By Artsvi Bakhchinyan
The name Eric Nazarian is not unknown to Armenia’s film audiences. For three years, from 2008-10, the Armenian American film director participated in the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan. His first feature film as writer-director, “The Blue Hour,” was awarded four prizes in 2008: the Golden Apricot for Best Film in the Armenian Panorama, the Ecumenical Jury Award, the Prime Minister’s Award, and the Diaspora Ministry’s Special Award for Directing.
It was a nice surprise to learn that Nazarian’s next movie has been made in Turkey, as part of an international omnibus project called “Do Not Forget Me, Istanbul.” The film premiere took place at the Istanbul Film Festival last April and is currently on the festival circuit. In the film, seven different filmmakers present some scenes from the life of the various ethnic minorities of Istanbul. Josephina Markarian, a Greek Armenian currently living in Istanbul, also joined the project. Nazarian, who was born in Armenia and has lived in the U.S. since he was a child, presents a personal story of his compatriot who is the descendant of one of the oldest communities of the city on the Bosphorus. In 18 minutes, Nazarian’s film, entitled “Bolis,” captures the everyday life, conversations, and brief encounter between a Diasporan Armenian musician, Armenak, and a Turkish widow. Through their encounter, the tragic history of one nation is unraveled through Armenak’s story.
Theirs is a simple story reminding us about the presence of the past within the modern-day psyche of Armenians worldwide and the responsibility of the inheritors on both sides to speak openly about a history that has been buried but refuses to be forgotten. Below, my conversation with Nazarian reveals some aspects of this unprecedented Armenian-Turkish cooperation.
Artsvi Bakhchinyan: Eric, nowadays news of Armenian-Turkish collaboration doesn’t surprise one as it used to. But how did you come to join this project?
Eric Nazarian: My friend Cigdem Mater introduced the project to me. Huseyin Karabey, the producer, invited me to participate in the omnibus. The theme of what we remember and what we force ourselves to forget is important for me as an Armenian and as a filmmaker. The goal of the project that was initially pitched to me was to remind Istanbul through these films of the past cultures that contributed to what the city is today. These past cultures have over time been “forgotten,” hence the title “Do Not Forget Me, Istanbul.” I felt my story of Armenak’s journey to Bolis (Istanbul) fit thematically. The film is based on my feature screenplay “Bolis,” which follows Armenak from Los Angeles to Istanbul to find his grandfather’s oudshop and a family heirloom that disappeared during the Armenian Genocide.
A.B.: You were born in Armenia, your parents came from Iran, now you live in the U.S. What is Armenian Bolis for you?
E.N.: When I was a child, I went to American school on weekdays and Armenian school on weekends. Everything I learned about cinema, literature, and art I owe a tremendous gratitude to my beloved father Haik, aunt Parik, uncle Haso, and my entire family who raised me to appreciate the cultures and arts of all nations. My first recollection of this term “Bolis” is from my beloved grandfather Hovhannes who would tell me these beautiful and textured stories of all the writers and poets of Constaninople, as Istanbul was called in the days of black and white Daguerrotype photographs. He introduced me to Daniel Varoujan, Siamanto, Krikor Zohrab. My aunt Parik introduced me to Gomidas Vartabed. My father Haik, who was a photographer, introduced me to the timeless images of Ara Guler. My grandfather, father, and aunt taught me about the amazing Armenian heritage and culture of Bolis. When I went back to make my film, I wanted to pay tribute to this world of “Old Bolis” through music because cinema is an audiovisual medium. For me, cinema is my wife. Music is my mistress. The music of Udi Hrant Kenkulian is the essence of Istanbul Armenian blues. What Ray Charles was to soul and blues, Udi Hrant is to Armenian/Turkish music: a true legend. When I first heard him in college, I didn’t know he was blind. When I read more about his life, his music resonated with me even more. “Srdis Vra Kar Muh Gah” is every bit as pure and powerful as the great blues spirituals of the Mississippi Delta of the ’30s and ’40s. The first day I docked in Istanbul, I told my assistant to take me straight to the Sisli Armenian Gregorian Cemetery, where I visited Udi Hrant’s family plot and later shot a pivotal scene in the film. It was an honor and deeply humbling to be standing by the ground where he rests.
