Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 09/29/2013

So You Want to Be a Toastmaster?
(Or Whats da matta, Damata?)

    Toastmaster (2013)
    Directed and written by Eric Boadella
    Produced by Martin Yernazian & Eric Boadella
	     Atorrante Films & Reversal Productions

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 29, 2013

By Bedros Afeyan

Might as well ask: So you want to be an adult male Armenian? For which
of us can escape the challenge of being a gregarious host, master of
ceremonies, Johnny on the spot entertainer, when called upon by
tradition, dates and events, relatives and loved ones, demanding a
prolonged chain, seemingly endless, of self-avoiding, lyrical toasts, a
troubadour's troubled soul spilled forth with slicked back wine, cognac,
whiskey, glass half full, half empty, tug of war, that is ours to bear
for millennia, if not more?

Who can resist the reputation, real or imagined, cultivated, inflated,
dreamt or insisted on, of being wise beyond years, witty beyond words,
handsome beyond hooked noses, smallness of statures, roughness of
features and solid virility beyond stages of imbibing poisons, treated
as if aphrodisiacs and trampolines for love to flourish in all the odd
familiar places...? Who can ever have said that his last poetic toast
was worse than his first, his own words betraying a dullness of mind,
spirit, spring in his step gone loose, gone soft, gone gravy while the
meat and song dance alone beneath the lights, with nobody home?

No, no Armenian male could endure such a fate. He must at least be able
to fake it. Stand up, look bright, speak loudly, Drink and bang his
empty glass. Rise above the petty jealousies and misunderstandings and
accusations and retributions that make for community itchy living, for
that moment of rhetorical cleansing and covering and shimmering beauty
to emerge under the dark cloud of fate and humorless enemies whose
existence, no one denies.

Yes, that is what it means to be a toastmaster for Armenians. Its
serious business. It is grabbing fate by its balls and squeezing till
your voice is heard and your demands placed on the story telling of
reality granted, which reality itself has and will always reverse. This
duality or the right to take make up tests is what has kept us going one
calamity after another, one large gaping hole in our culture after the
other, tearing us apart and tearing us within, but failing in the long
run, after the ceremony is done. Glasses raised, gliding wishes immersed
in their neighbor's bosom, wanting nothing more than the honor of
rewriting fate itself in colors red, blue and orange, with draping
damsels dancing, delicate fingers interlaced, across rivers and brooks,
where clear options are dealt and clean living upheld.

That is the Armenian way. But how does it move from village to town,
from town to city, century upon century, war, criminalized
dictatorships, empires, secret police, genocide, demonization,
rejection, constant deflation not withstanding? I tell you how. You
render sacred your one right, and one right alone. The one without which
all other bets are off. Your right to tell your story as best you can
render it, and to rejoice in the telling of it, the drinking of it, the
dancing of it, and the singing of it with brothers and sisters, lifting
glasses saying "Genats't or Genatsnout." To your essence, to your state
of being alive (in the singular or the plural). To you and to you, oh,
brother Armenian, lost to the mainstream of history. Relegated to
footnotes and attics, hidden compartments and underground caverns of
worship and wisdom, from Khorenatsi onward, telling stories that mean
the world to us as keys and locks and lockets, and perhaps mean very
little to the other, the odar, the misbegotten Armenian wanna be's, the
world is surely full of.

So with bombast and fervor, with an arsenal of verbal spices and
psychological nuances, with seduction and with sermons, squeezing the
world into a question, rolled down Mt. Ararat for solid acceleration,
steam picked up through diction, we raise our glasses and empty our
fears and concussions, so that one may speak for the many and the many
may speak through the one, called the Damada, the toast master. Part
martyr, part clown, part Jesus, part Socrates, part wine, part bread,
part salt, and always ready for one more glass, one more blessing on the

This tradition is the glue that binds the story in Toastmaster together,
a film by first time feature filmmaker, Eric Boadella of Barcelona, now
living in Venice Beach, CA, surfing and developing his craft in the
strange living multicultural, liberal, no tea party for us, thanks,
crucible that is the harbinger of the features that will grace and
define the future of all America. This happy magic land of California.
He sees Armenians and hears their plight. Lost language, lost rights,
lost souls, last prayers, regrouped in LA, prolonging the decay,
regrouped on the internet, strengthening the natural instinct for
merriment and collective serenity, denied but demanded at each turn, at
each church and school hall. Here ancient rights and remedies are
dispensed to keep a nation of floating caravans of troubadours producing
the best and the brightest, whether in chess or violin, medicine or
research in the highest echelons of perpetual nervousness that leads to
excellence in lone marches up steep hills made steeper by a collective
pain and hollow chest squeezing grins, turned to laughter and dance in
the hands of the toastmaster in evenings that never end and never will.

