at the Cannes market; importantly some co-productions have been achieved.

The activities of the Cinema Centre have gained the attention and appreciation of European structures. In December 2014 the NCCA was rated among the Top 10 European film funds, having previously been ranked among the Top 100 Best European Funds. This news was elating for the Cinema Centre’s chief administration. It means that, despite the limited budget, the Cinema Centre’s policy has been an inspiring and supportive incentive for the development of domestic film production.

In January 2016 Armenia’s membership in Eurimages was approved. This will create new opportunities for collaboration in the sphere of cinema, bringing more prospects for foreign co-production. Armenia also has a collaboration agreement with CNC, which creates financing and coproduction opportunities. Armenia is also a member of the Berne Convention. 

The year of 2015 is significant for Armenia. The programs to commemorate the sad 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide embrace films dedicated to the subject, which are mostly co-productions. In association with ArtStep Studio, the French filmmaker, scriptwriter and actor Serge Avedikyan traces back the history of two heroic Armenian women, who managed to save the book The Homilies of Mush from destruction. The animated film was included in the WW1 film-almanac produced by Comer Work Studio. Wide international screenings of the film are planned. Czech partners are making a factual documentary in association with the Cinema Centre, and some European countries have already shown interest in the film; the TV version will be broadcast by Canadian TV. Iranian film producers introduced a coproduction project: their new film also illustrates the Genocide subject. Some Genocide-related films are at planning and production stage and will be released shortly.

The films that are produced with assistance from the Cinema Centre participate in international festivals and competitions. To position domestic cinema as a national cultural value in its own country is one of the primary objectives of the Cinema Centre. Without pursuing any commercial goals, some publicity and educational programs are implemented with the specific aim to embrace Armenian regions and border regions. The “Cinema Autumn” program—a month of Armenian cinema—has organized screenings of old (produced by Hayfilm) and modern Armenian films in remote regions for over five years.

Generally, state funding implies a focus on production and promotion of films with national themes. Armenian cinema touches on a variety of contemporary subjects and themes of universal significance; however, priority is given to projects which highlight national spirit and issues—although with the word “national” we mean common universal issues and approaches, where national peculiarities are unique and appealing for the globalized world. 

What has been made during the past ten years is definitely far from a Big Film; however, it bears the seeds for a rise of Armenian cinema, since most of our films manage to keep national force and flavour as well as a particular tone

Naira Paytyan


 

Naira Paytyan © 2016

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Updated: 06 Aug 16