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Interview - English


Don Askarian in conversation with Hans Werner Dannowski, the President of INTERFILM and the representative of the Council of the Protestant Church for film matters.

HWD: Avetik begins with a short scene full of beauty and horror (in a cocoon there is a hanged man, death hidden in the larva of life). It soon becomes apparent that this is the dream of the documentary film director, who lives in exile in Berlin. Trains and cars rattle past the windows of the sparsely furnished room. It seems to me that in this film the fate of the asylum-seeker is being worked through; it cannot be seen out of context of his background, his history. Don Askarian, what do you see as important?

DA: I would rather call Avetik a refugee, or better still, a stranger. An artist from Armenia who lives in Berlin. Avetik himself would not use the word 'live', he would say: "I have an address in Berlin."
His fate cannot be separated from his background; it grew out of the history of his country. But, as the number of threads (in the form of knowledge, friendships, thoughts, emotions, relatives, feelings, memories etc.) which connect a person to the world is infinite, I would not dare to set priorities, which is how historians make a living. For many people, the penetrating noise of their neighbor's toilet makes more of an impression on their lives than the most grandiose events in world history. Dreams are important: many cultures see western civilization as superficial, because it does not take dreams seriously enough. For a moment dreams can open the door to other times, other skies. The information we receive from dreams is sometimes creatively structured. Will people who have not perceived their dreams, at the moment of their death see their lives as an evil dream? Avetik would interpret the dream sequence differently-as a proclamation from the depths of history: "Lord, it is time" to speak of more important things.
Originally I planned to include the dream sequences in a separate chapter about the monk Mesrop Mashtoz, who invented the Armenian alphabet in the year 405. (According to religious sources, it was revealed to him). It was not possible, however, to integrate this material as a chapter of the film; only three scenes were used, the first two and the penultimate one (as visions).
The first scenes of the film are for me an attempt of break the cinematographic silence (a kind of lethargy). If a film were perfectly "interpretable", that would be a bad omen, if not a death sentence, for the film. How adequately can a film be described, when the way in which artistic information is created and transferred is of a purely cinematographic nature? The success of my attempt to answer your questions will therefore be very limited.

HWD: I'm just trying to move towards an understanding of the film. I'll carry on with my questions. The first act, "Avetik's childhood" ends with the burning of a strip of film. Many different levels of meaning come to mind: the end of childhood, the symbolic destruction of the enemy, the shadow of the future futility of grasping the truth through these images. Do you also see these different levels?

DA: The youth (there's a hooligan in every backyard, every street has its bully) intrudes on Avetik and his friend's game with the bits of film. In the fifties this game was only played in Nagorno-Karabakh, as far as I know. Avetik defends himself, but the strips of film are already alight. They are images from films by Kurosawa and Antonioni. What is important: Avetik resolutely defends his right to play with the bits of film he risks his life doing this. The love of the game develops supernatural, hypnotic powers in him.
The scene allows contradictory interpretation, as you mentioned. Later Avetik says to a German journalist: "What your paper calls a love film, is nothing but - pardon the expression - a massage of the genitals." Money, polities and stupidity have destroyed film as an art form.

HWD: One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is the awakening of their childish-manly sexuality of the two boys in the trees. The naked girl has the purity of the holy pictures in the book she has fallen asleep reading. Is there in Armenia a certain rite of initiation into manhood, or songs about the wooing or conquest of women?

DA: The children make up their own rites, their own songs, which have more of a cinematographic than a folkloric character.

HWD: While Avetik is observing the murder scene between the two tramps with his telephoto lens and simultaneously-completely naturally- images of childhood (as a positive contrast) appear on the screen, the German journalist reads the story of the German Student Dietrich, who collects pictures of executions. A scene full of contrasting images: those who haven't experienced murder first hand have to create it artificially. Those who try to break through distance are shocked by immediacy. What is the function of this whole scene, Don Askarian?

DA: These are not images of childhood. The telephoto lens pans round and discovers naked girls in the park, by the lake. The passage from Vladimir Nabokov's book "Speak Memory" conveys his experience of Germans. The joy in his literary mastery, the humor with which the writer describes his Germany outweighs the disgust for Dietrich: "He was a quiet, serene, bespectacled young man who studied Humanities at university." It is difficult to explain the function of the scene: also the intelligence and charm of the German journalist contradict the text about "the Germans". At the same time a murder is taking place outside, which is followed by the scene with the two naked riders who are bathing their horses in the lake.

HWD: This is followed by the scene with the flame-throwers entitled "Armenia", obviously a reminder of the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915. I noticed in "Komitas" that you present the genocide in a highly stylized, mostly indirect, way. What do you think about the transformation into film of something so incomprehensible? Did the story with the flame-throwers really happen or is this a strictly symbolic image?

DA: It is not only a reminder of the genocide in 1915, but also of its continuation today in Berg-Karabach on the Aserbadjanian - border, where we filmed this episode. For the tanks, gas masks, rubber clothing and flame-throwers belong to the present day. The bombed gardens of my childhood!
The Turks and the Russians have made a rubbish dump of my home country.
The direct representation of violence is foreign to me, as it requires a passionate identification of the author with the perpetrators. I show the traces of violence - on a village, on a person. A person who is violently attacked, also by a film, is hardly able to grasp art. Either mindlessness or a perverse-sadistic inclination to observe the sufferings of others develops in him. This produces new Dietrichs. "With great expertise he drew attention to the beauty of the fatal sword and to the wonderful atmosphere of harmonious cooperation between the executioner and patient". Avetik says"... when a film-maker drowns his hero in faces, stages a massacre that would do Genghis-Kahn credit, in what way does he differ from a concentration camp overseer who devotes time to his favorite hobby with the help of a camera and a few progressive little ideas? He's just whiling away the time pleasantly until the moment comes when he can swap his camera for a torture chamber".
And there is an inexplicable knowledge of what film is, and this just isn't a part of it.
Exactly thirty years and one month ago, on a summer afternoon a ripe pear eased itself from a tree in my grandfather's garden and began slowly, unbearably slowly, to fall to the ground. The gardens of my home country have been flattened into rubbish dumps!

