My Armenian Cinema
(a personal trip to the Armenian film landscapes of a film professional)
It was year 1999, I have been invited to visit Georgia and Azerbaijan for the first time, as a representative of the IFFR and a curator of this region. Undoubtedly a very impressive and unforgettable trip ahead of me, I thought. When everything was arranged, shortly before my trip, and I was holding a return ticket Amsterdam-Tbilisi-Baku in my hands, I all of a sudden remembered to call an Armenian film critic Susanna Harutunyun, whom I met during the Berlinale a year before for the first time.
I remembered her passionate and proud words about then almost non-existing national cinema and our long discussions about Armenian classics: Parajanov’s and Peleshyans masterpieces. Susanna Harutunyun had been an honorable guest at Berlinale then, the festival treated her with respect as one of the very few experts present from the region at that time.
It was a hard period for Armenia then, shortly after regional wars finished, the country was still in ruins and just re-building its infra-structures. For culture there was no space and money as yet. But little did I know about this. When I called Susanna Harutunyun from our office and as I announced her my trip to the Caucasian region, she insisted that I should visit Yerevan as well.
I promised her I would give her a call when in Tbilisi.
Susanna’s idea just did not leave me alone. As travelling from Tbilisi to Yerevan was impossible at that time (no trains, no plains – just to use a quote of the Dutch filmmaker’s Jos Stelling film), I persuaded my Georgian friends to help me to fulfill this task. A hired old Zhiguli with a Georgian Armenian as driver was their solution. The trip took us eight hours by dusty and bumpy roads (asphalt roads didn’t exist then), two hours check at the border excluding. This was a part of my adventurous film research in those times. The beautiful landscapes with hills, meadows, cows and every now and then men with guns in uniforms are still engraved in my memory.
Once in Yerevan, I was embraced by warmth and hospitality of my hosts at the Ministry of Culture – Susanna Harutunyun and Mikhail Stamboltsyan. Ministry was a sad and a shabby place then, it took my hosts some time to find some coffee to treat me, water was boiled with an electric wire put into a glass cup (as I remembered it from my youth). On the walls of the office, there were posters of the IFFR connected with the visit of Parajanov at our festival in 1989!
A connection had been made. This connection has been growing and strengthening since then, in many ways. Yerevan and Armenia were definitely put on the map of IFF Rotterdam’s research interest, even though the film industry did not actually exist.
Some years later, I had an honor to be a part of the international documentary jury at Karlovy Vary IFFR in Czech Republic. One of the awards of our international jury went to the Armenian film Documentarist by Harutyun Kchachatryan. It was a pleasure for us all to meet the director personally as in those times to see a film from Armenia and to meet its director was still very special. Another connection with Armenia has been made, and these two connections have merged in a special professional one some times later. It happened in Yerevan.
The prominent Dutch film critic Peter van Bueren and I became one of the first members of the international jury of the Armenian Panorama at the very first Golden Apricot International Film Festival. The year was 2004, the city has been enormously changed, almost unrecognizable! It was just great to see its recovery and to come here for the second time, this time for real.
Armenia was definitely put back on the map of the international film industry thanks to this festival, as the organizers of the GAIFF (film director Harutyun Khachatryan and the film critics Susanna Harutunyun and Mikayel Stamboltsyan) have rightly felt and understood the good timing for organizing it. They did rightly understood that it was impossible to attract the professionals from the international film industry to come to Armenia only because of the Armenian film production that was still quite low in quantity and, let’s be very honest – of not a high quality. One could felt a sort of post-Soviet vacuum in idea’s and their formal presentation as well. The only exceptions were films of Harutyun Khachatryan that were receiving prizes all over the world for its high artistic quality and a specific author’s look at the world. It were his films that started opening doors of the Armenian film culture again
During its six years of existence, the GAIFF has attracted many important and famous people from the world film industry to come, visit or work for it. Who would not be impressed by names like Atom Egoyan, Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Zanussi, Nikita Mikhalkov, Simon Field, Deborah Young, Yesim Ustaoglu, Bruno Dumont, Leos Carax, Ulrich Seidl, Catherine Breillat and many more? What more: festival has taken upon itself a role of promoting the growth of Armenian cinema and educating a new generation of not only Armenian film directors but from the neighbouring countries as well. The latter in the form of the workshops Directors Across the Borders. As a film industry professional myself, I must honestly tell you that both tasks are not so obvious and certainly not easy to fulfil.
