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Two films at MFA evoke the agony of Armenia

By Robert Garrett
Special to the Globe

It's been called the forgotten genocide, the killing of perhaps 2 million Armenian by Turks beginning in l915, during World War I. The country that was Armenia, once located in what is now northeast Turkey, has vanished from the map. The Soviet republic of Armenia, where many of the survivors settled, is one-sixth the size of the original Armenian nation.

Approaching a subject as big and horrific as genocide is never easy to do. French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann succeeded in his exhaustive, and exhausting documentary on the Holocaust, "Shoah." Lanzmann was a tenacious researcher, but he also had the advantage of plentiful archival footage and scores of witnesses. And of course most of his audience was well aware of the fact of the Nazi "Final Solution."

By contrast the agony of Armenia seem to have fallen through lie cracks of distant history. Two recent films try to redress that. “Komitas," by Soviet Armenian filmmaker Don Askarian (now based in Berlin), is an impressionistic portrait of an Armenian monk and composer who went mad after the destruction of his country. "Back to Ararat", named after the holy mountain of Armenia, is a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Pea Holmquist. The effect of both films is mixed.

"Komitas" takes the death of millions of Armenians as a given, and instead of reciting facts ft at­tempts a highly personal meditation. As the grief-stricken Komitas, actor Samvel Ovasapian wanders through a lush countryside punctuated by ancient stone houses and churches, presumably that of Soviet Armenia. Although Komitas is also shown as a pa­tient In a menial hospital, there's very little plot. The camera, as If It too were bereaved, very slowly fol­lows Komitas and lingers on a series of disconnected and surreal Images. Some of the images are striking (the ground appears to breathe, a room spontaneously catches fire, three drummers play as if in a trance). The filmmaker seems to be groping for an expres­sion of a horror beyond words or Images. Yet the visual metaphors draw attention to themselves they're weighty and often indecipherable. At one point, Komitas comments that art "isn't worth anything" when measured against genocide. Yet the film it­self is self-consciously artful, and as the metaphors pile up we're de­flected from the message.

"Back to Ararat" is at its best when it interviews survivors of
1915 (children then. they are now In their 80s) and when it takes us to the beautiful but empty countryside in Turkey that once was Armenia. An old woman who still lives there describes herself as "a refugee in my own country." Survivors who now live in Germany and New York describe how. Armenians were shot, thrown down wells, stabbed or forced on death march to Syria that, for many, ended In being burned alive in caves. The government of Turkey still denies that massacres of three-quarters of the civilian population took place and talks Instead about "resettlement" and wartime Inhumanities that oc­curred on both sides. In the film, a spokesman for a Turkish-American group waved away the suggestion of genocide as "hearsay." The film would have done well to stick to straight historical documen­tary. Instead, it loses its focus by shifting to present-day politics. There's an Interview with an Armenian extremist who shot a Turkish diplomat, and a lengthy portrait of a young Armenian couple living in New York who quixotically hope their homeland will be liberated from Turkey.

June 8,