Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 05/26/2015

CinemaArmenia, San Francisco, CA May 15-17: A Review

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 26, 2015

By Bedros Afeyan

CinemaArmenia -- a special showcase of contemporary Armenian films,
was a smashing success. CinemaArmenia was produced by Serge Bakalian.
The joy of curating the films was ably handled by Peter Ajemian,
Garbis and Silva Baghdassarian, Serge Bakalian and Luska Khalapyan. It
was a Mid-May bookend to the San Francisco Bay Area Armenian Genocide
Centennial Commemoration events that started early in April.

An amazing array of films had been assembled anchored by the superb
and stunning work by Fatih Akin, who is a German, award winning
director of Turkish descent. "The Cut," his newest movie was made in
2014. This is the powerful saga of one man's quest to be reunited with
the reputedly only surviving members of his immediate family; in this
case, his twin daughters. His saga starts in Mardin, Western Armenia,
or Cilicia, from whence he is forcibly taken to "join the Ottoman
Army" in work battalions, before being prepared for execution, a year
into forced harsh labor, building roads for the Turkish war machine.

Western Armenia had been under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire for over
500 years by then. It is 1915 and the movie treks along Mr. Nazaret
Manougian, the blacksmith's journey until its logical end in Ruso,
Idaho, in the US, in 1923. An eight year quest that feels more like
eight hundred years worth of toil and deadly peril, due to the number
of calamitous events bayonetting the history of our protagonist and
his family during the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923. This first
Genocide of the Twentieth century was perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks
(and Young Turks of the Union and Progress party who usurped the power
of the Sultan, only to end up more bloody and more systematically
violent than the sick man of Europe himself) in the waning years of
their crumbling empire.  The misfortunes that accompany the
protagonist of The Cut and those he witnesses upon his family and
countrymen, is very hard to watch. But beautifully and courageously
filmed, framed and presented.  The Cut is not for the faint of
heart. These are horrific times and horrific stories. There is death,
cruelty, barbarism, systematic mob ferocity, and yet, for all that,
pity and charity here and there, luck and inventiveness, fortune,
humor and resolve to finally find a sibling, to cross oceans and seas,
continents and languages, while being held to silence due to a knife
wound to the throat, which ironically saved his life (his throat could
have been cut end to end instead).

Mr. Akin has a very keen eye and a very sure hand with his camera. His
technical mastery of lighting and staging is such minimalist in
construction and yet maximally effective as to be a wonder to watch in
The Cut (twice, in my case).  He works with few actors but achieves
epic proportions. He never diminishes the realities nor falls victim
to over-sentimentalized melodrama. These are atrocious acts by
barbarians, which many in Turkey and its blind allies have to come to
grips with even today. Mr. Akin as a Turkish filmmaker finely draws a
comprehensive picture of the inhumanity his ancestors were willing to
exercise against millions of their Ottoman co-citizens, in this case,
the Christian Armenians and Assyrians and Greeks, to name a few.

Through his eyes and his Odyssey, Nazaret Manougian is portrayed with
throat slit, his daughters' hand-knit-inscribed handkerchief there to
protect him against the harshest of desert elements and to cover up
and hide his pilgrimage to Jerusalem cross-tattoo on his wrist. He
crosses Cilicia to Ras-Al-Ain, a central depository of hundreds of
thousands of Armenian women and children who were forcibly deported
and sent on death marches to the Syrian desert. Then Nazaret is led on
to Aleppo to find them, and then Beirut, and then Havana, Cuba, always
a step behind his daughters, then Minnesota via Florida and finally,
Idaho in the dead of winter, and one surviving limping daughter now
past her teenage years, to embrace in silence, and to never leave

>From marauding Kurds and irregular, armed bandits who are repeat
rapists and thieves, to army soldiers organizing the mass murder of
men during or after a year or two of hard labor, and the death marches
of the old and young men and all women to the Syrian desert, this is
the story of the Armenian Genocide Turkey brazenly and shamelessly
denies even today.

