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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

 

KOMITAS
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 mental institutions.
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