Special to the Armenian Weekly
Grigor Poghosyan, a 21-year-old filmmaker from Vanadzor, compares his hometown to Detroit, and even plays me a song by Eminem to illustrate his point. He’s never been there, but he has seen its frequent cameos in popular film and music.
Vanadzor, the third-largest city in Armenia and the subject of Poghosyan’s recent film, “Where Are We Going?” was once—like Detroit—a thriving industrial town. Its factories have since closed and its residents have not yet recovered from the traumas of economic collapse.
In 1979, Vanadzor, then known by its Soviet-era name, Kirovakan, had a population of nearly 150,000. By 2011, that number had been halved. As in the rest of Armenia, many of those who could, left to work abroad, usually to Russia.
Unemployment is high in Armenia’s remote towns, and times are especially tough for those in the 18-35 age demographic, but prospects are nearly impossible for artists like Poghosyan and his band of close-knit friends from film school.
“Where Are We Going,” a collaborative project which was filmed on a $40 budget, had its premiere earlier this year at the Golden Apricot Film Festival, in Yerevan. Poghosyan initially submitted it as his thesis project in film school. It features current and former students at the Vanadzor campus of the Yerevan State Institute of Theater and Cinematography—young people who see themselves as artists with a calling, for whom the creation of art is not a choice but an inevitability.
Blending melancholy montages of the city viscerally depicting the economic depression and disrepair that has characterized Vanadzor since Armenia’s independence, “Where Are We Going?” cuts intermittently between philosophical conversations with Poghosyan’s friends and fellow filmmakers about themes ranging from young people’s personal aspirations to the meaninglessness of war and endemic government corruption. But Poghosyan most directly expresses his own feelings in a tableau vivant—the first scene he ever envisioned for the film.
That take, which was inspired by a scene from a Jean-Luc Godard film, shows his friends scattered over an abandoned lot, reading newspapers and shouting the words that so frequently appear in them: “freedom,” “war,” “patriarchy.”
The filmmaker has only ever lived in a post-industrial Vanadzor, and “Where Are We Going?” is a testament to his conflicted relationship with the city. His grandmother worked in one of the fabric factories that closed its doors after the USSR’s collapse. His mother, a divorcée, was forced to leave Armenia in 2009 to find work to support the family, leaving Poghosyan to be raised by his grandmother, who filled his head with stories of a past life in a lively society that rewarded industriousness and where work was abundant.
Aesthetically, the film paints a picture of Vanadzor very different from the one Poghosyan’s grandmother knew. Shots of the city’s beautiful architecture and scenic mountains are frequently interrupted with images of overflowing garbage bins or the dirty interior of an ancient bus.
At the same time, Vanadzor’s youth hold a deep reverence for the hardships they have endured and, ultimately, don’t wish to leave. At one point, the film’s main narrator, Aren Voskanyan, a former student of the same cinematography institute and a close remarks, “No one wants to do anything in this city. Neither do I. That’s why nothing changes.” It’s then that you hear Poghosyan speak from behind the camera for the first time, though we never see him, “That’s what’s cool about it.”
In our interview, Poghosyan points out that the very lack of infrastructure in Vanadzor is also the reason it provides a climate in which art can thrive: “There is nothing to do here. After 6 [p.m.], there is no more transportation. This is probably why so many people work in art… The abandoned atmosphere, with the ruined buildings and beautiful mountains in the background, forces you to think and to feel.”
“I’m thankful for how I see life and how I feel the world.”
He says it was a regular conversation that inspired the bulk of the film. “We were just walking, and I took out the camera and started filming him,” he explains. “Then I decided to film him a second day, then a third, and then I understood that all of this was about us and the town.”
The film was shot as Poghosyan was about to graduate, and was facing the prospect of serving in the military. The anxiety and uncertainly about that specific unknowable future is palpable throughout the film. One of the characters repeatedly exclaims throughout the film, “2,200 died in the army,” referencing the official statistic regarding Armenian military deaths since 1994.
Armenia has a conscript army, and most Armenian men must serve once they reach the age of 18. However, those who receive a university scholarship may defer their army service to after they complete their degree (a law that will be changing soon). As of now, Poghosyan, who has vision problems, still does not know whether he will be deemed fit to serve.
Quite a few obstacles in Armenia prevent young filmmakers from successfully pursuing their passions—ranging from complex regulations for receiving funding to limited support from more established filmmakers, and even just the prospect of leaving Vanadzor. In a conversation, Voskanyan and a fellow film student discuss fears about moving to Yerevan with no money or prospects. It’s a task that seems insurmountable, as there is no guarantee of success. Even so, there are no other options. As Voskanyan says in the film, “It’s hard, but it’s possible. And if it’s possible, it has to be done.”
Though the response to the film from festivals has been positive, Poghosyan still is not completely satisfied with his work. “I don’t think it’s a great film. It’s not the film of my dreams,” he laments, “It has a lot of issues in it…. Sound is horrible, the frames are not focused, and much of the film is without stabilization. It was an experiment. This experiment became bigger than I imagined.” Yet what he considers “middling professionalism” might actually be responsible for some of the film’s most compelling elements.
The shaky camera movements, the planned mishmash of audio, the combination of extreme closeups and wide shots all reinforce the feeling of authenticity in the film and actually lend it a sense of restlessness. Poghosyan is not just an objective observer documenting his subjects. He is one of them, and he is just as restless and uncertain as they are.
Though the film portrays a somewhat despondent picture of modern Vanadzor, Poghosyan contends that his desire to make art is, in fact, radically patriotic. “It’s not about leaving, it’s about going toward an unknowable future.” Ultimately, he hopes it will give those in the Diaspora a more complete and complex view of Armenia, beyond Yerevan’s downtown or the country’s ubiquitous monasteries.
“It’s important for me to make them see something different: young, underground people trying to create something, and thinking about big things, despite the difficult social conditions.”
“Where Are We Going?” will have its North American premiere at the Toronto Hamazkayin Pomegranate Film Festival. It will also be screened at the Asian Film Center’s Global Fest in Kolkata.
View the “Where Are We Going?” trailer, below.