BY PAUL CHADERJIAN
Picture breathtaking, sweeping views of Armenia. Visualize panoramic landscapes of an historic place, populated for more than six thousand years. Imagine drone camera footage, a bird’s eye view of the country’s diverse and colorful geography, its mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes.
Buckle your belts now. You’re about to journey to parts of a homeland that have never been this comprehensively filmed before. Your front row-seat to an unparalleled, first-person audio-visual experience is right in your living room or office.
Point and click your way to Armenian public television’s website or YouTube to enjoy a new series called Road / Ճանապարհ. It’s an engaging documentary series captured by multiple body-mounted, handheld and stabilized cameras. Turn up the volume to hear her ancient, salt-of-the-earth people, the villagers, her farmers and her youth.
Multi-platform Content for Millennials
The Road / Ճանապարհ travel-food-discovery-reality-ecotourism television series premiered this fall on Armenia’s First Channel. Many fans say It’s by far the best reality television show produced in Armenia to date.
The inception of Road / Ճանապարհ was prompted when its protagonist, an American-Armenian, found himself in an existential angst many first, second or third generation diasporans are bound to confront. Like thousands of other immigrants and refugees or the progeny of displaced peoples, the 35-year-old, blond, blue-eyed star of the show confronted the mystery for the archetypical, often-hyphenated diasporan. He wanted to know what it meant to be an Armenian. He wondered how others connected with the homeland decades or hundreds of years after they emigrated or were forced to leave.
Before heading to his ancestors’ birthplace from his native U.S. state of Washington, Roffi Petrossian had always pondered how to explain the origins of his name to others. He wondered how a diasporan could teach his or her children to be Armenian and feel like an Armenian? He wanted to know what it was like to live in that place, experience its modern civilization, taste its foods and get to know the land and its people.
“I originally came to Armenia to see the country with my own eyes, to better my Armenian language skills, so that I can continue the traditions and culture,” says Roffi. He found himself wanting to tell the story of Armenia when he met new people in Seattle, but he heard himself repeating the stories he had been told by relatives, who themselves had not been to Armenia.
“The catalyst was going to an Armenian wedding in California and realizing I could not understand what people were saying. I couldn’t be part of the dinner table conversation. I saw wedding traditions that I didn’t know existed,” he says. The wedding celebration made him wonder what else he didn’t know about his people and his ancestry. The experience prompted him to think about traveling to Armenia and getting involved somehow.
Spelling Roffi, explained by his mom
“The reason your dad and I named you Roffi was that you were born when the first movie from the Rocky film franchise was released. We enjoyed it so much that we thought about the strength of that name. We decided the Armenian name Roffi was so close we’d name you Roffi, but spelled it R-O-F-F-I rather than R-A-F-I. We didn’t want you to go through school with Americans pronouncing it wrong, emphasizing the ‘ah’ sound.”
A few months after his “aha” moment at the wedding he attended in Glendale, Roffi was on the ground in Yerevan, courtesy of Depi Hayk, Birthright Armenia. Depi Hayk is a volunteer organization, created by Edele Hovnanian, that offers part or full travel reimbursements for those of Armenian descent who are at least 21 years old. The amount of reimbursement is between fifty to one hundred percent depending on how long a participant volunteers in Armenia.
“I purchased a one-way ticket, not with the intent to stay permanently, but to have the freedom to go back when I was ready, or my money ran out,” says Roffi. “After one year of volunteering, I wasn’t ready to go back. Luckily, I found work straight away as the chief gardener at the Boghossian Garden in Yerevan.” Known as Lovers’ Park, the 18th century park had been left in disrepair and was renovated and reopened in 2008, thanks to Swiss-Armenian philanthropist Albert Boghossian and Armenia Fund, the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund.
After Roffi started his job at Lovers’ Park, he also was tapped to be a development advisor to the Clean Energy and Water Program administered by USAID, the U.S. agency responsible for distributing aid money to foreign countries. “I was also Chief Gardener at Nairian Cosmetics, at which point, I was working nights managing the indoor rock climbing gym, Boulder Town.
“Back in the States, I was a horticulturalist and a gardener. I never dreamt of performing or being a media personality,” says the star of Road / Ճանապարհ. “In all honesty, I shy away from the spotlight, from attention, and to this day, I always feel a certain performance anxiety whenever I have to go in front of the camera.”
Roffi says he’s been working since he was 16 and has done everything from waiting tables to tending bar and even telemarketing. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Design and Technology and worked as the manager of videography for a consumer research firm. He was tasked to work alongside anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists to understand people’s food purchasing habits. Those years of travel around the U.S., filming interviews and making short documentaries for their clients paid off when he landed in Armenia.
After the global financial meltdown, Roffi lost his job at the consumer research firm. It was then he decided to returned to school to earn a second degree in Environmental Horticulture. Contacts he made at his university lead him to a job in his new field.
“I did landscape design for the city of Seattle, designing and building rain gardens, special gardens using a mix of special soil, and plants adapted to tolerate both extreme wet and dry soil,” he says. “I designed systems that redirected rainwater that would normally fall onto impermeable surface to the garden, so that it can slowly infiltrate the soil profile and not overwhelm the water treatment facilities during periods of heavy rain.”