Fatih Akin shows us in The Cut how Arabs helped, and even a bashibozuk
Turk (condemned Turkish prisoners released from maximum security
prisons to loot, maim and kill Armenians) spared Nazaret's life saying
"I was a thief, I got caught and sent to prison, but I have never
killed a man. I will not start now." The deserters, the trains, the
caravans of the near dead, starving and dying of thirst, year after
year, till it was all done, we are shown in great stark clarity. The
news of daughters having been taken to orphanages, the trek to Beirut
and then picture brides to Havana, rejection due to the foot injury of
one daughter, limping, hopeless... Then on to factories in Minnesota,
and finally to Idaho. A father and a daughter, one of a twin pair, 8
year survivors both, unite and share their tears.

How hard is it to watch this world-blazing arc of a spun culture into
oblivion, but not quite! Our survival and the survival of our culture
is miraculous and on display in this epic film. There are no
soft-punches here. It is brutal and honest, careful and thorough. Akin
wants to do in film what Turkish society one day will itself do:
Recognize its culpability, stop deifying the young Turks or Ottomans,
stop wiping clean their history and their conscience and accept the
filthy truth of their past. Then healing can commence and all
survivors, abductors and abductees can begin the long road to

			    *  *  *  *  *

"Born in Adana" is a short documentary made by David Hovan in 2014. It
is a poetic gem in sparsity and potency. Never has a 93 year old uncle
of the filmmaker spoken so eloquently and sparingly of his own father,
a parish priest who was a victim and a survivor of the Armenian
Genocide from the city of Dikranagerd. Turks call that region of
historical Armenia, Diyarbakir. His trek to the Syrian desert,
crossing it to Aleppo and then being shorn off to Adana which is not
next door at all, explains why the now 93 year old deacon had to have
been born in a strange city which was for a while a French
protectorate after the first world war, giving Armenians a chance to
escape to other regions of the middle east before the Turks caught up
with them once again. The short gem is a recounting of a harrowing
trip into hell, covering priest's beard with head dress, to hide among
women, train stolen rides, wives separated and reunited, condemnation
to death by hanging for having shared food with deportees and death
marchers, but escape, at the last second.

Over and over again, in each of our surviving families, the same
horrors are told and retold till our senses become much too sharp and
rugged from the wear and tear of Armenian history and its cruel
buzzsaw. This priest [parish priests have to be married, in the
Armenian Apostolic church. Celibate priests instead live monastic
lives and do not deal with the domestic day to day concerns of
parishioners. This makes sense since family issues as opposed to
scholastic issues of Christian philosophy and doctrine, are best
handled by those who live among the people with their families. The
parish priest makes it to Beirut and becomes the chief pastor of the
Central (West) Beirut flock of Sourp N'shan, Holy Sign, in downtown
Beirut from 1935-1945. At that same church from 1969 to 1975, I sang
with my brothers as acolytes every Sunday for a 3-4 hours long, rich
mass sung to this day in ancient (formal) Armenian.

David Hovan has assembled wonderful footage to bring this Dikranagerd
to Beirut journey alive. He presents his grandfather as the heroic
community leader he was in Dikranagerd, their ancestral homeland, in
Adana, where he was exiled and where he reopened the Armenian church
and performed its first mass after the genocide, and in Beirut where
the entire Armenian population of the city came out for his cortege
and burial in 1945.

			    *  *  *  *  *

A much longer French documentary we were served up was called-
Armenian Genocide: 100 Years Later, produced by Nicolas Jallot,
2014. This is a very comprehensive look at the history from various
points of view including very important Turkish ones. Armenians,
Turks, Kurds, lawyers, journalists, forcibly converted (Turkified)
Diyarbekir Armenians and Genocide Historians of Turkish and Armenian
descent speak, remember, retransmit what has been learned from parents
and grandparents and ample archival evidence. They bring alive the
stark truth about the hidden past of Ottoman Turkey. In a potent
twist, a very important voice of this documentary is the grandson of
Djemal Pasha, one of the three leaders of the young Turks, responsible
for what befell the Armenian nation. The grandson recognizes and
explains how plain it is that what transpired was genocide, no ifs,
whens or buts about it.  This eminent Turkish journalist apparently
lost his job as a result of his frankness...

