BY KAREN JALLATYAN
Gariné Torossian is a Lebanese-born Canadian-Armenian filmmaker who for more than two decades has been making numerous audio-visual works of art of astonishing complexity. She has graciously agreed to answer a few questions regarding her practice and specifically her first feature-length film “Stone Time Touch” (2007). After the film premiered in the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival, it went on to be screened at over 50 festivals and aired on the Sundance Channel (USA) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It continues its run in April in Berlin as part of the “INVOCATION—A Cinematic Memorial” program curated by Fred Kelemen, and in autumn of 2015 at the Armenian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, curated by Adelina Von Frustenberg. Our conversation also touched upon Torossian’s early emblematic short film, “Girl From Moush” (1993), and her new feature-length film, “Noise of Time,” about a woman returning to Bourj Hammoud and inadvertently confronting her past.
KAREN JALLATUAN: What were some of the circumstances behind making “Stone Time Touch”?
GARINÉ TOROSSIAN: It was important for me to discover Armenia as a traveler and filmmaker, and to explore the relationship between the real Armenia and my imagined one. It was my first sojourn to Armenia and Georgia, where I stayed for a considerable time. The film is many things, including an exploration of my relationship with the country from different perspectives. One of the characters is a first-time visitor to Armenia. Another knows and depicts the country under a less-than-optimistic light. Yet another is the filmmaker documenting the different layers of reality and perspectives through a series of interviews, mostly with the women of Armenia. All of these perspectives are ones I’m interested in, and so I found a way of interweaving them into my film, which is, in a nutshell, a search for a country, and there are many different perspectives one can excavate, depending on your point of view—who you choose to interview or not, and where you look or not, as well as how you look at a place and its people. Reality and its discovery is a complicated, multi-layered process, so this film was my search for how to approach reality in an authentic way.
K.J.: In an important piece entitled “Diaspora Studies: Past, Present and Promise” (2012), Khachig Tölölyan distinguishes the subjective (individual) and objective (collective, social and material) realities in diasporas by relying on Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory.” Postmemory is what is transmitted from often collective gripping traumatic events to the second generation. To what extent were you aware that your subjective perspective in making “Stone Time Touch” would address the broader objective realities pertaining to the Armenian diaspora and its “postmemory”? What did you learn in the course of making this film about the Armenian diasporic “postmemory” as it encountered the “actual” Armenia through you and through the lens of your camera?
G.T.: Well, for an Armenian, there is no way really to leave history. That’s probably true of all people and nationalities. Even if as a diasporic person it’s in fact really easy to leave your country, and I’ve done that many times now, what is more challenging is leaving its collective past. It preoccupies my thoughts and work as an artist, and that’s also true of the Lebanese civil war. That kind of past is different than your individual history, which we’re capable of shaping through our actions and will, but it’s different with collective history—the memories are sort of bequeathed or hoisted upon you independent of your will. For me, as an artist, these are two sources I draw from, and I go back and forth between the individual as well as transnational memories and the larger national memories we’ve inherited as Armenians, and I move between these categories in my films too. I don’t think one has a larger place in my work than the other. I don’t prioritize that way. They are all sources of inspiration, apprehension and exploration. As far as postmemory is concerned and how collective trauma has been transmitted to our generation, it’s not so much the exploration of that idea that is interwoven into “Stone Time Touch,” as much as the search of what constitutes reality. One of the things I learned is that my actual Armenia is not only different than, say, to someone who was born and grew up there, but that what constitutes Armenia in its totality may be very different and unique to a lot of different people based on their experience and biography.
K.J.: The narrative of encounter, cast at its face value as a “return to homeland,” that you stage in “Stone Time Touch” between a diasporic Armenian identity and the actuality of Armenia, is represented in a style that reminds me of your earlier short film “Girl From Moush” and suggests a certain “diaspora aesthetic.” I borrow the phrase “diaspora aesthetics” from Stuart Hall, who theorizes identity as the practice of positioning ourselves within processes of identification, while acknowledging that difference undercuts all claims to identity. How would you describe your “diaspora aesthetics”? Do such “diaspora aesthetics” also inform your understanding of Armenia as a country, nowadays especially after your visits to Armenia?
G.T.: I appreciate the distinction, but I don’t see my work as falling into one paradigm or the other. If there is such a thing as a diasporan aesthetics, I see it as very broad. My tastes are quite catholic, kind of wide, and I don’t mean this in the religious sense. I also think that the aesthetic choices between diaspora and homeland will inevitably become more blurred or borrow more from each other—much more so than in the past. Post-Soviet Armenian filmmakers will have more interaction with diasporan filmmakers and the same will be true the other way around. Since “Stone Time Touch,” I lived in Armenia for two consecutive years, and while there are clearly differences, say in architecture, between Soviet modern and the West’s International School, you have more of a cross-pollination of cultures and sensibilities between homeland and the outside, so these categories will become less relevant. Having said that, yes there are differences, real ones, there clearly are. Very likely the Russian sensibility or aesthetics has a much smaller place in my creative representation than it does for post-Soviet Armenian filmmakers. But I try to remain open to all influences and try to watch widely and critically. That’s inevitable because as a diasporan my aesthetic sensibility is very much informed by my movement, my actual movement across frontiers, cities and homes, from Beirut to Toronto, Berlin, Paris, Yerevan, and Montreal, not as a visitor but a resident.
