Editor’s Note: Artsakh-based filmmaker Jivan Avetisyan’s latest feature, “Gate to Heaven” had its world premiere on Thursday in Yerevan. On this occasion we are publishing the interview, below, published on H-Pem, Hamazkayin’s recently-unveiled online portal to Armenian culture.
BY RUPEN JANBAZIAN
If one thing stuck with me during my introduction to director Jivan Avetisyan about a decade ago, it was that in spite of his humble nature, he was very proud of where he was from. Fast forward several years and it seems little has changed.
“I am from Artsakh. You know, my roots run deep in Artsakh,” he tells me, without even giving me the chance to utter my first question. As we converse in his Downtown Yerevan office over strong Armenian coffee, and in between a barrage of phone calls he has to ignore, years on, his focus – and his creative output – continues to be zeroed in on one thing: his beloved, still-unrecognized nation…
“If we were to take a moment to count, there are seven or more generations of my family buried in our ancestral village [in Artsakh]. Say what you want… That means something,” he says.
And although he considers himself an Artsakhtsi through and through, it might surprise most that Jivan was actually born in Gyumri – Armenia’s second-largest city – in 1981, following his family’s relocation there. After the devastating earthquake that rattled Gyumri and nearby towns and villages, the Avetisyan clan moved back to their ancestral village, where Jivan spent most of his youth.
“My school – Stepanakert’s number nine – had a profound impact on my life. It was different from the other schools,” Jivan says of his cherished elementary school. “The quality of education was great, but that wasn’t all that important to us. Its impact was mostly because it was situated along a forest and the [then mostly Azerbaijani-inhabited] village of Krkzhan. It was a time of war – and whether you like it or not, war impacts your life, your journey,” he explains.
Life during the devastating war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands more was not easy for the Avetisyan family and although he doesn’t delve into details, his blank stare speaks volumes. “I won’t say much about that time, but I will say that it shaped me,” he says.
Just four years after the ceasefire was signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Republic of Artsakh, Jivan was conscripted into the military for his mandatory service and between 1999 and 2001, he was able to serve his dear Artsakh as a member of the unrecognized state’s army. “[The Army] wasn’t easy, but knowing you are doing it for a greater good, for something that’s bigger than you, makes me look back at those days with a smile on my face,” he explains.
Following his service, Avetisyan made the important decision to take his passion for cinema to the next level and enrolled in the Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Cinematography. The move, he says, was “terrifying but also exhilarating and liberating.” Alone for the first time and away from his comfort zone, he was free not to only find himself, but also to chase his passion. While studying, Jivan took a job at the newly founded Television station Yerkir Media as a security guard – he figured he wanted to be “close to the cinematic action,” even if it meant spending hours at his mundane, uninteresting job as the station’s watchman.
His plan eventually paid off as Yerkir offered him his first directorial gig – a small segment for TV, which eventually led to more jobs, and, ultimately, his promotion to chief director at the station. “They seemed to like my work – one gig led to another, until I eventually came to be in charge,” Avetisyan explains, “but it didn’t come easy. I put in my time. Who would have thought – the security guard – right?”
After 12 years at Yerkir Media, Jivan decided to establish his own production company, the Fish Eye Art Cultural Foundation, along with his friend and longtime collaborator Masis Baghdasarian. The company has, just recently, wrapped up with its third feature-length film, “Gate to Heaven.”
Jivan’s modesty does not skip a beat as he details his journey to this point. When probed about how he has been able to be so productive and release three films in the last five years (check out the trailers to all three below), the prolific director deflects the praise and instead thanks his supporting cast. “Nothing would be possible without the hard work and dedication of my team,” he says, adding that the word “team” for him goes way beyond his colleagues and production staff. “My family – my wife and three kids – my like-minded friends, my comrades, and the hundreds of folks who have contributed to my film… All of this would be impossible without them.”
Only in passing does Avetisyan admit that he has put in no less than 15 hours of work per day for the last 20 years. “You can have the best team in the world, but it would mean nothing without the hard work… That goes without saying,” he explains, looking to the floor as if he feels shame in admitting his toil.
For Jivan, the reason to establish his own company and direct films is simple: to create pieces of art, “which represent my homeland; to show the world the real Artsakh.” His full-length feature debut was “Tevanik” in 2014, a joint Armenian-Lithuanian feature, which was made in cooperation with National Cinema Center of Armenia and Lithuanian Artbox Production House. “’Tevanik’ – like all my films – is the story of Artsakh; about the war, about loss,” the director explains. Following the day in the lives of three children in an Artsakh village during the war, Jivan took famed Armenian writer and director Arnold Aghababov’s short script about the war, into a beautifully shot film about love and sacrifice.
Following its Yerevan premiere, ”Tevanik” was screened at the 67th Cannes International Film Festival, where it caught the attention of critics. “The reception was overwhelmingly positive and it seemed as though both film lovers and critics enjoyed the film, which isn’t always the case,” explains Jivan. He wasn’t off. Besides having the honor of being screened in more than 20 countries (and being translated into nine languages along the way), “Tevanik” also amassed an impressive number of awards from competitions across the globe, including Best Screenplay at the Arpa International Film Festival of Los Angeles; Best Feature Prize in the Armenian Panorama Competition at the Golden Apricot Film Festival; the Audience Choice Award at the Silk Road International Film Festival in Xi’an, China; and Most Original Work in the International Feature Films Competition of the Overlook Film Festival in Rome.
