Memento, Or The Evolution of Memory

By Armen Shakhkyan

The 1960s were crucial for Armenian cinema. A generation change took place, the film industry expanded; films underwent both thematic and genre changes. Thus, a new phase in Armenian cinema manifested itself with the exploration of the issues of national self-consciousness. But these changes were not spontaneous; behind them were certain political and social circumstances. In the early 60s, thanks to the relative freedom during the Khrushchev “Thaw”, national sentiments were stirred and reached their pinnacle in 1965, the year of the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire.

For the first time, people took to the streets, began to speak out about the Armenian Genocide and demanded its condemnation from the authorities. Naturally, this movement was bound to be reflected in Armenian cinema. Gradually films of this period began to address the past, sometimes even criticizing the present. Thus, the films of the 1960s offered an accurate reflection of public life. A tendency to reference the Genocide in one way or another was born in those days, and is still present in Armenian cinema.

There is, however, an unjustly forgotten film that addressed the Genocide much earlier, some twenty years before the national revival: Native Country (Yerkir hayreni, 1945), a documentary by Levon Isahakyan dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Soviet rule in Armenia first referenced the events of 1915 (the famous Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko was the film’s creative consultant and narrator). In 58 minutes, it covers a vast documentary canvas that depicts Armenians before and during the Soviet era, and features battle scenes from the fields of WWII (Great Patriotic War). However, most importantly the filmmakers managed to find documentary footage of the Genocide in the Moscow film archives.

strana rodnayaAlthough the footage used in Native Country and in some Armenian films of the 1960s is at times similar (for example, Artavazd Peleshian used the same footage in his film We of 1969), they have different meanings and objectives. While there are signs of national self-consciousness in Native Country, the film’s goal is the complete opposite: Native Country mostly emphasizes the fact that thanks to the establishment of Soviet rule, Armenia survived a fatal national collapse. In 1945 Soviet Armenia tried to organize the large-scale repatriation of Armenians, who were scattered all around the world as a result of the Genocide. And to offer incentives to the Armenian Diaspora, the theme of the Genocide and a lost homeland was brought up in Native Country: it was a propaganda film. It is no coincidence that Native Country was screened to Armenian communities worldwide and enjoyed great success. In 1998, during an interview with Armenian film critic Siranush Galstyan, director Levon Isahakyan explained why the Soviet authorities did not censor the archival footage of the Genocide: “At that time, in 1945, when World War II was coming to an end, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet leadership had some plans of invading Turkey and liberating some historical Armenian lands…” (Galstyan 2011: 229).

reka shumitThe Genocide was discussed in Armenian cinema in a feature film for the first time in 1958. Grigor Melik-Avakian’s What’s the River Noise About (Inchu e aghmkum gete, 1958) depicts a soldier who is released from captivity after World War II and attempts to get back home. The dividing line between him and his family is the Armenian-Turkish border that is marked by the River Araks. Although the film cannot be considered a huge artistic success (perhaps with the exception of the acting of the great Hrach Nersisyan), the soundtrack would play a symbolic role several years later. The music composed by Artyom Ayvazyan accompanied demonstrations and became the symbol and anthem of the Karabakh movement and the struggle for independence of the region in 1988.

In 1965, Frunze Dovlatyan’s Hello, It’s Me (Barev, yes em) marked not only the revival of national cinema, but also in some sense the national revival itself. The film does not directly address the Genocide, but rather alludes to it, hints at the pain and sadness of Armenians. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the first scene, which shows the so-called “chess fever”, when in 1963 people enthusiastically gathered in Yerevan’s Opera and Ballet Theater Square (now called Freedom Square) to watch the Armenian chess champion Tigran Petrosyan’s final match. Interestingly, this sequence is only partly fictional, namely in the close-ups of actor Armen Dzhigarkhanyan playing the lead character, the scientist Artyom. The documentary footage was shot by the then cinematographer (and later also director) Karen Gevorgyan, who was present in the square at the time. Dovlatyan saw in these frames a very specific Armenian emotional state, which—placed in perspective—reflects both the Genocide and the national movement of 1988. In addition, Dovlatyan moved the vector of the film to more individual and national directions. In parallel with the love story and achievements in the field of physics, Artyom’s personal drama also unfolds. The entire film is built on his recollections. But these memories aren’t just personal, they are national, even genetic, and in no way can they be erased.

From the distance of the past and the present Peleshian observes national issues in We (Menq, 1969). Peleshian opens the film with the close-up of a little girl’s face and a mountain view. This scene seems to anticipate the course of the film. We see a dark screen and hear human groaning, sometimes even an animal-like roar. The camera moves ahead to the mountains. The voices become louder, echoing in the mountains. This scene sets the tense atmosphere of the slowly unraveling film. Then, accompanied by powerful music, images of explosions and collapsing rocks follow one another, and eventually the sequence leads to a massive funeral procession. The director has edited old footage—documentary scenes of the Genocide, the funeral procession, the arrival of repatriates—with scenes from the 1960s. And in the end he reaches the idea of “we,” depicting the road leading from the singular to the plural. During these 27 minutes, Peleshian metaphorically reflects Armenian history and shows the collective image of the nation, which in some sense echoes with the opening scene of Hello, It’s Me.

pomegranatesGenerally, after the events of 1965 details hinting at the Genocide can be noticed in numerous films (even if the films are not related to the Genocide). A memorable example is Gaspar’s (Mher Mkrtchyan) salvation story in Triangle (Yerankyuni, 1967) by Henrik Malyan, another notable film of that era. Yet more compelling and innovative is the film’s final scene, when singer Ruben Matevosyan, playing a soldier leaving for the war at a railway station, accompanied by other young men and their parents, cheerfully performs the national-patriotic song “Wake Up, Lao,” which incidentally was banned at the time. This is a typical move for Malyan, who—without breaking the integrity and focus of the film—manages to interweave national and, in some sense, anti-Soviet elements into a specifically socialist-realist situation in a single scene. Matevosyan sings a patriotic song, yet he does so while marching to join the Red Army in the fight against the Nazis.

There is also a moment in Sergei Parajanov’s famous The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova, 1968) where the ingenious director not only creates a powerful image for the Genocide, but also for the persecution of Armenian people in general. A rider in Mongolian clothes enters a church while still on his horse. He approaches the icon, releases an arrow that smashes the icon into pieces.

Since 1965 the theme of Genocide seems to have been injected into Armenian identity, and today it is frankly impossible to imagine an Armenian without thinking of the Genocide issue.

Armen Shakhkyan

Galstyan, Siranush. 2011. [A Look at Our Cinema: The History and Present Times.] Yerevan.

Armen Shakhkyan © 2016

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