			    *  *  *  *  *

Two more documentaries were of very high value artistically and
historically. One was Saroyanland by Lusin Dink, 2013 and the other
was Orphans of the Genocide by Bared Maronian, 2014. The former is an
ode to the trip William Saroyan took in the 60's to Armenia and to
Western Armenia or Anatolia and to Bitlis in particular, where his
ancestors lived for centuries. This 1964 trip is reenacted and
retraced by an actor with a handlebar mustache, a fedora hat and a
trench coat, just as Saroyan looked at the time. His words are recited
in English and in Armenian. His large booming presence is felt. And
modern day Turkey is seen traversed in an old American vintage car as
the one Saroyan would have used back in 1964. It is poetry to watch
the grass, the sky, the destroyed churches and animals and children,
and the village Turks, all foreshadowing a strange and ominous past
always in the shadows, a father never known, Fresno, American
exuberance, and this, this smoldering Western Armenia, to be liberated
yet and handed back to its rightful owners, the Armenians.

Orphans of the Genocide is a long piece of patchwork stories of
Lebanese, Canadian, Danish and other orphanages which saved the lives
of hundreds of thousands of orphans throughout the perilous period
during and immediately following the Armenian Genocide. Whether it is
the Georgetown boys of Ontario, Canada, or the forcible Turkification
sites in Lebanon, such as Ain Toura, led by no other than that (Ahmet)
Djemal Pasha of Young Turk infamy and infinite shame. They failed,
much Christian charity prevailed, but the horrors those children
suffered is incalculable and murderously criminal, all on the
shoulders of the Turkish state then and now.

			    *  *  *  *  *

A short animated story entitled Barking Island from 2010, made by
Serge Avedikian was also presented. It shows how in 1910, French
scientists taught the Turkish Union and Progress triumvirate how to
get rid of the overpopulation of stray dogs in Istanbul. It was very
successful. 30,000 dogs were rounded up, put on a ship and released on
a small uninhabited island offshore where they subsequently perished
after eating their own dead, making a racket with their howls and
barks all throughout the nights, before succumbing. The film puts
forth the possibility that for the Young Turks, it was only a matter
of time, before they would try this on undesirable populations of
unassimilatable Christian citizens. And they did.

Two other feature length films were presented. One was 1915, a
psychodrama co-directed by Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian,
2015. 1915 the movie is a strange attempt to meld current day protests
and mind sets about Genocide, with mystical (overdramatized) elements
of haunted hallways and theater actresses replaying, resurrecting,
rechannelling symbolically or otherwise, what must have been a tough
choice for some pretty young Armenians to face back in 1915. Convert
to Islam, marry a soldier or a Bey, and save your hide or die with the
rest of them we consider subhuman and to be exterminated masses. Do
you abandon your family and your traditions and your children just to
save your skin? How do you tell stories about a Genocide anyway? Do
you not run the risk of generating a lot of dust and kick up a lot of
noise, only to be left with very little of any depth to show for it?
1915 does just that. Unpraisworthy performances by British accented
theatre owners, Dolma the Musical producers, and Simon Apkarian heavy
handed throughout, with a quasi-British laced, Lebanese, French molten
accent with lisps and all at the brink of incomprehensibility, trying
to direct, over direct, underperform and flop in this mess of a jumble
of a movie with no anchor, no solace, no spine, but lots of aimless,
attention grabbing sparks and fanfare leading to shadows of darkness
to disappear into and vanish in time. There is far less here than
meets the eye, it must be said.

