Armenian genocide of 1915 examined in pair of films at MFA
Tearsheets: Bo Smith, Film Coordinator, Museum of Fine Arts, 465
Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02115.
Suggested headline: Armenian genocide of 1915 examined in two films at MFA
Written and directed by Don Askarian.
Starring Samvel Ovasapian, Onig
Saadetian, and Margarita Woskanian.
TILLBAKA TILL ARARAT
BACK TO ARARAT
Directed by Pea Holmquist with
Gnoran Gunner, Jim Downing, Suzanne
Khardalian, and Gnoran Gunner.
With Raffy, Ani, Garabed Hovakimian,
and a 92-year old grandmother.
The films will play June 8-9
at the Museum of Fine Arts.
IN ONE OF THE WORST crimes
against humanity of the 20th century, 1.5 million Armenians were brutally
killed and an entire people were forced to leave their land. Two films
playing later this week at the Museum of Fine Arts focus attention on the
long-neglected 1915 genocide and its aftermath.
Komitas is a reserved meditation on the troubled life of the Armenian monk
Soghomon Soghomonian, known as Komitas, who was an internationally known
composer and expert on Armenian folk music. Komitas was devastated by the
horrors of the 1915 massacre and spent the rest of his years in various
The film does not recreate his life or tell his life story in any
conventional sense. Rather, writer-director Don Askarian virtually
eliminates all dialogue to present a series of meticulously crafted images
that are haunting and beautiful in a grotesque, lamenting, and symbolic
way. In one sequence, Askarian's camera enters a monastery and focuses on
religious icons painted on a cracked plaster wall. A minute or two after
rain begins falling outside, streams of water begin to flow down the wall
-- which literally crumbles and dissolves before the camera's unblinking
gaze. Hidden in a compartment behind the wall is a ancient-looking scroll
and a long-necked pitcher filled with a bright blue liquid. In another
sequence, the camera explores a dark room strewn with broken musical
instruments and related paraphernalia. Komitas cowers in the darkest
corner while a swarm of bees buzz around the room.
As these examples show, Askarian's mise-en-scene always strives to
recreate Komitas' psychological state, and for the most part, he is highly
successful. As several critics have pointed out, the film's long tracking
shots, extended takes, and nonlinear construction evoke memories of the
films of Andrei Tarkovsky, while Askarian's use of brilliant colors and
striking imagery recall the supercharged imagination that fueled Sergey
Paradjanov's recent Ashik-Kerib. To be compared with two of the greatest
Soviet film directors of the last quarter century is an extraordinary
achievement. Askarian's accomplishment becomes even more incredible when
one realizes that this is his first full-length feature film.
Because Komitas is a sober and poetic meditation on the life of a tragic
figure and a tragic moment in history, the film obviously does not
function as a conventional film biography of Komitas or any factual
account of the 1915 massacre. That role is fulfilled instead by the
documentary that is being shown afterwards. Back to Ararat is a highly
informative, densely packed, and well-constructed documentary about the
Armenian massacre and various Armenian communities around the world today.
Made by Swedish director Pea Holmquist, the film includes footage from
Armenian communities in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Beirut, Lyon
(France), and Soviet Armenia. Perhaps most importantly, the filmmakers
also traveled through Turkey to photograph Mt. Ararat and to interview the
sole remaining Armenian family in "a small village in Anatolia, somewhere
in Old Armenia." There, the filmmakers found a 92-year-old grandmother who
recounts her memories while warning the filmmakers that "If the police
hear you, they'll take you away. Be wise!"
It is clear that the primary purpose of the documentary is to give
recognition and statement to a terrible tragedy, which few people outside
the Armenian community know or care about. The film succeeds admirably at
fulfilling this task, and because Back to Ararat is probably the first
(and perhaps the only) major documentary to address the events of 1915,
the film is historically important as well.
It is clear that both Komitas and Back to Ararat represent a major step
forward in terms of making the world aware of the Armenian genocide. One
is a highly poetic and artistic, the other solid and informative. Ideally,
these two films should be seen at least a week or two apart, but even so,
the Museum of Fine Arts is to be heartily congratulated for bringing this
excellent double bill to Boston.
However, the film will appeal primarily to Armenian audiences precisely
because of its wholeheartedly Armenian viewpoint. What makes that
viewpoint problematic is that "genocide" is a legal and political term.
While the film informs viewers that the European Parliament recently voted
to recognize the acts of 1915 as genocide, the declaration's narrow margin
(a vote of 68 to 60) is omitted.
Such a small margin underscores that -- from a legal and political point
of view -- the repeated denials of genocide by the Turkish government
create a pressing need for a clear-headed, thoroughly documented, and
indisputable account. Unfortunately, Tillbaka Till Ararat is not that
film; it does not try to prevent any more denials in the future. While
others are undoubtedly working to produce documentation that will do just
that, the film could easily have been more analytic than it currently is.
The filmmakers concentrate so heavily on a tragedy that happened more than
seven decades ago, they can only briefly examine the divisions and
pressures facing the worldwide Armenian community today.
One may argue that it is too much to expect the film to probe the Armenian community, tackle the legal question of genocide, and provide an catharsis for Armenians all at the same time. However, filmmakers such as Marcel Ophuls and Jan Troell have accomplished as much in their documentaries, and more importantly, it is the successful moments in Tillbaka Till Ararat itself that raise one's expectations. Holdquist does in fact include a sequence that brings to light a generational gap between the attitudes of a passionate young Armenian named Raffy, his finace Ani, and Ani's elderly parents. These sort of complexities abound in every culture, and they need to be explored. Holdquist's film would have been even more praiseworthy if he had included more scenes like this one.
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR