100 Years of Making Films: The Centenary of Armenian Cinema
When thinking of Armenian cinema, the names of Sergei Parajanov and Artavazd Peleshyan come to mind. These two titans are influential not only for Armenian or Soviet cinema but world film heritage. Both introduced unique storytelling methods—one infusing the screen with poetry and collaged images, the second conceiving of the “Distance Montage” technique. But Armenian cinema, which marks its 100th anniversary this year, has other notable filmmakers whose work deserves no less recognition.
ArmenFilm (HayFilm), the first and main film production body of Armenia, was established in 1923 as a separate department within the People’s Commissariat of the Soviet Armenia. As in the Soviet Union as a whole, cinema was considered a tool for propaganda, so Daniel Dznuni, former head of propaganda in the People’s Commissariat for Education, was appointed its director. Young, ambitious and imbued with forbidden nationalist ideas, he planned to build his own little Hollywood in Yerevan. As the government had allocated very little funding for the department (60 rubles [30 USD, equivalent to 460 USD today]), the first step for the newly-appointed director was to raise money to start production. In a country eaten up by continuous wars against Turkey and the Red Army, with streets full of homeless orphans and survivors of the genocide, Dznuni managed to collect 5 million rubles for ArmenFilm and started producing.
Dznuni had outlined four main roles for the company: production, “cinefication,” distribution and construction. With two cinemas were functioning in Armenia—in Yerevan and Gyumri, the country’s second major city—they first needed to build new cinemas (construction). While the production department was busy fighting censorship by rewriting, changing and adapting scripts to please Moscow, the “cinefication” section was responsible for bringing cinema closer to people. Hundreds of film clubs were established in cities and villages, and mobile screens and “cinemas on wheels” traveled around the country to make films accessible for everyone.
By 1933, there were 110 screens available; the mission of the distribution section was to provide them with films. Besides distributing what was produced at ArmenFilm, the department was also purchasing theatrical rights for Russian and American films, screening them not only in Armenia but Iran. In cooperation with the Armenian church in Tehran, ArmenFilm was organizing screenings for the big Iranian-Armenian community and also for Iranians. Unsurprisingly, the government in Moscow was not fond of having such an independent body within its structure—soon, Dznuni was accused of promotion of nationalist ideas and waste of funds. He was put in jail, and although after several-year-lasting trials he was released was never allowed him to come back to ArmenFilm.
The first film produced by ArmenFilm was Soviet Armenia, a six-episode documentary series about quickly-developing Soviet Armenia. Propaganda praising communist norms, the film traveled around the world, including France, Lebanon, Egypt and other countries with dense Armenian populations. Currently, the film is considered to be lost.
Dznuni was not only involved in executive arrangements but reading and commissioning scripts from famous Armenian playwrights and writers for new stories to be adapted for the screen. In 1925 he invited Hamo Bek-Nazaryan, who would become the founder of Armenian cinema, to work in ArmenFilm. An emerging filmmaker and celebrated silent-era actor of pre-revolutionary Russian cinema, in 1925 Bek-Nazaryan directed the first Armenian fiction film, Namus (Honor), followed by Zare (Zare) in 1926. Both challenged the patriarchal norms of Armenian society by telling stories of female characters who become victims of these norms, and both were shown widely internationally, even reaching New York. In Namus, Susan, the main character, is murdered by her husband who suspects her of unfaithfulness. In Zare, a Kurdish girl is forced to marry the influential governor of the region. Angry with her for refusing him, the governor announces that Zare is not “clean” and the villagers decide to kill her. Fortunately, the girl’s lover saves her life.
The thematic interests of Bek-Nazaryan were diverse and strategically well-planned. Mostly getting inspiration from the Armenian literature, along with Dznuni he was looking for narratives that would not bother the censorship authorities while, at the same time, addressing Armenian society and reshaping traditional perceptions. In addition to Armenian narratives, Bek-Nazaryan also collaborated with other Soviet countries, co-producing films with Azerbaijan (House on the Volcano, 1928) and Uzbekistan (Nasreddin in Khojent), making films about the ethnic minorities of Siberia (Igdendu, 1930), an Iranian villagers’ uprising (Khaspush, 1928). (The latter is included in the “Iranian Cinema before the Revolution, 1925- 1979” program currently at MoMA.) Some of his films were killed by Soviet censorship before or even during production. One of the most important ones, The Second Caravan, depicted the American-Armenian repatriates who decided to move to the Soviet Union to escape the “terror of capitalism” but, for unknown reasons, the production was halted on the last week of the filming. Until recently considered lost, the almost complete materials of the film were recently found in the film archive of Moscow.
In general, confirmation and financing of film projects within the Soviet Union was a complicated and long process, requiring lots of dedication and energy. Filmmakers were supposed to submit their scripts to the Artistic Committee of ArmenFilm. With their green light, the project would be sent to Moscow for consideration. If confirmed, funds would be transferred and directors could start production. The filming stages were strictly outlined as well: pre-production in spring, production in summer, post-production in autumn, dubbing in winter. Usually, approvals and confirmations were received through good connections in the committees and the famous Armenian cognac.
Along with Hamo Bek-Nazaryan, other directors producing silent cinema included Patvakan Barkhudaryan (Evil Soul, 1927; Kikos, 1931) and Amasi Martirosyan, whose Giqor (1934) is the last work of silent Armenian cinema. Most of the films were inspired or adapted from Armenian literature and were either comedies or dealing with social injustice, describing clashes between rich and poor, good and evil. The first sound film, Pepo (1936) was directed by Hamo Bek-Nazaryan and very much in line with the thematic interests of Armenian cinema, telling the story of a fisherman who fights against a greedy merchant.