A.B.: I completely agree with your hero, that Istanbul is a kind of opium. That city is very addictive.
E.N.: Istanbul for me is a paradox and a mystery. It’s an onion I peeled everyday knowing I would never get to its core. The city is too complex and full of so much history. I’m not sure if it is possible to uncover even a fraction. I arrived in Istanbul with extremely mixed emotions. When the plane docked, my mind fluttered with all the images of Armin Wegner and the archive photos of the Near East Relief during the time of the genocide: the deportations, Gomidas, Siamanto, Daniel Varoujan, and all the intellectuals and members of society arrested on that awful day [April 24, 1915]. I arrived tensed up and angry, but thanks to my friends and Bolsa-Hyes [Istanbul Armenians], I soon realized that a part of my cultural DNA truly hails from there. There are certain streets in Istanbul that inspired an extremely uncanny sense of deja-vu. I still don’t know how to describe this feeling. It felt as if I was coming home, yet I knew I was still a stranger in this city. It was a very bizarre but also very poetic state of mind to be drifting in. I realized in this state that not genocide, not persecution, not politics can ever dilute or diminish the extraordinary contributions of the Armenian people to the architecture, culture, history, heritage, music, and society of Istanbul. From Mimar Sinan and the Balian brothers, to the high priests of architecture in Istanbul to Udi Hrant, Hrant Dink, and beyond, some of the greatest minds and spirits of the Armenian people hail from Bolis. Yes, as much as I felt an “ambivalence,” as the character Armenak says in the film, I also felt that the city was very “addictive.” Between “ambivalence” and “addictive” I think these two words come close to describing this paradox that Istanbul is for me.
A.B.: In our days it seems to be in fashion to depict a “return to the roots.” But the return of your hero, Armenak Mouradian, seems to be quite different…
E.N.: Journeying to our roots does not begin or end with one or two or three journeys. I think every day, we journey a little bit into the past of our families and collective culture of humanity, be it Armenia or Greece, Mexico or Russia. I love world culture, so for me every day is a journey to my roots as an Armenian, but more importantly, as a human being capable of being touched by artists from around the world. The character of Armenak in my film feels a foreboding uncertainty; at the same time, he feels a duty as an Armenian to face the past and go in search of it, like any mythological character on a quest to find a place or a person. I’m realizing more and more that whatever we end up looking for in the “outside” world, ends up becoming an “interior” journey to discover our souls and what our calling in life is. For Armenak, the search for his grandfather’s oud shop that was destroyed on April 24, 1915 is a part of his calling. The discovery of this place unleashes the pain and the transcendence he needs to be able to fully accept what happened in 1915. It is my hope that audiences will start to realize, especially in Turkey, that the vast majority of what we call the Western Armenian Diaspora was created because of the genocide. Why else would Hadjn-tsis end up in Argentina, or Musa Ler-tsis in Port Said, or Cilician Armenians in Marseilles? They boarded the first ships that would carry them away from the massacres and deportations. And now, almost a hundred years later, for the descendants of the genocide like Armenak, April 24, 1915 is still yesterday.
A.B.: For the first time, the word “genocide” has been used in a Turkish film. How did it happen? What was the reaction during the premiere in Istanbul?
E.N.: For me, it was absolutely fundamental that my film clearly and openly use the word “genocide.” It is a part of my character’s psyche and history. It is what happened to my people, so of course I will speak about it very clearly. It was also a condition of my participation that I speak freely about the genocide. I was not there at the premiere in Istanbul, as I was finishing a dear friend’s film. My jigerov actors, Jacky Nercessian and Serra Yilmaz, were present. They told me that the entire audience was rapt in silence during the monologue scene. When Armenak’s character says, “…my grandmother’s entire family from Aintab and Arabkir disappeared during the genocide,” Jacky painted a nice picture of the audience sitting in front of him. Nearly every head turned to its neighbor in disbelief over hearing the word. I was very moved to hear that the film resonated with a lot of people. My friends from Golden Apricot were present in the audience that night and wrote a very beautiful email to me, saying how touched the audience was. I really want to make films that can bridge the gap between Armenians and Turks. It is time to shake things up and find new ways to communicate through cinema. We have the potential to understand our common humanity through dialogue and discuss the past with whoever is open and willing to listen and share stories. This is one of many ways forward. Politicians will continue to argue, shake hands, sign documents, and smile for the cameras. They are the international diplomats. Artists on the other hand, are the cultural diplomats and bridge builders between cultures. Let politics take its course and let the artists create freely. I must say how proud I am of the Armenian Turkish Cinema Platform at the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan for continuing to push this dialogue by inviting Armenian and Turkish filmmakers to exchange ideas and make films together.
