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Compressing Time, Expanding Horizons:
The Armenian Film Festival of San Francisco in February 2004

Armenian News Network / Groong
March 1, 2004

by Bedros Afeyan


A MAGNIFICENT FEAT

Three talented and relentlessly driven curators (Anahid Kassabian,
Thea Farhadian and Hrayr Anmahouni) together with seventeen Armenian
Film Festival (AFF) committee members and nine tireless volunteers,
pulled off an amazing feat after two years of struggle, in a span of
three days, February 20-22, 2004, here in San Francisco. They managed
to present on the big screen, in a lovely venue (Delancey Street
Theater, 600 Embarcadero) a wide variety of authentic and compelling
faces, voices and spirits of Armenians and Armenianness through the
medium of mostly experimental and independently produced cinema.
Whether it be in Eastern or Western Armenian dialects, French, English
or a variety of other wafting linguistic interjections and impositions,
here we were, in the flesh, dancing and twirling in the overarching
worlds of odars, Ararad, Beirut, dolma, New Jersey, zurna, Fresno,
intimate living rooms and even more intimate kitchens, LA, prisons,
Karabagh, churches, Paris, monasteries, Yerevan, ruins, Gyumri, music
halls, New York, bedrooms, Toronto, mental health centers, Milano,
court rooms-- with loss, lament, rejoicing, singing, bragging,
doubting and celebrating our diversity, enveloping the
proceedings. The San Francisco Armenian film festival (SF AFF) was an
unqualified success and packed full houses all throughout its length.

The experience was overwhelming, simply overwhelming. Upon reflection,
the effusion of positive or validating emotions one felt while sitting
through these multifaceted yet eerily intertwined manifestations of
Our world, led to the realization that culture lives only if it
diversifies, just as Darwin insisted is the case with biological
living creatures. Cultural fragmentations and diffusion, expansion and
boundless spreading represent the necessary avenues for survival and
cultural replenishment. For the future of Armenians, death would
follow strict ultra conservatism in taste and behavior. When we hear
only Gomidas, only Barouyr Sevag, only Khatachadourian and only
Saroyan or Paradjanov, we should know that the end is near. And yet,
if we are served up this human circus of sometimes bizarre and unique
acts of courage and vision, drive and perseverance to state our case,
show our plight, sing our songs and heave with pride, then that
diversity ensures that we are here, we shall stay on and still
multiply, as the poet Barouyr Sevag said some time ago...

In one evening and two whole days (an entire weekend, in short),
thirty-two films were shown with four minute to feature length ones
interlaced in sequences of two to two and a half hour units, separated
by short breaks which were never enough! But how could one step away
from this parade of national panorama for too long? The precision of
the sculpting of the program in the hands of the able curators cannot
be praised enough. This meta-editing that they did of fitting and
forming film super structures resonating and enhancing each others'
points of view by contrast and reinforcement, by comparison and
dissimilarity, by pushing and pulling our skirts and our thoughts to
reveal the essence of who we are, who we are becoming and how our
dreams and visions measure up against our realities, was superb. Yes,
the genocide was there, the Lebanese civil war was there, the 1988
earthquake in Armenia was there, assimilation and justification of
American ambivalence in identity and ethnicity were there in spades,
but so was our core which came through with such dignity and class,
with such purity and motive force, that all you could do is marvel at
how nontrivial and complicated our poor enclaves of indigenous
civilization happen to be and how much fun to see it on display on the
big screen without the stereotypes of Hollywood or other concomitant
degradations and trivializations.

Even badly lit, grainy, slow paced, very low production values
suffering gems were a delight. Perhaps alone, they would not have been
as appealing, but shored up by their rag tag cousins and comrades,
these films could only enforce the notion that we should be looking to
tell our stories beyond the long shadows of the pillars of our
mainstream culture. I mean those sure fire, tried and true elements we
tend to cling to steadfastly. We have new music and old musicians, we
have avant-garde experimentalists (Kathy Berberian, for instance) and
champions, criminal defense lawyers who shatter engrained and racist
American injustice, duduk players who sing as birds and fly as kites
through the ages of our past, enshrined monasteries and a cappella
haunting waves of sound which lead the cameras in and out of where our
ancestors have been, beckoning for our return and our respect.
Diversity of views and venues made the ensemble of these movies a
breathtaking validation of our stirring pot of vibrant, multifaceted
national or ethnic verve and vivaciousness, coming through, together
with the sorrow, the suspiciousness, the doubt and the heaviness of
heart that comes from Soviet living in Yerevan, earthquake in Gyumri,
civil war in Lebanon, war of liberation in Karabagh, and a Turkish
perpetrated genocide still actively denied.

