BY RICHARD HODGINS
Return Of The Native?
Armenian Exile is the least political product of Hagop Goudsouzian’s obsession with Diaspora identity. Exile is almost entirely free of any reference to the genocide, of lament for the great loss, of the demand for justice. Instead, its focus on the personal in the here and now is all the more affecting for such avoidance. And, paradoxically, this method makes it even more politically meaningful for non-Armenians like myself.
Exile is not about how much has been scoured away but, rather, how much has remained beneath a culture’s feet. Every stone still counts. A Belgian archaeologist in Exile reminds us of as much when she uncovers a 5,000-year-old artifact among the thousands of stone markers at one burial site. The artifact and every one of those stones mark the continuity of an Armenia from pre-history to the present. But did you have to be there to get it? No. That’s what we have guys like Goudsouzian for. “What do you think of people like me who come here to search for their roots?” Goudsouzian asks Armenians in their homeland. The question seems overly self-conscious at first, but it turns out to be exactly the right one. From simple farmers to some of the country’s leading artists and artisans, Armenians answer the question not just with disarming candor but with a surprising finality for the Diaspora Armenian. It’s time to admit that I’m no big fan of identity issues for any culture. They so often end up lethal for someone. Whenever I’m drawn into a discussion of how much we’d lose if we were all the same, I say it’s better to be boring and alive than interesting and dead. But, unfortunately, every generation seems to be cursed to live in interesting times. Cultural identity seems to be the only option for so many oppressed groups to preserve their vitality against future need. Still, I make very few exceptions for cultural or nationalistic sentiment. The Armenians are one exception. I wouldn’t excuse the preoccupation with identity if the vitality of the culture in question weren’t something I believed to be special well beyond the customary condescension “we” bestow. I believe Exile itself is and will remain an important artifact of that self-same Armenian vitality for some time to come.
There’s a certain easy movement, from what could be the compulsory cultural comfort food to some, to big hefty ideas for others, in Armenian Exile that one can never decide may be directorial cunning or just dumb luck. For example, Exile begins with Goudsouzian and his driver getting lost on their way to Saint Asdvadzazin Church. Why has the driver become lost? He apologizes to Goudsouzian that he is confused because he only ever walks to Saint Asdvadzazin. He knows where he is when he can feel his Armenia beneath his feet. Every stone counts. The paving stones in front of Saint Asdvadzazin, when we get there, will be where we get our first good bearings. Obviously they’re not just physical bearings. Exile is all about orientation and Goudsouzian’s skill is in showing us that getting lost and then found is just the way things unfold in Armenia.
Goudsouzian’s personal quest for his Armenian identity gradually fades into a metaphorical shadow as the people of Armenia eloquently prove that the Diaspora Armenian, however many generations or nations removed, may have as little problem finding a spiritual locus for his identity as the indigenous Armenian does his physical one. In that way Armenian Exile is, paradoxically again, pretty much free of the idea of exile altogether. The Armenian exile is someone who can only be away; he or she can never be gone.
Another confession: talking about how thoughtful Armenian Exile is has let me escape how moving it often is as well. I’ll have to leave that to you. The DVD is available from www.ArmenianExileTheMovie.com, where you can also see a trailer.