A.B.: The acting by the two main characters is quite impressive. There could not have been a better choice than Jacky Nercessian, but I was surprised to see Turkish actress Serra Yilmaz, whom I have seen previously in two Italian films on gay issues.
E.N.: Jacky Nercessian I remember from when I was in junior high school from Henri Verneuil’s “Mayrig” film. I met him in Paris some years ago when I was screening my first feature film, “The Blue Hour.” I’ll never forget what an impression he made on me. He looks like the Armenian Ben Kingsley. Full of so much life. I am very grateful to Atom Egoyan who recommended Jacky at the Golden Apricot Film Festival. I reconnected with him and we pledged to work together. Also, my dear friend Vahe Berberian was a great inspiration. I initially wrote the role of Armenak for Vahe. My aunt Parik Nazarian was my hero and talisman throughout this entire journey, inspiring me with the music of Gomidas and the song, “Surp Garabed Em Gnatsel” that opens the film. Serra Yilmaz is a barekam [friend]. She is a natural-born actress with such an incredible soul. I hope I will be making films with Jacky and Serra for years to come. We had an amazing working relationship on set. This experience would not have been the same without their total support of the story I needed to tell.
A.B.: I noticed that the bright and dark scenes are juxtaposed in your film. Did you do this on purpose? Also, the shadows play an essential role in film, and seem to symbolize how many things are shadowed in this city…
E.N.: My background is in photojournalism and cinematography, so naturally everything begins with making the right images tell the story. I wanted to make “Bolis” an intimate and panoramic vision of the story. That’s why there are so many locations, from the Bosphorus to the amazing antique shops in Kadikoy, to the Zincirlikuyu cemetery, to the back alleys of Cukur Cuma, to a nightclub in the heart of Istanbul, to the Armenian cemetery in Sisli. The entire city is light and shadow. In a color film shot on HD, I wanted to let the shadows sink into Jacky’s face when he talks about the dark chapter in his family’s history in the basement of the antique shop. Serra has such an evocative and expressive face. We tried to light her as minimally as possible because her eyes do all the talking, Jacky has such an incredible presence on screen. With HD, you can get away with not lighting too much, which means you can shoot faster. That’s a blessing, especially if you have so many locations. I really enjoyed working with my production crew. We were zigzagging all over Istanbul making a movie about a Turk and an Armenian finding a common bond. I knew this was a special project and wanted it to be an ode to my family who inspired me to create cinema and a love letter to the heritage of Old Bolis.
A.B.: One of the most important components in the film is the music…
E.N.: Music is central to the film. I wanted to open with “Surp Garabed” over Jacky’s journey from the European side of Istanbul to the Anatolian side, where he goes to an authentic oud shop to get his oud re-stringed. Then we cut to haunting Turkish blues sung by an Armenian lady from Erzerum or Kayseri. We discovered the song on a very old LP that the gentleman who owned the antique store introduced me to. He was a rare collector of antique gramophones and Coca-Cola knick-knacks from the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was a trip down memory lane. I love the antique shops in Kadikoy. I could easily spend a month roaming through them in search of that lost past of the city that somehow never goes away. It is present on every corner in the city. Thanks to my dear friend Maral Aktokmakian, from the amazing Aras Armenian publishing house in Istanbul, and her husband Arto Erdogan. They introduced me to Taniel Akhbareeg (little brother) who is the oud player from the wonderful band “Knar.” Taniel Akhbareeg hails from Dikranagerd. He performed the solo of “Sari Sirun Yar” that closes the film. I am indebted to Maral, Arto, and Taniel for their love and support during the making of this film. This film and my experience in Istanbul would never have been the same without them.
A.B.: And when we can see your film in Armenia?
E.N.: Hopefully we will screen it this year during the wonderful Golden Apricot International Film Festival.