The actual movie titles and credits are listed on the web site
www.armenianfilmfestival.org. Please take a look! Also, if you plan on
seeing how you can bring this festival to your neck of the woods,
please contact one or more of the curators at their e-mail addresses:
AnahidKassabian@yahoo.com, thea_ny@yahoo.com, and ehrayr@yahoo.com.

It would be a shame if the grand efforts made by this team of
dedicated Armenian movie enthusiasts, who put this festival together,
were to not become the bounty of every Armenian community from Buenos
Aires, to Beirut, Los Angeles to Paris, Athens and London, by way of
NJ, NY, MA, MI, PA, Toronto and Montreal, and yes, Yerevan. All cities
that have major Armenian communities ought to look into repeating what
was done in San Francisco with such enthusiastic success in February
2004. The hard work is done. A program exists, the movies and the
logistics of securing copies also exist. The rest is in the hands of
non-traditional Armenian cultural event organizers everywhere. And no,
watching video versions does not come close to the experience one
gains in a movie house with the big screen, the dark room and the
attention of all those paying a fortune for parking outside and baby
sitters at home.


HIGHLIGHTS OF 32 FLAVORS OF ARMENIANNESS

Here, I would like to elaborate further on the movies that touched me
the most. This is not to say that the rest are somehow inferior or
irrelevant. It's just that these few penetrated deeper and stayed
longer in my consciousness well after the three day steady dose of
delights that the SF AFF made possible.

The festival began with a French animated short, Ligne de Vie
(Lifeline), by Sergei Avedikian, 12 min., which depicts imprisonment,
anguish, man's inhumanity to man, in gouache colors and very simple
sound effects, bringing you down to the level of the struggle to be,
to create, to excel and not be shot or shut down. Alas, in this case,
the newly arrived free spirit in this prison is soon hung from the
prison yard after his hands are cut off and he still continues to try
and draw with his stumps. He is killed just because he sketches and
expresses himself in prison and does not give up on his identity and
his aspirations. The movie is spectacular because it depicts what we
may go through internally to maintain our spirits and identities while
pressures and forces external to us attempt to crush us or make
uniform jelly out of us. Except here, in this movie, external events
and punishments, physical abuse and imprisonment are used as metaphors
for the inner struggle of the artist or the free thinker or the
unshackled spirit in all of us. This is a strong and wonderful 35 mm
work, which was made in 2002.

The festival ended with yet another 35 mm work from 2002, a French
feature length film, Aram, by Robert Kechichian. This was by far the
most mainstream and wide audience appeal seeking movie of the festival
which also made its American debut. It is the story of a freedom
fighter, Aram, his soon to marry an odar and embark on the road of
possible assimilation sister, Meline', and his Turkish bullet
paralyzed brother, Levon. The story has Aram wanting to relinquish his
violent past, stop his involvement in Karabagh's continuing struggle
for independence and try and make a peaceful life for himself back in
France. Alas, Levon does not allow this, becomes wounded in an
assassination attempt of a high level Turkish general heading the grey
wolves, and leads Aram on the path of revenge, self examination,
confrontation with his father (who disapproves of his immersion in
violence) and eventual return (or exile) to karabagh after he succeeds
to take care of business in Paris. This is a movie where Armenians are
cock sure, know what they want and get what they need. It is not about
Armenians with heads bowed, as the director himself explained after
the screening. Armenians are in charge of their fate in this movie and
they never lose that. The Turkish war machine cannot overpower a
determined cadre of freedom fighters who are smuggling arms into
Karabagh for its war of liberation and otherwise are not taking their
plight sitting down. It is a study of what violence leads to in this
world, its intended and unintended consequences, its humanizing and
dehumanizing elements and inevitabilities. The movie is slick and very
French, in its point of view, as the director insisted it was, in his
Q&A after the screening.  He was met with much applause!

