Sareen Hairabedian’s documentary “My Sweet Land”: One Armenian child’s perspective

Sareen Hairabedian | Courtesy of Sareen Hairabedian

Though children never start wars and consequently have no capacity to end wars, they often are the forgotten victims who silently suffer to the highest degree. Why are they ignored, despite being the sole group that has absolutely no hand in the warfare plaguing their homes? This is the question filmmaker Sareen Hairabedian sought to answer with her documentary My Sweet Land (Տունս քաղցր ա). 

As a great-grandchild of Armenian Genocide survivors, Hairabedian carries deeply-rooted generational trauma from her ancestors’ exile from their indigenous lands. Her family found refuge in the Middle East, where she grew up in a small Armenian community in Jordan. Despite its size, Hairabedian recalls attending schools where she recited nationalistic poems about stolen lands that would one day be liberated.

“Nothing and no one has been freed,” she wrote in her director’s statement. These feelings and questions surrounding generational trauma brought her to Artsakh — historically Armenian, yet possessing an unfortunate fate colonized by a corrupt government that endorses greed over culture. “The story that started to unveil before my camera was about the generational cycle of trauma that kept the resilience of a people alive while passing down the burdens of war to its children. That’s when I met Vrej,” she said. 

Still of Vrej from My Sweet Land | Courtesy of Sareen Hairabedian

Structured as an agonizingly raw — and to most, unrelatable — coming-of-age story, My Sweet Land follows 11-year-old Vrej, an Armenian boy growing up in the Republic of Artsakh, the now dissolved Armenian breakaway state. Set against a “picture-postcard village with its roaming ducks and golden bees,” viewers learn who Vrej is from snippets Hairabedian pulls from his life: his fears, hopes and goals. Vrej’s willingness to share the depths of his character with Hairabedian speaks volumes about who she is, both as a person and as a filmmaker.

“We live in a country where war is expected to start at any moment,” Vrej earnestly shares with Hairabedian. “I don’t want my children to witness war. I may experience it, but I don’t want that for my children.” It is unbearable to hear a child who is experiencing the destructive — both physically and emotionally — hardships of war express such a wish. No child should ever have to bear this responsibility. No child should ever have to think these thoughts. 

Though primarily pushed by her Armenian identity to take on the film, Hairabedian came to the idea after completing her 2018 project, We Are Not Done Yet, an HBO documentary that profiles various veterans and active-duty service members coming together to work through their post-traumatic stress disorder through art and poetry. She visited Artsakh for the first time around the same time that year.

“Right after that project, I felt an urgency to tell the story of people still fighting for their identity and of children born in a place where they have no choice but to join and protect their homeland. For me, it’s always connected deeply with my heritage,” Hairabedian told the Weekly.

“The traumatic path we’ve lived as Armenians — even from being the grandchildren of genocide survivors — continues today. I wanted to tell the stories of this new generation of Armenians fighting for a peaceful sky.”

As the idea brewed, Hairabedian stumbled upon a photo of hundreds of couples in 2008 at a mass wedding in Artsakh. Curious about where these families ended up, she felt it would be a great access point to the region. She and Azza Hourani, producer and Hairabedian’s long-time collaborator, connected with a local fixer and met around 30 families. Her camera gravitated towards Vrej’s family in Martakert, and she began to document their journey.

Though viewers see Artsakh through Vrej’s childlike wonder, it is still evident that his sweet land is not as paradisiac as it seems. For one, remnants from previous wars — such as mines — litter the country, previous wars that remain unrecognized, unsupported and ignored by the world. Vrej shows an understanding of these delicate issues, guiding Hairabedian through the sites where these missiles remain and their concomitant desolation. Even as a young boy, he asks, “How can you live with a neighbor who wants to take your country?” 

Still of Vrej from My Sweet Land | Courtesy of Sareen Hairabedian

This is a world completely separate from Armenians who don’t experience it everyday. We feel it, but war has never touched our skin. Vrej knows this pain, and in a manner wise beyond his years, is able to explain it to Hairabedian, who immerses herself in his world and becomes imperceptible amidst the routine village hustle and bustle. This resulted in around 500 hours of raw footage that followed a completely unscripted and unstaged format. 

“The process was very organic. I kept returning to the region every few months, filming as the story unfolded,” said Hairabedian.

Then, the war struck in the fall of 2020. As a child experiencing inexplicable devastation, confronting it is difficult, but tragically, commonplace. Forced to flee Artsakh, Vrej and his family spend their days in exile — hopeful, but restlessly waiting for a sign of victory…for a sign to return home.