K.J.: Hudson Moura from the University of Toronto has written extensively about your films. He sees your work as simultaneously positioned between cultures and media, one liminal positioning nourishing the other. To what extent did you feel yourself as an artist-in-exile when you started your artistic projects? In what ways did you experience, if ever, a transition from being in exile to living in the diaspora? And finally, was there a moment when you felt that you had decidedly overcome any sense of melancholic longing for a homeland, especially after the making of “Stone Time Touch”?
G.T.: Yes, I have overcome that melancholic longing, and that happened after I lived in Yerevan for two consecutive years. My second son was born there, the first one in Paris. Those were personal choices we made as a family—professional choices, artistic choices; so the multiple migrations from city to city that we’ve made in recent years had little to do with that exilic condition. Exile presupposes some kind of forced expulsion from one’s homeland. So I’ve never felt that exilic experience in the larger existential sense. Melancholy and memory, yes, the search for a multifarious identity shaped by my residencies in different places, yes, but that’s quite different than exile. Even before my hyper movement across borders since 2007, when my feature came out, I was more focused on identity as a theme in my work, but perhaps that’s not so peculiar to my case. The search for identity has a particular place in Canada and among Canadians, so maybe their preoccupation with it only fed my curiosity with the issue.
K.J.: “Stone Time Touch,” in contrast to “Girl From Moush,” has pockets of stories and an overarching narrative. What are the ways in which you think about telling stories in your films as opposed to reframing iconic images to shift the way we see them? What are the forces of storytelling that you strive to harness in “Stone Time Touch” and in your current work?
G.T.: I’ve moved more toward narrative with my current feature, which I’m still editing. It’s not script-based in the traditional sense. I don’t think I’d ever want to do that, at least not in the commercial sense, but there are scripted parts to it, and there are several overarching stories and acting in it, so “Noise of Time” will be different than what I’ve done in the past. My earlier short films were a flood of poetic and iconic imagery, and there will always be that in my work, but I’ve become more interested in telling the stories of others than working my obsessions and inner world onto actual film stock. I also think that it’s a pity that industry pundits throw films into categories or buckets like experimental or narrative. It’s more important to make good films, ones that move us, with unique characters that stay with us. So to get back to your question, one of the forces behind my storytelling is to try and build the narrative around remarkable and strong characters. The story has to be character-driven.
K.J.: The moving images in “Stone Time Touch” throb with the intricate rhythms of Zulal a cappella trio’s renditions of Armenian folk tunes. Why did you decide to use the music of this diaspora Armenian group? Is this just a rhythmic frame, or did you also want to draw attention to the cultural production of the diaspora, in an attempt to reflect upon it?
G.T.: I loved their music. It resonated with me, and it fit perfectly with the images. I wasn’t thinking of the diaspora when I decided to use their music in the film, just how beautiful their voices are. The closing scene is actually very moving and features a young girl from Armenia singing. It’s in there because it’s beautiful, not because she was born in historic Armenia.
K.J.: “Stone Time Touch” is rare among films representing Armenia and the Armenian diaspora because it is from women’s perspectives and draws attention to the reality of women in so many ways. Despite the oblique presence of powerful patriarchal institutions in the film, “Stone Time Touch” creates a space in which women represent and are represented. The three protagonists are women: Kamee Abrahamian, Arsinée Khanjian, and yourself, Gariné Torossian. The voices of the Zulal trio are all female. The poor and the artists represented are, by and large, women. Of course, there are men in the film, but they do not monopolize the space of representation. Did you pay careful attention to the role of women in conceiving of “Stone Time Touch”?
G.T.: Yes, very much so. Women, except in a few countries, generally do not occupy positions of authority in the world. In more patriarchal countries like Armenia, this reality is even more appalling. I thought it was important to give voice to the women of Armenia, as theirs is very much an under-represented one. Yet, in so many households, they’re the ones who are the mothers, the breadwinners, the cooks, and full-time workers. I’ve never seen such strong-willed and confident women. Armenia needs its own version of Germany’s Angela Merkel. It would be a great premise for a movie too.
Karen Jallatyan is a Ph.D. student of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine and plans to write an interdisciplinary dissertation on the contemporary visual and digital culture of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. He or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at criticsforum.org. To sign up for electronic versions of new articles, go to criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.