How much effort has gone into making this theater cloistered
story. Here is a dark damp set, actors and their characters at odds
with each other, with the closed circuit TV camera monitoring from the
control room, old fashioned phones that ring in with threats, marchers
and protesters outside, a woman, half-skeletal, quasi-desirable,
phantom like, loved but driven hard by a husband/director, lusted
after by other actors, being stalked by a Turkish officer, in the
story within the story. We hear voices, echoes, mothers, grandmothers,
innocent children, death on the horizon, recreated on a stage, in
protest, in conflict, in a mess of porridge, I would much rather not
witness, let alone be served as nourishment for the day. Whether it is
the ghost of the movie Ararat, with its movie set within a movie set
story construction; Birdman (Or, the unexpected virtue of ignorance),
and its suspenseful theater stage story within a movie, or every
bloody cliche about Armenians and their temper, their manners, as
Saroyan would say, the good or the bad, I leave to you to judge...
This is a failed little attempt to rise above the basecamp of
storytelling about the events of 1915, while trying to also touch upon
what we are going through today as a community, a hundred years
hence. It is a tough task left unrealized despite good intentions that
pepper the claustrophobic confines of 1915, the movie.

			    *  *  *  *  *

We now come to Paradjanov, a film by Olena Fetisova and Serge
Avedikian, 2013, about the giant innovator and dreamer of a new
cinema: Sergei Paradjanov. The genius that was bursting out of Sergei
is well respected and captured in this joyful homage to the victim of
the Soviet political machine, which snuffed out what would surely have
been the 15 most productive years of his brilliant career, by
incarcerating him on trumped up charges. Sergei made a few movies
before that in Russian and Ukrainian languages and themes. Then he was
exiled to a maximum-security prison with the State's hopes that this
kind of hardship would end his life, the artist in the hands of real
criminal overlords. The failure of this outcome was eventually
followed by the resurrection of his career after his release. Now a
broken diabetic middle-aged man, living in a half-stupor in his
parent's house in Tbilisi, with no work or means of income. Here, with
the help of devoted fans of his genius at home and abroad, he made his
ode to Georgia (his native land): Legend of Surinam Castle, he oversaw
the final release of his Armenian masterpiece, Sayat Nova, filmed
before his incarceration now recut by himself. Previous releases had
been in the hands of Soviet film hacks who had destroyed its poetry.
His last film was an Azeri story Ashik Kerib, starring a real life
criminal playing the protagonist, and not a professional actor. The
point is, whenever he could, Sergei Paradjanov broke all the rules. He
adhered to an aesthetic he believed he shared with Tarkovsky and
Pasolini, and pushed the boundaries of visual splendor to trump the
spoken word in cinema, whenever he could.

Paradjanov's genius was the type that overflows at every instance. His
hands and eyes always darting about, making collages, framing,
imagining, twisting, rearranging, rejiggering reality and its cruelty
to the peaceful compelling confines of naked beauty and bursting pride
in the unknown, untouched, unrefined ecstasy of new found love, passion,
lust and climax of life and art. These were not Soviet values. And he
had to be crushed, defenseless against bureaucracy, as he was. But
look how he triumphed, despite his pain and suffering and nave boy
wonder qualities given wings of flight in this movie so dear to every
Armenian, bohemian, bon vivant's heart and a call to true artistic
arms against the tyranny of rules and mediocrity, oh so satisfied by
its putrid stale and soul crushing "order."

CinemaArmenia was a dream weekend for the few hundred strong audience
that filled the hall for the feature length films and sometimes even
for the documentaries. Clearly, there is a strong desire to see high
quality works of art and scholarship, entertainment and informational
bonanzas as this film parade extravaganza was. Kudos to its organizers
and let's hope CinemaArmenia becomes a staple of the Bay Area Armenian
and Odar Cinephile communities for years to come.

Dr. Bedros Afeyan
Pleasanton, CA

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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