A Genocide Film with Vision—and Hope

BRYN MAWR, Pa.—Filmmaker Stephanie Ayanian is on a long, yet relentless journey toward fruition.

Ayanian is a year into her hour-long documentary called “A New Armenia,” combing the roads and byways for engaging stories about Armenians in the diaspora.

Filmmaker Stephanie Ayanian, right, is joined by partner Joseph Myers and John Sweers, a volunteer from Madison, Wis., during a shooting session in Armenia for her upcoming documentary ‘A New Armenia,’ which is a year into the works.
Filmmaker Stephanie Ayanian, right, is joined by partner Joseph Myers and John Sweers, a volunteer from Madison, Wis., during a shooting session in Armenia for her upcoming documentary ‘A New Armenia,’ which is a year into the works.

She’s 50 percent there and keeps the flickering flame of expectation burning at both ends. Hopefully, viewers may get to see it as a celebrated primetime feature on PBS sometime over the next year.

With a proposed budget of $760,000, tens of thousands of miles logged, and up to 3 crew members, the question remains. Will it end up in a primetime PBS slot or will public television stations across the United States screen it independently?

“If for some reason PBS doesn’t wish to air it on prime time, there are a number of other public television distribution models we will pursue,” says Ayanian. “We’ve never had an issue getting our films screened on public television. Every film we have ever made for public television (five total) has screened broadly across the United States on PBS stations.”

The feedback from PBS executives was pretty straightforward. Make sure the film is relevant to non-Armenian audiences. PBS is watched by 211 million Americans, with a primetime audience that is larger than many featured networks combined.

The glass remains half full when you’re a film producer laden with optimism. Ayanian follows her path with a work that is destined to capture an audience and bring awareness to our rich culture.

The nutmeg here is how far the nation has advanced since 1915. These are stories about human beings who have interesting lives, some famous while others not, many who are working hard to impact American culture as well as their own heritage.

Over the past year, Ayanian and her crew have been able to research and develop 11 stories. They have completed filming two of them, and are in the midst of six others. Three other stories are in the waiting stages.

Her travels have gone universal, covering such areas as Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, and Armenia.

Ayanian has encountered national organizations, scholars, churches. She’s attended events, read books and newspapers, watched films. All represent a relevant commodity in her pursuit.

“The inspiration,” she says, “comes from everywhere. It evolves in the lives of individuals, stories of people willing to share their dreams, those who’ve overcome adversity to succeed.”

She calls it a “labor of love,” yet Ayanian knows nothing comes easy. She’s halfway there…and counting. With an estimated budget of $760,000, funding is a concern. But people are buying into it (see http://www.storyshopfilms.com/anewarmenia).

“Although my filmmaking partners are not Armenian, they have sacrificed a lot to make this film,” Ayanian says. “I expect that of myself, as I am Armenian, and I expect to put in ‘volunteer’ time on this project. Each has gone above and beyond the call because they love this project, believe in its stories, and have a great deal of respect for the Armenians.

“It’s hard to qualify how much has been invested into this film but I think it’s safe to say about 3,000 hours of volunteer time as a partnership toward making this a reality,” she adds.

Her subjects remain just as enamored. A photo of prominent musician Richard Hagopian and his grandson Andrew is but one example. All are fascinating stories about interesting people and their families.

“Richard is a gem of a human being and has tremendous talent,” Ayanian describes. “Others have shown me what it really means to be Armenian. They are talented, humble, and thoughtful—and they have maintained our Armenian culture in America.”

Producing a work of this magnitude is one objective. Marketing it is another. After filming comes the editing process, then distribution and outreach. Screenings, discussions, and live cultural events like music, dance, and cuisine are planned.

“These events are intended to draw a non-Armenian crowd to enjoy an immersive cultural experience with Armenians that will evolve into a lasting impression,” Ayanian points out.

Both Ayanian’s grandparents are genocide survivors. She and her partners have made multiple films that have been screened across the United States, shown internationally at festivals, winning awards.

A successful Kickstarter campaign has been complemented by benefactors and donors who have bought into the project. For areas outside the country, the film will be available on DVD and Blu-ray. It may also be considered for film festivals and public screenings and events.

“We lack a film that documents and celebrates the joys, struggles, and values of these Armenian Americans,” Ayanian maintains. “We’re peeking into their kitchens imparting thousand-year-old recipes. We’re sharing social and religious traditions with laughter and solemnity, huddling with business leaders as they bring honor and financial security to their families and communities.”

The audience will be introduced to the genocide for a foundation of understanding, then meet survivor families, delving into their lives and accomplishments.

“Where are we now, 100 years after the genocide?” Ayanian wonders. “We are thriving, but what does the future hold? No one was tackling these questions in this way. So my partners and I started developing ‘A New Armenia.’ We’re looking at what it means to be a survivor and the challenges we face in America generations after arriving here.”

With the plethora of films, books, and events marking the Centennial, Ayanian sees this project as being different from the rest. It’s more of an opportunity to celebrate what we’ve accomplished as strong, vibrant communities.

Ayanian holds an undergraduate degree in film and video from Penn State University and a M.F.A. in film and media arts from Temple University.

She’s a former member of the AGBU Young Professionals in San Francisco and Philadelphia, where she met her husband and settled down after graduate school.

She previously worked as a senior producer/director for Penn State Public Broadcasting, where she was a producer and director of “Liquid Assets.”

As an independent producer, her film “Kinderwald” was an Official Selection of the Munich International, Seattle International, Slamdance, and Napa Valley film festivals.

One surprising element to this filmmaker is her athletic prowess. She played basketball in the Pan American Games in Yerevan in 2001 with a team from San Francisco. It was an unforgettable experience to say the least.

Ask Ayanian about specific role models and her response is all-encompassing and magnetic. “Any Armenian American who works hard to build a dream. I’m inspired by writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, dancers, chefs, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and scientists who share their stories. It thrills me to watch people create, think, and share their gifts with others.”

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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