Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York spotlights Armenian cinema

The 11th edition of the Socially Relevant Film Festival, taking place in New York City from March 13-17, will feature nine Armenian films, ranging from documentaries about Artsakh and diaspora histories to Soviet classics.

The Socially Relevant Film Festival presents human interest stories across a broad range of social issues. This year’s themes include BIPOC films, aging and disability, women’s and LGBTQ issues and more.

Celebrated Egyptian Armenian actor and filmmaker Nora Armani launched the festival in honor of her cousin and uncle, who were the victims of a hate crime in Egypt. She also wanted to offer an alternative to the pervasive violence she witnessed in Hollywood films. “This is a very powerful medium that can be used to make a difference in people’s lives, to educate and enlighten. Unfortunately, a lot of it goes to waste. A lot of films spend millions of dollars and do not use this opportunity,” Armani told the Weekly.

Armani’s career has been guided by her social consciousness. The award-winning performer holds master’s degrees in sociology from the London School of Economics and in theater and film from Hunter College. Armani, who has toured internationally and starred on screens in the United States, United Kingdom, Egypt, France and Armenia, says she chooses her roles based on the message of the film. “In a way, this film festival brings everything that I am and have done in my life together in one place,” she reflected. 

The festival also carries on Armani’s lifelong commitment to promoting Armenian cinema. Of the 53 films in the festival this year, nine address Armenian themes, including the Spotlight Screening of Barev Yes Em, Frunze Dovlatyan’s Soviet Armenian masterpiece from 1966.

Among the Armenian films featured in the festival is The Forgotten Homeland, a documentary about life at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border for refugees uprooted from Artsakh. 

Egyptian filmmaker Essam Nagy started filming The Forgotten Homeland in the spring of 2021 in border communities in Armenia’s southern province Syunik. He wanted to capture the “rhythm and tempo” of how Armenians lived during the 2020 Artsakh War and processed their wartime traumas. 

“This was the challenge – how can we make it very noorp [soft] and not in your face, but through the silence and the pauses in the interviews, communicate a message to the viewer that we need your help,” Nagy told the Weekly.

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When Nagy, who was born in Cairo, traveled to Armenia for the first time in 2017, he had already been “blindly in love with Armenia” for decades. A dear Egyptian Armenian friend had regaled him with stories about his homeland. “I remember his last words to me: ‘I didn’t fully do what I wanted to do for my homeland,’” Nagy recalled. “When I started working in filmmaking, I felt like I needed to repay him by telling the story of Armenia.”

During his first visit, Nagy was caught by surprise by his love for the country and investment in the Artsakh cause. He has since produced several documentaries about Armenia. He recently moved to Yerevan and will teach classes at Yerevan State Institute of Theater and Cinematography. 

“We are witnessing the systematic erasure of an identity in the current day and age. The world is silent, but I am only waiting for Armenians to take a stand, not anybody else.”

“In whatever time I will spend on this planet, I would like to be useful for a nation and help people who are small in number. They need to feel that they are not forgotten,” Nagy reflected. 

“We are witnessing the systematic erasure of an identity in the current day and age. The world is silent, but I am only waiting for Armenians to take a stand, not anybody else,” he continued.

Another Armenian selection at the festival is Manuscripts Don’t Burn, a documentary about the Armenian heritage of Lviv, Ukraine. Filmmaker Mariam Ohanyan presents the history of the Armenian church in Lviv, which was converted into a warehouse by the Soviet authorities, and the writings of Armenian traveler Simeon Lehatsi.

Ohanyan, born and based in Yerevan, produced films in the Soviet era about women’s social issues and Armenian women throughout history and has since founded the KIN International Women’s Film Festival.

Her career took a turn when a colleague asked her, “Did you know there are Armenians in Transylvania?” “I laughed, because Armenians love to claim, ‘This is Armenian, that’s Armenian, these people are Armenian,’” Ohanyan said. 

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Over a decade later, she confirmed it for herself when she traveled to Transylvania to produce a documentary about mid-century migration of Armenians to Europe. Uncovering what she calls the vast, unexplored history of Armenians in Eastern Europe has since become one of her passions. 

“Wherever Armenians have gone, they have established a church and school and printed books – hearths of the culture. In Transylvania, they were so wealthy that they purchased land and built a city from nothing called Armenopolis, which is now called Gherla,” Ohanyan told the Weekly

“Armenians have immense potential, but there are no possibilities for actualizing that potential – not to be a people who survive, but a nation who lives.”

“Armenians in the diaspora dedicate themselves to serving their countries. Whatever they do, they help their country blossom,” she continued. 

Ohanyan hopes the film can serve as an example of the great Armenians of the past who the Armenians of today can aspire to emulate. 

“Armenians have so many worries that they don’t have the time to raise their gazes to the sky, to the stars. Sadly, Armenians have immense potential, but there are no possibilities for actualizing that potential – not to be a people who survive, but a nation who lives,” Ohanyan reflected.

Other Armenian selections in the festival include Partings and Landings by Kardash Onnig, Edge by Sona Khatchatryan, 250km by Hasmik Movsisyan, Blockade by Hakob Melkonyan, The Desire to Live by Mariam Avetisyan and Metamorphoses by Trocquenet Valère and Fert Florence.

Tickets to the Socially Relevant Film Festival and a full schedule of films are available online.

Lillian Avedian

Lillian Avedian

Lillian Avedian is the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly. She reports on international women's rights, South Caucasus politics, and diasporic identity. Her writing has also been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Democracy in Exile, and Girls on Key Press. She holds master's degrees in journalism and Near Eastern studies from New York University.

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