HWD: The story of the peasant who goes into the mountains and into the ice with his dog is one of the most powerful stories of the whole film; it almost becomes a film within the film. Certain images have the precision of surrealist images, like Tan-guy's perhaps.
The scene with the piano reminded me of early Bunuel. Don Askarian, how did this wealth of images and ideas come to you? And who does he find lying in the ice coffin next to the frozen sheep? The shepherd, his father, the king?

DA: In the ice I laid the member of our team Alik Assatrian because he has an astounding similarity to Komitas as a young man. And a sheet of music. At that time I had not yet found anyone for the role of the adult Avetik living in Berlin. After a long and desperate search I gave the role to this same man. Because of this, the man in the ice coffin personifies two people simultaneously. This came about unintentionally. Or perhaps the intention was there and I just had to recognize it.
These days people are embarrassed to say such things, but these images came to me through a kind of revelation. On closer inspection, this often turned out to be cinematographic trash. But others with stood critical examination and so got included in the film.

HWD: And then the King comes riding into the Berlin living-room. I liked the anachronism, the king in his golden robes of the past and the telephone on the window sill. Is this a portrayal of one particular king, or is it rather a personification of the history of Armenia?

DA: Yes, this is an Armenian King Artashes. But as Thomas Wolfe said: "A writer may well 'leaf through' more than half the inhabitants of a city before he shapes and forms one single character in his novel."
Avetik tries to find answers to the tormenting questions of the present in the past, and this without resorting to the cock's crow at foggy midnight. "What a cheap theatrical effect!" would be his comment on the famous scene by the English dramatist.
How can it be that all that remains of our country with its wonderful culture is a pile of desecrated stones? What part did the Armenians themselves play in this tragedy? When, where, in whom and why did this betrayal of our own country, our integrity, culture and language, of ourselves, begin? These questions preoccupy Avetik far more than the vampire greed of our neighboring states, who have been tearing Armenia to pieces for centuries. Has Chistianity made us so weak-willed, so repulsively soft? Can our 'goodness' be stretched so far that we all let ourselves be made into KGB informers? Avetik says to the king: "You have not just robbed us of the chance of living, but also of dying."

HWD: One scene of extraordinary symbolic strength is that of the "Decaying Chaple". The tanks that drive round it, the men in gas masks. And the crumbling walls, the decaying Madonna, the sheep on the pillar. Ghostly gravestones in the cemetery: a lamb rescued from the point of death. Indescribable, the image of the peasant woman suckling the lamb. Do you see this as a kind of resurrection?

DA: I have tried not to force symbolic meaning onto the film. I very much hope that the film is left open enough for everyone to draw their own conclusions from it. The story is simple; the peasant woman gives the lamb her breast because it's hungry and there's no sheep there to feed it. Similar stories have really happened in Armenian villages. You ask me about resurrection. As a spectator I would probably see the unity of the peasant woman and nature as striking.

HWD: And then the depths of the well which reflect a myriad of colors until an alarm signals the end: the well of history, of the past? Or are these simply images which you would prefer not to define?

DA: The peasant discovers an underground military installation. The village, which is now deserted except for his family, is continually being attacked and infected by the military. Finally even this family leave their shabby dwelling and take flight.

HWD: The documentary film director goes into action: images of earthquakes, devastation and grief appear on the screen. Are the historical and natural catastrophes seen as one and the same in Armenia?

DA: Yes, the majority of the population firmly believe that the great earthquake in Armenia in 1989 was set off artificially by the Red Army using seismic weapons, as a reaction to the Independence movement.

HWD: For me the greatest riddle is posed by the following scene. Avetik as a young man in his home country. What is living coagulates in a death pose (the love act as still life) action turns into images, like the woman in a contorted pose on the walls. Are these images based on mythological stories?

DA: You are talking about the chapter "Nahapet Kutchak" which is about a medieval Armenian poet: "Don't cry over the dead, put your words into poetry" or "Your breasts shimmer, the dead break out of the earth". Avetik is remenbering this poet, and we see him. The images are taken from Nahapet Kutchak's erotic poetry, and seen by Avetik. Love and art as alternatives to killing.

HWD: The sister as Erinnye, as an avenging goddess. It is not clear to me how Avetik reacts to her.

DA: The "avenging goddess Erinnye" is an Armenian woman from Berlin. She speaks to her brother, not to Avetik. The fact that the genocide of the Armenians in 1915 in Turkey still remains unpunished today makes it impossible for her to live or to die.

HWD: "There is no better place on earth than this": this encompasses the past and the present. And then Avetik gets into his car, lands on the congested motorway and finally in Armenia: on a smoking mountain. And hidden behind some of the gravestones are the living, behind others hide the dead. Simply grief and hope fading away into themselves?

DA: At the end we see the peasant family in flight from the devastated village. They are dragging a book, a church-door and a cross-stone.


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