Presenting your own national cinema at the international film festival can be done either in a side bar programme, or including one of the films in its international competition. But if we look at international festivals in many countries – they mostly have their separate national film production festivals for promoting films for the outside world. There is almost a non-existing selection, as all production: from documentaries to shorts, films and even TV productions are often showcased altogether. As Armenia obviously does not have quantitatively and qualitatively strong film production until now, and also because of the financial reasons, there is no national film festival in the country (in the Netherlands we have got Netherlands Film Festival organised each year in September).
If there is no national film festival, people automatically expect that this gap should be filled in by international film festivals. This situation is similar in many post-communist countries that still don’t have them and there is no existing body representing national film production either. International festivals often take over this role. As the selection of the films inevitably depends on the artistic vision of the festival, it also often brings about unnecessary disputes and frustrations. The International FF Rotterdam has a concept of showing a few Dutch films in a side bar programme called Dutch treats and if a film achieves high international standards and is strong enough to compete internationally, then we include it into our Tiger Award Competition.
There are many festivals growing like mushrooms almost every month all over the world these days. Those many festivals have different functions and their own dramaturgy. Many of them are used for promoting a town or a region. Yerevan’s GAIFF is one of those that are on good path. It is fulfilling a few of most important tasks that an international festival like this should do: it puts Armenia back to the film industry world map, it promotes national film industry outside of the country and it brings important films, film directors and film professionals from the contemporary world cinema to Armenia. This all is also very important for the Armenian filmmakers as not all of them can effort to travel. At least in this way they can see the latest developments in the contemporary world cinema. And let’s hope that the festival will be also able to continue to support the development of young talents during the DAB workshops.
Last but not least: Yerevan’s GAIFF attracts representatives from the European and world film funds who come there each year during the festival in search of new projects and new regional talent. As a representative of the IFFR’s Hubert Bals Fund that supports film production from South America, Asia and Africa, I have been presenting our fund every time when I came to Yerevan and it was certainly very useful. A personal contact with Armenian, Georgian, Turkish and Iranian filmmakers and explanation how our (and other funds) works brought its fruits in the past six years. It resulted in support of some Armenian (but also international) film projects.
My last visit at the GAIFF in Yerevan was in 2009 when I was a part of the team for the DAB workshop, working with young filmmakers from the region on their projects.
On one side it was very encouraging, as we have met many new, enthusiastic young filmmakers who are literally hungry to shoot their films, to see their projects come to existence. As I have understood from them, the situation in Armenian film industry is far from rosy for young filmmakers, as there is no interest and no official support for them whatsoever. No existing national film fund and when there is some money, it is certainly not given to the upcoming talent. I did realise that this was true when during the three days of the workshop not a single one representative from the Ministry of Culture or any Armenian production house (nor state, neither a private one) or a fund showed up. Then I sadly realised: a new talent is here, international experts come from far away – but it all is ignored by the domestic decision makers.
This is a children illness of our post-communist region. Armenia is not any exception. And often it’s also true: the smaller the country is, the more is it split, the more fights, jealousy and misunderstanding there is. But there are also a few good examples: let’s have a look at Estonia, Slovenia, or Bosnia. There they put their efforts and energies together and with or without help of international festivals that they started there, they revived their own film industry, they offered chances to their own young talents and nowadays are known all over the world. Thanks to their new films by talented young filmmakers.
Many new waves of young filmmakers have appeared in the last two decades from the Eastern Europe, let’s mention the most important of them: the Romania New Wave. But also the Czech one, the Hungarian one, or recently appearing Polish or Georgian generations of young filmmakers. I am convinced that there are a few birds that bring the spring in the young Armenian cinema as well. It will take some time and effort to see their films conquering the international arena but because there is a potential, there is a hope as well. This also thanks to the GAIFF. Dear Armenians and Yerevanis, be proud of your great festival! I myself am proud of it too.
Rotterdam International Film Festival Programmer