During the Second World War and years following it, film production went down. Lack of funding, loss of human resources on the front and the overall depressive mood left almost no space for creativity. One of the few directors to create on those years was still Bek-Nazaryan who chose to tell the epic stories from the past to raise the spirit of the nation (David Bek, 1943). But in the following ten years, only four films were produced by ArmenFilm.
The situation changed in the second half of the 1950s, when new and young voices started to appear on the cinema landscape making mostly comedies, documentaries or musical dramas. These were not masterpieces but prepared the ground for the cinematic breakthroughs of the 1960s, a period that is arguably the New Wave of Armenian Cinema during a decade that was fruitful for the country’s overall cultural life. Mostly connected to the death of Stalin and subsequently eased censorship, previously banned topics, such as the Genocide, started to be actively discussed and presented in various art forms.
Hello, It’s Me (1965) by Frunze Dovlatyan officially launched the New Wave. The first Armenian feature to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Hello, It’s Me explored fast technological developments and post-war trauma that force an individual to reassess their lives. With both Russian and Armenian actors in the cast, the film masterfully played with languages, indicating the social and linguistic differences influencing everyday life within Soviet Armenia and the Soviet Union. Henrik Malyan, another beloved director, also started his filmmaking career in the 1960s and made some of the most important Armenian classic films in the following years (Triangle, 1967; We and Our Mountains, 1970). Malyan’s Nahapet (Life Triumphs, 1977) had its premiere in the Certain Regard section of Cannes and told the story of a man who lost his home and family during the Genocide in 1915 and is trying to start his life anew in an Eastern (Soviet) Armenian village.
While there were other successful male directors (Yuri Yerznkyan, Armen Manaryan, Grigor Melik-Avagyan, Laert Vagharshyan), the Armenian film industry was not the most favorable place for female artists. The patriarchal mood of ArmenFilm was much looser in the Department of Animation. Inhabited by free-spirited rock music fans, it had a creative and empowering environment for female directors. The department was led by Rob Sahakyants, whose rebellious films reshaped the history of Armenian animation history and brought him fame not only inside the Soviet Union but also in the West. Female animators of the department— Gayane Martirosyan, Lyudmila Sahakyants, Elvira Avagyan, Narara Muradyan—were also widely known and beloved within Soviet Armenia, creating unique, sometimes dark worlds of animation inspired by the folk and lyric literature of Armenia. Almost forgotten, their animations were recently restored and a special program of the films will be playing at the Film Restored-The Film Heritage Festival in Berlin, Germany at the end of this month.
During the period leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and after the establishment of the Republic of Armenia in 1992, the general themes and style of Armenian cinema drastically metamorphosed. Dark and pessimistic, infused with eroticism, violence and anger, these films were inspired by the European classics of Antonioni and Bergman, following highly politicized and lonely urban characters stuck in never-ending depression. Suren Babayan, Dmitri Kesayants, Don Askarian and Vigen Chaldranyan were the new names of cinema, with their films were travelling to international festivals in Rotterdam, Trieste and Berlin. Displacement, migration and identity crisis were the central theme for the cinema of Harutyun Khachatryan, whose Kond (1987), The Wind of Emptiness (1989) and Documentarist (2003) were shown and awarded in Karlovy Vary, Visions du Reél and Cairo IFF, among others.
The catastrophic economic situation that followed the first war in Nagorno-Karabagh (1991-1992)—collapse of infrastructures, blockage, hunger, cold winters without electricity—made many directors quit their filmmaking careers and look for jobs to survive. The film industry almost stopped functioning for several years. The revival started to take place in 2000s, but a corrupted funding system brought only frustration and amateur films.
The establishment of the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in 2004 played a crucial role in the development of the Armenian film industry. Through its 20 years of existence, the festival became the only alternative source for distribution introducing Armenian audience to independent cinema. Various workshops, trainings and the co-production market within the festival have brought up a generation of aspiring filmmakers and opened a path for alternative film funding opportunities. The Velvet Revolution of 2018 became another turning point for the film industry development. Shushanik Mirzakhanyan, the newly-appointed head of the National Cinema Center of Armenia, NCCA (the successor of ArmenFilm and main film funding body of Armenia) and her team considerably improved the transparency and funding regulations of the organization, thus providing many young filmmakers with a chance to make films. As a result, more Armenian films are produced and presented at the international film festivals: Cannes (Should the Wind Drop, Nora Martirosyan, 2020), Busan (Chnchik, Aram Shahbazyan, 2020), DOK Leipzig (Village of Woman, Tamara Stepanyan, 2019 and Nothing to Be Afraid Of, Silva Khnkanosyan, 2019), Visions du Reél (5 Dreams and a Horse, Vahagn Khachatryan, Aren Malakyan, 2022), Annecy (Aurora’s Sunrise, Inna Sahakyan, 2022). Besides auteur cinema, NCCA also finances entertaining films that get wider distribution in the country.
Currently, Armenia has a small but relatively stable rate of film production with around 15 films a year. Mostly funded by NCCA, many of these films are co-produced with Europe. The number of female directors has considerably increased in the recent years, bringing more female stories to the screen, thus making it one of the current topics of Armenian cinema. Other prevailing themes of the contemporary cinema are the wars in Nagorno- Karabagh and the Velvet Revolution.
The industry still has many problems to solve but hopefully, the first hundred years of the experience will make the second hundred easier to pass.
A cohort of the Critics Academy of the Film at Lincoln Center, Sona Karapoghosyan is an Armenian film critic and curator. Since 2018, she has curated the Regional Competition program of the Golden Apricot International Film Festival focusing on films from Western Asia. A member of The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), Karapoghosyan contributes to several local and international publications.