Jivan followed “Tevanik” with another film about the Artsakh War, “The Last Inhabitant,” which he calls an “international endeavor.” Though filming and production took place in the tiny village of Khachmach, Arstakh (population, approximately 200), the film came to life as a result of a partnership that spanned across five countries. Along with Avetisyan’s Art Cultural Foundation and the National Cinema Center of Armenia, and Artbox Production House (of Lithuania, which had co-produced “Tevanik), Jivan’s second feature was also co-produced by Apricot Stone of Sweden, Alpha Dogs, Inc. and the Mosaics Art and Cultural Foundation of the U.S., and the Lebanese University Institute of Fine Arts . “The cast was as international as the people behind the scenes,” Jivan explains, “actors from Lithuania, Greece, Russia, and the States were featured in the film.”
He even managed to get some Armenian star power in the film. Serj Tankian of System of a Down wrote the musical score for the film, which recorded with the participation of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra. “Serj has always been supportive of my work and his participation was very special,” Jivan explains.
“The Last Inhabitant,” which focuses on and tells the story of one man, is, in fact, a very human story, according to Avetisyan. “[The film] is about Abgar, the only Armenian left in the village of Gyurjevan following the deportations of Armenians and his search for his daughter. But really, it’s a story about survival and how all of us, regardless of race, culture, and religion, need one another in order to survive,” he explains.
Following its initial release in late 2016, “The Last Inhabitant,” like its predecessor, did the festival circuit and took home an impressive assortment of awards, including Best Feature and Best Actor at the Scandinavian International Film Festival. The film even caught the attention of HBO execs, and the film’s Eastern European distribution rights were picked up by the storied company in late 2017. Through the deal, the film was screened throughout Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Macedonia.
When speaking about his latest project, “Gate to Heaven,” which set to have its world premiere in Yerevan on October 17, Avetisyan explains that the film is just another installment in an ongoing mission. “I don’t want to philosophize or politicize the matter, but telling the world of Artsakh is like a duty for me – a duty as an Armenian, as well as a personal obligation,” he details. For Avetisyan, the Armenian victory in Artsakh in the early ‘90s was more than re-claiming lost lands, but a way for all Armenians to shed what he calls their “victim complex” following the Armenian Genocide. “A century ago, we established statehood, and with the victory [in Artsakh] we cemented statehood,” Jivan says.
On a personal level, Jivan’s obligation is much simpler. “Like I explained when we first sat down today, like I always do” he says, admitting his passion, “seven generations of family tombs – I am their legacy. Both World Wars, self-defense at Baku, the Liberation War – my family has participated in every war in the region in the last century. I know why I am here.”
The director’s latest project focuses on Artsakh’s latest conflict, one that Jivan was very much a part of: the April 2016 War – often referred to as the “Four Day War.” In it, a European journalist named Robert Stenvall returns to Artsakh in 2016 to cover the war and meets Sophia, a young opera singer and the daughter of the missing photojournalist whom he left behind in captivity during the fall of Talish (1992). The connection between the liberation war of the early 1990s and the 2016 war that have been called the worst clashes there since the ceasefire was signed in 1994 are palpable in the film’s synopsis. “I wanted to show the world that the war is ongoing; that there is no peace, only a shaky armistice,” Jivan explains.
Although he came up with the film’s storyline and even took part in the writing process, Avetisyan does not consider himself a writer by any means. “[The story] may have been born in my head, but I’m just a director,” he explains, crediting Artavazd Yeghiazaryan and Mko Malkhasyan’s work on developing the plot and making it ready for the big screen. “What the public will see is the product of the hard work – the blood, sweat, and tears – of all three of us,” he goes on.
Avetisyan explains that his latest project would not have even gotten off the ground if it were not for the help of his friends, family, and loved ones, but also the financial and emotional support of hundreds of complete strangers. In March 2018, Jivan launched a crowd funding campaign to help make his dream a reality and the response, according to the director, was overwhelming. “More than $10,000 was collected in the first three days since the launch,” he explained. “Although the film’s budget is much higher than the crowd funding target, it was important for me to get the community – especially the worldwide Armenian Diaspora – directly involved with the project. This is our [Armenians’] story and all those who contributed are part of telling it to the world, are part of its success,” Avetisyan says.
Jivan is also grateful to the countless organizations, foundations, and companies – both Armenian and non-Armenian – which made financial contributions to the film. One organization Jivan mentions is Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society, which has supported all of his films in some capacity. “Organizations like Hamazkayin prove that when like-minded people come together and work for a common goal, their labors will bear fruit,” he explains.
Jivan does not like forgetting his talented ensemble and also credits his diverse cast for the success of his latest film. “Gate the Heaven” stars German actors Richard Sammel (best known for his role as Thomas Eichhorst on the FX television series “The Strain”) and Nina Kronjäger; Lithuanian actor Leonardas Pobedonoscevas (“Defiance”); Russian actor Tatiana Spivakova; Swiss actor Benedict Freitag; Armenian-American actor Naira Zakaryan; as well as a host of big names from Armenia, including Sos Janibekyan and Armen Sargsyan.
For Avetisyan, it was important to have a strong cast, because the actors are an integral piece of the puzzle, which makes a good film. “A good story with a bad cast is just as useless as a bad story with great actors,” he explains.
“The fact that it’s so multi-ethnic – that they are from all over – is just further proof that this isn’t an ‘Armenian story’ and that the ongoing conflict does not only pertain to Armenians and Azerbaijanis,” he says. “The story is about the truth and truth is universal.”
After wrapping up shooting and post-production, Jivan is more than happy with the result. And even though the film’s Armenian release is set for next week, and its Los Angeles premiere is scheduled for March of next year, he is hopeful for a wide release spanning continents in the coming months. “I want the world to see our story, our truth. It wasn’t easy getting here, but I must say, I am proud,” he says, putting his trademark humility aside for a moment. “Telling the truth, especially about my home, my land, warrants a sense of pride, I guess.”
“Gate to Heaven” will premiere in Yerevan on October 17. The film will be released in cinemas across Armenia on October 25.