The great yet unrealized potential of Armenian cinema

Looking at the current situation of the Armenian film industry, I observed a thought-provoking pattern that deserves greater attention. The films that succeed in the international market and receive nominations and awards in international film festivals tend to have low recognition among audiences within Armenia itself. Looking at the example of Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, which won Best Motion Picture among five other awards at the 23rd Genie Awards, or at Inna Sahakyan’s Aurora’s Sunrise, which received multiple awards in Australia, Estonia and Switzerland, one can observe that, despite the appeal of those films to foreign audiences and their relevance to themes of the history and identity of the Armenian people, they generate almost no or very little recognition and popularity among Armenians living in Armenia. On the other hand, films that enjoy great popularity in Armenia, such as Mher Mkrtchyan’s Kyanq u Kriv (Life and Fight) or Arman Marutyan and Vahagn Khachatryan’s Super Mama, are almost never seen in international film festivals or mentioned in general film-related events and discussions beyond Armenia’s borders.

After watching and re-watching all of the above-mentioned films and doing research about their ideation, production and distribution, I identified some potential reasons behind this dynamic. The films that do better in the international arena are targeted, from the time of their ideation and production to the phase of distribution, to audiences outside of Armenia, and the artistic, linguistic and thematic choices of the films are tailored to the preferences of the intended target audience. One could argue that this is also the reason why the films popular in Armenia do not receive much attention from international audiences, as some of the jokes and subtextual messages found in these films are so unique to the Armenian people that someone with no context or background of the Armenian culture may be completely lost in many scenes of films like Kyanq u Kriv, Super Mama, Korats-Molorvatsy Hayastanum (Lost and Found in Armenia), Pahanjvum e Milionater (Calling for a Millionaire) and other widely known and beloved productions in Armenia. However, this conclusion is more of a hypothesis than a proven finding, as many of these films have not been shown to a non-Armenian to test whether the person would understand the cultural nuances and subtleties or not. 

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I remember I was so astonished by the remarkable plot, acting and cinematography of Kyanq u Kriv after watching it for the first time that I immediately reached out to the film’s production company and asked them to add English subtitles so that I could show the film to my international friends at United World College Changshu China. The company responded that they would take my request into account and would communicate the suggestion to the people responsible for the distribution of the film. This correspondence took place in November 2017, more than six years ago, but there is still no English-subtitled version available. During my recent exhibition at NYU Abu Dhabi dedicated to the past, present and future of Armenian cinema, when I shared that Kyanq u Kriv was my favorite among the presented films, I was often asked to share a link to the film. After trying and failing to find an English-subtitled version, I again reached out to the production company, but to no avail. I decided to share the link to another film (Terry George’s The Promise), which is an English-language film dedicated to the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, with some Armenian members in the cast and crew, yet far from the visual aesthetic and cultural undertones associated with local Armenian cinema.

Taking into account the case of Kyanq u Kriv and many other films that enjoyed great success in Armenia, although Armenian filmmakers today invest energy and effort in ideating and producing emotionally impactful and visually stunning films, they often overlook one of the most important phases of the process—that of distribution and marketing. Being satisfied with the success of the films in Armenia, they do not even take the chance of marketing the films to international audiences, thereby limiting the scope of the recognition and popularity of their films to Armenia solely. One might argue that not marketing the film to international audiences is not a matter of being unwilling or lazy, nor is it the director’s or the production company’s personal will or preference, but it is rather an issue of finances. Three large-scale wars in the past 30 years, along with civil conflicts and numerous political upheavals, have all been factors preventing Armenia from investing large amounts of financial resources into film production and distribution, with most of the state budget being directed toward the fortification of borders and the purchase of military equipment for the army. Over the past three years in particular, the main priority of the general Armenian population has been not the making of films but mere survival (with tensions still ongoing on an everyday basis both within the country and at the border). Therefore it is understandable that, while we make films to elevate the spirit of the nation and to encourage one another to uphold hope and lightheartedness, the marketing of such films to international audiences is not of high importance. 

Perhaps we should start using filmmaking not just as a mere tool for recognition of past events but also as a preventative measure to stop aggression in the present, before it is too late. 

However, I would like to challenge this reasoning, as I believe that films, if marketed wisely, can be a powerful diplomatic tool and help Armenia in international negotiations. Multiple low-quality soap operas are produced in Armenia every year, with large budgets for their production and distribution phases, only to entertain the viewers and generate profits, with no higher purpose or ambition to strengthen the filmmaking industry or support Armenia’s socio-political priorities. Many of these soap operas can be intellectually and emotionally degrading, provided the number of scenes of aggression, murder, theft, screaming voices and rape scenes, only motivated by the idea that “violence sells.” The efforts invested in creating these soap operas can be redirected to the international marketing and distribution of films that are more relevant to our political, social and cultural agendas. Armenian history has had a great impact on Armenian cinema, and it is time for Armenian cinema to impact and influence the course of Armenian history in turn. Some efforts are being made in this regard around the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide through filmmaking, but a new genocide is taking place in front of our eyes in Artsakh, and films in the international arena have been more silent about it than they were in the silent era. Perhaps we should start using filmmaking not just as a mere tool for recognition of past events but also as a preventative measure to stop aggression in the present, before it is too late. 

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Watching and analyzing the films written, directed and produced by young Armenian filmmakers makes me very hopeful about the future of Armenian cinema. If so much is being accomplished with so little, I can imagine the quality of work that would be produced with the availability of more and better resources. Perhaps opening up to the international community is one of the gateways to obtain the necessary help from those who will notice and appreciate the great potential that lies within the creative minds of Armenian youth. And maybe then, Armenian cinema will influence the course not only of Armenian but also of world history as a whole. I once wrote an article about the many inventions of the Armenian people, including doctor Raymond Damadian who invented the MRI and who was the first to perform a full-body scan to diagnose cancer; the entrepreneur Luther George Simjian who invented the ATM, color x-ray, self-focusing camera and flight speed indicator for airplanes; the chemist Christopher Ter-Serobyan who developed the uncopyable green color formula still used in the American currency; and the engineer Hovhannes Adamian who was the first person in the world to successfully design and produce color television. I cannot wait to write another article about a young Armenian filmmaker (someone like Beknazaryan, Parajanov or Peleshyan) who, yet again, manages to change the course of history.

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan is a graduate from UWC Changshu China. Since the age of 11, she has been writing articles for a local newspaper named Kanch ('Call'). At the age of 18, she published her first novel on Granish.org and created her own blog, Taghandi Hetqerov ('In the Pursuit of Talent')—a portal devoted to interviewing young and talented Armenians all around the world. Baghdasaryan considers storytelling, traveling and learning new languages to be critical in helping one explore the world, connect with others, and discover oneself. After completing her bachelor's degree in Film and New Media at New York University in Abu Dhabi, Milena is currently enrolled in an advanced Master of Arts program in European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin.

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