In an astutely observed gem of a movie that tries far less to explain
and explore, than to sample and adore, I recommend Toastmaster to you.
It is a movie that exposes a culture's inner sanctum and lands on its
(cultural) feet, away from the surety of fate that is the Spanish aura,
away from the sophistication of Western European traditions, towards the
native Armenian male, belonging to no land but a culture, belonging to
no police state, no army, no political corruption machine, but to the
proposition that our wit is unsurpassed, that our voice is graced by
God, that our tone is like the buttery spoils of a virtuosic violin,
that our women bewitch us, just through the power of our own thoughts,
that they bewilder us, just by the feebleness of those same thoughts,
that they beguile us till we turn into guard dogs and pets for them to
stroke and to discard, if cruel gods so demand, or take pity on us and
inflate our egos some and deflate them far more often, thus rendering us
as tough as we may endure to become and still remain poets at heart...

Eric Boadella knows the possibility of this life-long dance played out
on-screen or off, whether in the school hall, over Armenian coffee and
fate/cup readings, or not. Whether in Kapriel himself, or that old
towering man's memory banks, or whether in the camera of his agile
nephew, young Alek, hiding behind the viewfinder of his hand held,
hand-me-down movie camera, laughing at a world with a mere black and
white 35mm jest, a bon mot, a caress. They each have an agenda and the
most important element of each man's agenda is to ignore the others'!
For they are men and they have mountains to climb and seas to cross.
Homer is always nearby to record the journey. Except their journey has a
muse and an angel. A marvelous stroke of genius, in the guise of a
little step sister to Alek, Mariella. She is the bonfire that truly
lights up the screen with her innocence and fractious reflections, her
bold presence and deflections of the male dance the two must engage in,
for they are animals in the wild of another man'a making. It is Mariella
that allows us into this scene and shows us that there is a way out.

Some folks get all absorbed in the drama of others. Armenians tend to do
this too often. But Mariella is an odar. She is innocence and shrewdness
personified. She wants to have fun and to learn and to grow and to
sample and to judge, in short to live. And to live now, today, and not
later, when she is thought to be old enough. Between a bull of an uncle,
an x-opera singer, now drinking, cigar smoking, puffing roaring and
sleep walking. Before the young, fragile, bespectacled, camera-bound
half brother (to be) whose mother will soon marry her father and yet,
here they are in the home of the wedding-uninvited uncle, learning about
the skills and rituals of becoming a toastmaster, with the passing of
the traditional horn-shaped wine cup, brought from the old country, the
generation to generation bounty of belonging, of being an Armenian in
this world of the other, the odar, amidst assimilation leading
temptations aplenty.

But of course, you must ask, can one *become* a toastmaster or an
Armenian for that matter? Must you not be born that way? Born to become
that which is inevitable but that which you can only fathom, if you
think you have free will and full say in the matter, and thus fool
yourself into submission to this thankless fate?

The answer is always yes. Yes, yes, yes, uncle Kapriel, I will make
movies that trivialize you, and trivialize me, and shred away the veils
and vagueries that stop us from trusting one another enough to open up
and embrace our fears and ignorance-driven uneven keels. But through
drink and tradition, wit and exposition, music and the belief in the
story surviving through a culture which is less able to control its
physical fate than the richness of the stories of that culture itself
that lives within us and through us and shines through our eyelids and
out our ears into the echo of the world where it is heard in dreams and
screams and howls of dead bones and blood spilled for the beast that
sees no merit in this tarantella we call Armenian spirit, our stories,
our hymns.

Eric Boadella as writer and director, David Hovan as Kapriel, Sevag
Mahserejian as the young filmmaker Alek, and the wisdom of an angel
packed in a compact serenade, Mariella, played to perfection by Kali
Flanagan, is an ensemble to be congratulated for having engulfed a
tattering storm of stories and made a quiet poem of it, as bright as
daylight and as somber as peaceful night after the toastmaster has said
a final, half-serious, goodbye.

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.

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