The consequences of violence again play a significant role in the two
`sister' movies, The Pink Elephant, 30 minute video from 1987, by Ara
Madzounian and Nigol Bezjian's Roads Full of Apricots, 35 minute video
from 2001. The scene is Beirut during and after the civil war. In the
Pink Elephant, a theatrical piece is being rehearsed by this troupe
while bombs steadily fall closer and closer, till the players run down
to the basement make shift bomb shelter. They converse and try and
decide whether they can continue, what theater's role is at times like
these, what chances a rumored cease fire has of taking hold, what
makes people behave the way they do and so on. It is a wonderful mood
piece with extravagantly well thought out corners, shades and
details. Shot darker than necessary, Madzunian makes the mood more
somber in contrast to the vibrant, youthful sexy exterior facades of
the nervous actors.  The movie also employs a juxtaposed collage of
stills from the war accompanying the sounds of dropping bombs
proclaiming impending doom in no uncertain terms. It is a UCLA film
school thesis work by a young Madzounian holding much promise.

The newer update on this theme has a strong voice over element.  In
the Road full of Apricots, there are scanned shots of a set of
apricots intercutting Lebanese civil war video and still photos and
this Lebanese woman's return home from a stint in LA. She wants to be
home and we hear her depicting changes, laments, memories, old lovers,
food smells and food preparation rituals that she can still enjoy and
all the longing of a chicken who returns to her hen house to find her
nest trampled and her eggs spilled by the way side. Meanwhile, slow
camera strokes visit the picture of a few fresh off the vine apricots,
which measure dreams and unqualified pleasure no longer attainable in
this milieu. You could easily say that these are anti-war, war is
absurd, look at this mess proclaiming movies from the Middle Eastern
Armenian point of view.

Moving to Armenia, there were some gems at this festival. Duduk,
Musicians and Prison Art, are three documentaries with great depth and
perceptive essence. Duduk was by far my favorite. It was extremely
humorous and touching at the same time. It is a 50 minute video from
2002 by Vardan Hakopian, which has Djivan Gasparyan as its superstar
(he is the world renown musician you can hear, for instance, in the
movie The Passion of the Christ, with Dle' Yaman and other Armenian
fare draped above the Arameic background). But even Djivan with his
imperial ways is overshadowed in this movie by the large number of
working duduk players who feel and exude great pride towards their art
and their own (non-superstar) lives. The sense of humor is very
strongly honed and ever present. The rivalries, ribbing, teasing,
bargaining, and finally playing the duduk and other instruments at
weddings, funerals, wakes, and pseudo-pagan rituals (Diar'ntarach,
Vartevar, etc.) still practiced in Armenia. All this is precious and
vintage Armenian folklore preserved for our eyes and ears to feast
upon.

Prison Art is a masterpiece in its own right. Gennady Melkonyan and
Garegin Zakoyan's twenty-six minute video is from 1998. In a remote
setting, there is a maximum security prison where murderers and other
extreme offenders are barb wired in with guarded high towers
overlooking the prison yard. Mountains are distant backdrops and the
scenery is beautiful except these head shaved inmates are going
nowhere.  Despite their diminishing options, they somehow participate
in the creation of mostly religious relic art! They make crosses and
rosaries, statues and paintings and in miniature too. Some of these
are beautiful indeed. You would not know by looking at these poor
folks that they would have it in them to literally knead breadcrumbs
to such giant works of self-expression. The human condition, flawed,
broken and deliberated still finds shades of hope and commitment in
the strangest of settings.

By far my favorite movie of the entire festival was The Land of Holy
Rites, 62 min., 35 mm, 2002, by Edgar Baghdasaryan, which has no
dialog at all. This is a work of true cinema with emotions, story
line, point of view and even history lesson all rolled into one. It is
simply beautiful. The film narrative traverses Athens to Jerusalem to
Rome to Armenia to Karabagh to Armenia again, to ancient monasteries,
to time lapse photography, to clouds carrying the sorrows of these
ruins away, to rain washing their shiny facades, as the sun rising
again and calming the natural order until it becomes a quiet
lullaby. This is a movie to behold! Its music is potent, its
juxtapositions and interlaced images make you see the connections in
our past and their ties to our possible future. I cannot stress enough
how powerful this film is as a cinematic experience, all on its own,
and as an emotional probe for every Armenian's soul. If nothing else,
find and see this movie, preferably on the big screen.

