BY LUDMILA CVIKOVA
From The Armenian Weekly
In 1999, I was invited to visit Georgia and Azerbaijan for the first time, as a representative of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Netherlands (IFFR) and a curator of this region. Undoubtedly a very impressive and unforgettable trip was ahead of me, I thought. When everything was arranged, shortly before my trip, and I was holding a return ticket Amsterdam-Tbilisi-Baku in my hands, all of a sudden I remembered to call an Armenian film critic, Susanna Harutunyun, whom I had met during the Berlinale a year before for the first time.
I remembered her passionate and proud words about the then almost non-existent national cinema and our long discussions about Armenian classics: Parajanov’s and Peleshyan’s masterpieces. Susanna had been an honorable guest at Berlinale then, and the festival treated her with respect as one of the very few experts present from the region at that time.
It was a hard period for Armenia then, shortly after the regional wars were over; the country was still in ruins and just rebuilding its infrastructures. For culture there was no space and money, as yet. But little did I know about this. When I called Susanna from our office and as I told her about my upcoming trip to the Caucasian region, she very decisively and persuasively answered: “But Ludmila, once you’re in Tbilisi, you cannot leave it without visiting Yerevan and our Ministry of Culture!”
I promised her I would give her a call when in Tbilisi. Susanna was right and her idea just did not leave me alone.
As traveling from Tbilisi to Yerevan was impossible at that time (no trains, no planes—just to use a quote from the Dutch filmmaker Jos Stelling’s film), I persuaded my Georgian friends to help me accomplish this task. A rented old Zhiguli with a Georgian Armenian as a driver was their solution. The trip took us eight hours by dusty and bumpy roads (asphalt roads didn’t exist then), excluding the two hours check at the border. This was part of my adventurous film research in those times. The beautiful landscapes with hills, meadows, cows and, every now and then, armed men in uniform are still engraved in my memory.
Once in Yerevan, I was embraced by warmth and hospitality of my hosts at the Ministry of Culture—Susanna Harutunyun and Mikhail Stamboltsyan. The ministry was a sad and shabby place then. It took my hosts some time to find some coffee to serve me; water was boiled with an electric wire put into a glass cup (as I remembered it from my youth). On the walls of the office, there were posters of the IFFR connected with the visit of Parajanov at our festival in 1989!
A connection had been made. This connection has been growing and strengthening since then, in many ways. Yerevan and Armenia were definitely put on the map of IFF Rotterdam’s research interest, even though the film industry did not actually exist.
Some years later, I had the honor of being a member of the international documentary jury at Karlovy Vary IFFR in the Czech Republic. One of the awards of our international jury went to the Armenian documentary filmmaker Harutyun Khachatryan. It was a pleasure and honor for us all to meet the director personally, as seeing a film from Armenia and meeting its director was still very special in those times.
Another connection with Armenia had been made, and these two connections have merged in a special professional one sometime later. It happened in Yerevan.
The prominent Dutch film critic Peter van Bueren and I became one of the first members of the international jury of the Armenian Panorama at the very first Golden Apricot International Film Festival (GAIFF). The year was 2003; the city had changed enormously, becoming almost unrecognizable! It was great to see its recovery and to come here for the second time, this time for real.
Armenia was put back on the map of the international film industry, thanks to this festival, as the organizers of the GAIFF (film director Harutyun Khachatryan and the film critic Susanna Harutunyun) have rightly felt and understood the good timing for organizing it. They rightly understood that it was impossible to attract professionals from the international film industry to come to Armenia; the Armenian film production was still quite low in quantity and, let’s be very honest, was not of a high quality. One could feel a sort of post-Soviet vacuum in ideas and their formal presentation as well. The only exceptions were the films of Khachatryan, which were receiving prizes all over the world for their high artistic quality and a specific auteur’s look at the world. His films were the ones that started opening doors to the Armenian film culture again.
During its six years of existence, the GAIFF has attracted many important and famous people from the international film industry to come, visit, or work for it. Who would not be impressed by names like Atom Egoyan, Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Zanussi, Nikita Mikhalkov, Simon Field, Deborah Young, Yesim Ustaoglu, Bruno Dumont, Leos Carax, Ulrich Seidl, Catherine Breillat, and many more? What’s more: the festival has taken upon itself the role of promoting the growth of Armenian cinema and educating a new generation of not only Armenian film directors but those from the neighbouring countries as well, the latter in the form of the workshops Directors Across the Borders (DAB). As a film industry professional myself, I must honestly tell you that both tasks are not so obvious and certainly not easy to fulfill.
