Thanks to her documentary What Will Become of Us, which brought the stories of American-Armenian families keeping their culture alive a century after the genocide to public television viewers across the country, Stephanie Ayanian and her team have made an impact in bringing a forward-looking approach to a historical tragedy. Indeed, a page has finally been turned for these families through President Biden’s official recognition of the Genocide, helping to ease the trauma caused by the verbal gymnastics and tacit denial which was long the name of the game for the sake of Turkish-American relations. However, there is still so much at stake. Through her documentary, Ayanian wanted to show America how, despite it all, her fellow Armenians have thrived here and continue to cultivate their culture in unique ways. While her documentary continues to premiere on PBS stations across the nation, she and her team are hard at work on another project. They intend to share more Armenian stories with a broad audience, and they are currently seeking funding to complete the editing of their next film about Armenians, No Difference Between Us. “This new project picks up where the feature film leaves off,” Ayanian tells the Weekly. “We see it as a continuation of the efforts of What Will Become of Us.”
The filmmaker was born and raised in an Armenian-American home in Northern California where the arts were not only respected but were a part of everyday life. Ayanian’s father is a visual artist and art educator, while her mother is an opera singer, both born in the Armenian stronghold of Fresno. As a child, her family moved to central Pennsylvania where there was no Armenian community; the only other Armenian family in town welcomed them as part of theirs, a thread of ethnic bonding which runs through her later documentaries. Ayanian made her first film in 1996 while studying at Penn State University. After graduation, she freelanced on independent films, ESPN’s X-Games and in Silicon Valley at a time when video was first appearing on the internet. She then attended Temple University for her MFA in Film & Media Arts in order to blend her love of teaching with her passion for filmmaking. In the years that followed, she produced and directed national feature documentaries, which gave her vital experience in fundraising and producing large projects, important components of the hard-fought process of bringing What Will Become of Us to life.
The film premiered on public television stations in 2020 and is anticipated to continue appearing on more stations in the US and Canada through at least 2022. It has also been an Official Selection of Arpa International Film Festival (where it was a nominee for Best Feature-Length Documentary Film), Pomegranate Film Festival and the Thomas Edison Black Maria Film Festival.
While the film has been a triumph, there were many additional stories that ended up on the cutting room floor, stories Ayanian and her team feel need to be told. Fundraising is now underway for No Difference Between Us, the first in this series of films of individual stories of Armenians who are continuing to keep Armenian culture close while making an impact on the world. It is the story of Father Armenag Bedrossian, who serves Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Armenian Catholic Church in Los Angeles. A native of Syria, Father Armenag was deeply pained by the war which tore his birthplace apart and was moved to begin helping Syrian refugees, both Christian and Muslim, Armenian and not. As Syrian refugees settle in America, Father Armenag’s phone rings day and night with calls for help. From taking someone to the hospital to assisting with English-Arabic translation, all while leading a congregation and holding church services, Father Armenag rarely rests. “Father Armenag is a caring and thoughtful human being, often putting all others’ needs before his own,” described Ayanian. “His life and work is a testament to the fortitude of the descendents of survivors. He doesn’t take things for granted, and he finds strength to continue to help others, including this new generation of survivors.”
Nobody ever said cutting a new path for these kinds of documentaries would be a simple feat. Fundraising is always a challenge in itself, but even more so in the current post-war environment in which individuals and foundations continue to support the recovery of the homeland.
No Difference Between Us, however, still needs enough financial backing to launch this first-in-the-series film. There are no luxuries involved; Ayanian and her team embrace the creation of these compelling films with dedicated passion on a shoestring budget, cutting costs wherever possible. “It costs real money to make impactful projects. We have to pay for our crew members. We have to pay for travel, and to produce the level of work that an audience requires, our budgets should be 10 times higher than they are.”
Ayanian is hoping to release No Difference Between Us in 2022. She is working with the original team from What Will Become of Us and is leading the writing and editing of this upcoming film. She is most excited to share Father Armenag’s story. “We discovered so many incredible stories and had to make impossible decisions on what to cut from our first film, and Father Armenag’s is just the first. With additional funding, we can continue to bring more Armenian stories which need to be told to the world.”