Long story for short films: GAIFF Critics Workshop

English Daily #3
Dear Levan and Ani,

As I perused the program for the 20th Golden Apricot International Film Festival, I was struck immediately by the number of regional shorts, most or all of which may never screen in my home country of the United States. It is quite rare to attend film screenings with no prior ideas about the films: Usually I have heard opinions from other critics or have some familiarity with the filmmakers or their national and regional cinemas, but not this time. No one among them has stuck with me, but to say none would rank among my festival favorites would cut the story short.

A festival is more than its films; it’s also the locale and context. As I have walked around Yerevan in recent days, I have fallen in love with its quiet mornings and lively nights, its warm weather and misty breezes, and its inexpensive brandies, which always seem to have been depleted before our arrivals to that night’s party. But I have been just as struck by the proliferation of currency exchange booths and the corresponding demographic transformation attributable to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and other recent crises. My conversations have been with Iranian immigrants, Russian conscientious objectors and Syrian refugees who balk at being called “locals,” not just Armenians. I suppose neither of you would be surprised at this and have seen it happen from your windows in Georgia, but the visible impact on the region is shamefully ignored in the West.

This context colored my viewing of these short films, almost all of which highlight the recent Nagorno-Karabakh War, whose wounds have of course outlasted their coverage in American newspapers. I found myself transforming from film critic to anthropologist, interested in how these films – which included restagings of personal stories (250 km) and depictions of particular events (Stones) – demonstrate the concerns of everyday Armenians.

Yet for all of the richness of Armenian culture visible in the musical performances in the public squares each evening or the quality of the museums, it appears GAIFF is struggling to reach full event status among locals; many daytime screenings don’t even have Armenian subtitles. I was pleased, however, to see strong turnouts for Claire Simon’s Our Body and especially Lois Patiño’s challenging and experimental Samsara – one of the highlights of the festival for me, and I hope for you two as well. Both have triumphed elsewhere on the circuit, and their success here hopefully indicates a coming rejuvenation of cinema culture in the land of Sergei Parajanov and Artavazd Peleshyan. Perhaps in future installments, the regional shorts will satisfy me as rich films rather than simply as anthropological artifacts.

All my best,