Presenting your own national cinema at an international film festival can be done either in a sidebar program or by including one of the films in its international competition. But if we look at international festivals in many countries, they mostly have their separate national film production festivals for promoting films for the outside world. There is almost a non-existent selection, as all productions—from documentaries to shorts, films, and even TV productions—are often showcased together. As Armenia obviously has not had quantitatively and qualitatively strong film productions until now, and also because of financial reasons, there is no national film festival in the country (in the Netherlands we have got the Netherlands Film Festival, which is held each year in September).
If there is no national film festival, people automatically expect that this gap should be filled in by international film festivals. This situation is similar in many post-communist countries that still don’t have them, and there is no existing body representing national film production either. International festivals often take over this role. As the selection of the films inevitably depends on the artistic vision of the festival, it also often brings about unnecessary disputes and frustrations. The IFFR has a concept of showing a few Dutch films in a sidebar program called “Dutch treats,” and if a film achieves high international standards and is strong enough to compete internationally, then we include it in our Tiger Award Competition.
There are many festivals growing like mushrooms almost every month all over the world these days. Those many festivals have different functions and their own dramaturgy. Many of them are used for promoting a town or a region. Yerevan’s GAIFF is one of those that are on a good path. It is fulfilling a few of the most important tasks that an international festival like this should do: It’s putting Armenia back on the film industry’s world map, promoting the national film industry outside of the country, and bringing important films, film directors, and film professionals from the contemporary world cinema to Armenia. This all is also very important for the Armenian filmmakers, as not all of them can afford to travel. At least in this way they can see the latest developments in contemporary world cinema. And let’s hope that the festival will be also able to continue to support the development of young talents during the DAB workshops.
Last but not least, Yerevan’s GAIFF attracts representatives from the European and world film funds who come there each year during the festival in search of new projects and new regional talent. As a representative of the IFFR’s Hubert Bals Fund that supports film production from South America, Asia, and Africa, I have been presenting our fund every time I have gone to Yerevan and it was certainly very useful. Personal contact with Armenian, Georgian, Turkish, and Iranian filmmakers and explanations of how our fund (and other funds) works bore its fruits in the past six years. It resulted in support of some Armenian (but also international) film projects. Just to name a few of them: Chnchik (Aram Shahbazyan), Naksho (Harutyun Khachatryan), and Bonded Parallels (Hovhannes Galstyan).
My last visit at the GAIFF in Yerevan was in 2009 when I was a part of the team for the DAB workshop, working with young filmmakers from the region on their projects. On one hand it was very encouraging, as we met many new, enthusiastic young filmmakers who are literally hungry to shoot their films, to see their projects come into existence. As I have understood from them, the situation in the Armenian film industry is far from rosy for young filmmakers, as there is no interest and no official support for them whatsoever. There isn’t any existing national film fund and when there is some money, it is certainly not given to the up-and-coming talent. I realized that this was true when, during the three days of the workshop, not a single representative from the Ministry of Culture or any Armenian production house (neither state nor private) or fund showed up. Then I sadly realized: a new talent is here, international experts come from far away, but it is all ignored by the domestic decision-makers.
This is endemic to the post-communist region. Armenia is no exception. And often it’s also true: the smaller the country is, the more it is split, the more fights, jealousy, and misunderstandings there are. But there are also a few good examples: Let’s have a look at Estonia, Slovenia, or Bosnia. There they’ve put their efforts and energies together and, with or without the help of international festivals that they started there, they have revived their own film industry, offered chances to their own young talents, and nowadays are known all over the world, thanks to the new films by their talented young filmmakers. Many new waves of young filmmakers have appeared in the last two decades from Eastern Europe, the most important of them being the Romania New Wave. But there are also the Czech ones, the Hungarian ones, and the recently appearing Polish or Georgian generations of young filmmakers. I am convinced that there are a few birds that can bring spring to the young Armenian cinema as well. It will take some time and effort to see their films conquer the international arena but because there is potential, there is hope as well. This is also thanks to the GAIFF.
Dear Armenians, be proud of your great festival. I myself am proud of it too. Wishing you all good films, good guests, and good spirit for its 7th edition!
Ludmila Cvikova is a Czech-born film expert, who currently resides in the Netherlands. She has been working in the European film scene since 1980.