I should say that there were a number of experimental works and quite
daring attempts at forging movie grammar, Armenian style. Here I would
single out a 13 minute piece by Diane Hakobyan from Armenia which is
provocative and appealing. A woman questions the roles society might
expect her to play by finger painting leading questions on a
transparent vertical board from the other side of which the camera
looks on. Once the question is posed, a set of fast intercut images
portray what a yes answer might look like, as if asking back, is this
really what you mean, or want? Another experimental avant guard work
is Hrayr Anmahouni's 25 min. visual contemplation that ends up
blurring and unblurring images and scenes of a hip-hop-esque version
of Vahe Oshagan's reading of his own poem, Tebi Gyank (towards life).

There are also two very important documentaries in this collection,
one by Sevan Matossian, 84 min., video, 2002, called Our House and the
other by Roxanne Makasdjian Bezjian, 58 min., video, 1992, entitled,
Charles Garry: Street Fighter in Our Courtroom. The first depicts a
half way home for retarded and handicapped patients who are in a tough
spot since they are not wards of the state (they have not been
declared mentally incompetent, and you wonder why not), but are not
quite abele to be all there either. Their plight is moving, their
progress slow and intermittent, their frequent failures, touching. All
this is very carefully chronicled by a very young and up and coming
documentary filmmaker, Mr Matossian.  Ms. Makasdjian's movie is an
homage to a larger than life Quixotic warrior in our courts (from the
fifties until his death in 1991 when he was in his eighties), a
Mr. Charles Garabedian who found it easier going through his adult
life calling himself Charles Garry, after years of discrimination and
injustice he witnessed as an Armenian in Fresno.  Mr. Garry defended
notorious criminals and innocent revolutionaries and changed much of
what was accepted legal practice in California, Connecticut and
elsewhere via his numerous landmark victories, such as in the cases of
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale of the (Oakland, CA) Black Panthers
movement. This too is a student film but it is wonderful in its
thorough journalistic rigor and pounding clarity. Mr. Garabedian comes
across as a complex and driven man, who used his Armenian background
and experience to better the lot of all Americans ill-treated by our
criminal justice system. That kind of catharsis is rare and very much
worth noting, as Roxanne does in her film.


SUGGESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE AND CONCLUSIONS

What can you do to have a go at acquiring the means of screening this
kind of cinematic embarras de richesse in your community? I would
suggest contacting the curators, their e-mails were given above, and
telling them just how many hours and screens you want to plan for. I
would suggest making sure that there is adequate time for dinner and
breaks and the steadfast belief that the audience will want to see it
all. You can expect full houses and you can expect an appreciative
attentive audience, if San Francisco is any measure. But before
shelling out one or two thousand dollars per hour long (or more) 35mm
film, with insurance, and shipping and so on, you should select the
number of such movies you can show and still have a captive audience
on a long weekend, say, soaking it all up. You can separate the
sessions enough to have Q&A after every session and to have the
directors at hand to discuss their projects with the public in a
leisurely manner.  We had the luxury of having half a dozen or more of
the directors here, for instance, and they were certainly ready and
eager to mingle and share their visions beyond the small number of
Q&A's that were part of the scheduled program.

The AFF idea must take root wherever it can. A repeat is scheduled for
New York City in April. Stay tuned for more news on that and start
beating the drums wherever you are: the duduks and zurnas, the
monasteries and Mt. Ararad could be coming your way and searing your
memory with the panorama of Armenianness, whether it be by way of
lesbians, prisoners, war victims, deaf mutes, musicians, freedom
fighters, dancers, proud and potent or ambivalent and self-justifying
in their assimilation, and everything in between, all there to sample
and digest in your town's very own Armenian Film Festival. The number
of significant Armenian movies not included in this festival is at
least four (perhaps up to ten) times as large as the number shown. So
you should expect future SF AFF's and more work for future tireless
curators to mold sequences and ensembles out of these disparate clime
fruits. And remember, they will need your vital support to keep up the
good work.


--
Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found
on his personal web pages at: http://208.177.152.139/

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