“The war happened, and the urgency to tell the story grew even stronger,” Hairabedian explained, a palpable shift in her tone. “The family was very open with me during their most vulnerable times, strengthening our bond.” 

In the documentary, we see a young Vrej raise a toast at family dinner, stating, “I toast for our soldiers to be safe and return home. I wish for the war to end, for all of us to go back home.” We see the exhaustion in the eyes of the adults at the table as optimism shines through Vrej’s voice. It is heartbreaking to think that the same enervation the adults feel might one day be Vrej’s point of view…fatigued, weary and disappointed at the same unjustifiable outcome each time. 

When Armenians lose the war, Vrej returns to his village, with many changes in his life: altered power dynamics, the post-war devastation and an education that centers children’s preparation for looming conflicts. 

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Finding the balance was difficult for Hairabedian. Demonstrably, the war was rooted in politics, so incorporating some contextual information was important. Historical context was threaded into the editing to showcase the cycle of trauma and resilience through the different generations of Armenians. However, since the purpose of the documentary was to capture the conflict from a child’s vantage point, she believed it was necessary to maintain the integrity of that purpose. 

Whatever the children absorbed from the news or the radio was kept in, ensuring that the story was focused and specific. Hairabedian had no interest in informing the children or establishing political dynamics. Vrej’s — and the other children’s — perspective was paramount. She was not going to tell their story for them. 

“Children are always the focus. Staying away from excessive political explanations was crucial, because the noise of politics is always present,” Hairabedian explained. “I hoped to provide a deep, emotional connection with one child’s journey, showing the range of their experiences. Beyond the film, my goal is to connect with impact work that helps these children process their experiences through art and writing.”

These details contributed to the observational style of Hairabedian’s cinematography. It was a specific choice, done to achieve a level of visual storytelling that is immersive for the viewer. Being a solo filmmaker was powerful, because it allowed for a seamless relationship building process. 

“Observation was my direction from the start, because I didn’t want to interfere. It was about patience and building relationships with the family, the village, the school,” she said. “By the end of filming, I was very much a part of the community, making myself almost invisible. This approach allowed me to capture genuine moments.” 

Hairabedian shared that the actual filming process was difficult. As a war ravaged on, constant border changes came with it. She had to find “creative ways to move equipment” to guarantee the telling of this critical story.

“Sometimes, we had to send our gear separately and enter with minimal equipment. Trusting the local community was crucial,” she explained. “We adapted to the situation, keeping our filming intimate and close to the family’s story, avoiding large-scale shots that would have required more visibility and potentially more risk.”

Though the film is undoubtedly a powerful and emotional watch for Armenians, it serves as both a documentation of history and a tool for advocacy in communities outside of the one it directly impacts. The premiere of the documentary at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in England on June 13 — and thereafter screened on the 14th and 15th — made it evident that international audiences are often unaware of the region and its issues. The film raises awareness and initiates dialogue, highlighting the need for support and education for children affected by conflict. 

This makes Hairabedian’s role beyond that of a filmmaker, especially when the final product has an impact outside the theater. 

“Always ask yourself if you’re the right person to tell the story and in what capacity. Building trust with your subjects is crucial. Revisit this question constantly to ensure you’re making ethical decisions,” she said when asked what advice she has for filmmakers interested in documenting conflict zones. “Keep communication open with your subjects, preparing them for what to expect. Organize your paperwork, get releases on the spot, and never give up despite rejections. Persistence is key.”

The team behind the masterful documentary includes: director, producer, cinematographer and editor Sareen Hairabedian; co-editor Raphaëlle Martin-Holger; producer and sound recordist Azza Hourani; co-producer Julie Paratian; co-producer David Rane; executive producer Beth Levison; and executive producer Hallee Adelman. The film also includes a soundtrack by Armenian jazz pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyan, whose composition enriches the already-emotional story.

My Sweet Land has been selected to premiere in the Amman International Film Festival in Jordan. 

Those interested in seeing the film can find updates and screening information on the film’s website and on social media: Instagram, Facebook, and X

Melody Seraydarian

Melody Seraydarian

Melody Seraydarian is a journalist and undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, pursuing a degree in Media Studies with a concentration in media, law and policy. Her column, "Hye Key," covers politics, culture and everything in between from a Gen-Z perspective. She is from Los Angeles, California and is an active member of her local Armenian community.

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