The star of Road / Ճանապարհ never imagined he would become a coveted celebrity when he decided to repatriate to his ancestral homeland. His journey toward stardom began slowly when he started hosting a show called Homesick at Home on the Van radio station.
“I started doing some voice overs in English, here in Yerevan,” says Roffi. “Someone heard me speaking and said I had a great voice. So, I was recorded reading translated Armenian books for an international audience.”
Soon Roffi found himself doing commercials on the radio and on television. Dozens of organizations and agencies tapped his voice and his image for their media and advertising campaigns. He says he was gardening at Lovers’ Park during the day and shooting commercials and films at nights and weekends.
“One day at the Sharm Holding studio, a casting director saw me standing in the hall, and asked me to act as Jesus for an upcoming show,” he says. From there, another casting agent at another studio saw me, and so on and so forth.”
On the Road with Roffi
Roffi’s avocation soon became his vocation when he decided he would commit full time to shooting a documentary exploring Armenia with Bars Media founder, filmmaker Vardan Hovhannisyan.
“Armenia is approachable, warm, inviting, genetically and culturally homogenous, and yet naturally diverse and rich,” says Roffi. “There was no better way to show Armenia than to get out of the capital, and roam around through the countryside.”
Road / Ճանապարհ is a work of art and a work of love, a collaboration between Roffi, Bars Media and H1, Armenian Public Television.
“In May of 2016, Vardan and I sat down to discuss the filming of me walking through Armenia,” says Roffi. “We waited for confirmation from H1 and started filming last June.” He says he hopes his new series will make Armenia-natives, Hayastancis proud of their country. “To make Spirkahays (diasporans) want to visit. And to make everyone else aware of the country and the natural beauty, both of the people, culture, and land.”
Roffi, a rotating crew of three producers, three directors and twelve cameramen have shot the first 12-episode season of the show through late October. As Roffi walked from the republic’s southernmost border to its northern, he and his crew had a support vehicle in case emergency.
Producers in Yerevan kept abreast of his travels and contacted villages and cities he traveled through ahead of his arrival. Roffi and his team spent a night in a villager’s home every ten days to recharge their batteries, record Roffi’s narration of the footage and upload their work to Bars Media in Yerevan.
Behind the Scenes
The biggest takeaways from his journey around Armenia were about people’s generosity and the feeling of belonging. “I often felt like a long lost relative who finally came home,” Roffi says. “Everyone wanted to talk with me, sit down with me, share a story over food and drink. Everyone wanted to help however they could. This kind of generosity is something that I’ve only found in Armenia, even though I’ve traveled and lived in England, Canada, Australia, Norway and all of western Europe.”
Roffi remembers his time in Kalar, a small village in the southern Syunik region. “I stumbled into a hidden and faraway village with no plans. I was greeted by the entire village. They were all telling me how to climb the tallest mountain in the region, even though each of their directions to the same mountain were different.”
Two young men from the village drove Roffi to the peak, where they collected edible herbs before returning home to eat homemade cheese, fresh greens and tea. “We sat in their humble village home, laughing, joking,” he says. “Then I fed their pigs and took selfies with the family.”
As he continued on from Syunik, the family he broke bread with sent him text messages, asking about his well-being and how much of his journey north had he completed. “To this day, we still talk,” he says.
“I think the most difficult aspect was the fact that I always had a camera filming me for four months,” he says. “Physically, it was no problem. I’m relatively young and healthy. I’ve been hiking and camping all my life, and I have no problem sleeping on the floor or eating bread all day. But emotionally sharing every moment and being surrounded by people all the time, that was different, draining.”
Roffi says he’s a private person and seeks alone time. Midway through the shoot, he and his team took time off for rest and recuperation. The break during his border-to-border walk also meant he could spend time with his future wife, a woman he met and fell in love with in Armenia.
Roffi says his father is proud of what he’s doing here in Armenia, how he repatriated with no connections and no family and how he has not just survived but thrived. “I know he would love to be in Armenia too,” he says.
Roffi’s mother is also proud, he says. “She loves seeing what I’m posting on Facebook. She follows my adventures online. I don’t think it matters for either of them that it is in Armenia or anywhere else. They are proud of my accomplishments, happy to see me happy, even if it means being far away from them.”
Petrossian Family History explained by Roffi
“My father is full Armenian, born and raised in Tehran, Iran. At the age of 18, he moved to Seattle, Washington, to attend university. He held a number of jobs to pay his way through school, studied engineering and began a career in the aerospace industry.
“My mother has British and French roots. She grew up in Virginia. Her father was an insurance salesman, who quit everything to move the entire family out to Washington state, build a farm and live off the land. My parents met in University. My mother learned Armenian for my father, and after they were married, my father brought his entire family from Iran to America. There were ten of us living in one house, only speaking Armenian.
“There is a very small Armenian community in Seattle that my father helped in bringing together in the 1970s. They met once a month at the agump, the clubhouse in a rental building near the city of Bellevue. I did not go to Armenian school, but I always knew I was Armenian. I identified as Armenian, but I was clearly an American and really too different to fit into either.
“My grandma would walk me to elementary school holding my hand. My lunch would be dolma and rice. It was nothing the other kids wanted to trade. And all I wanted was to be like them and eat a non-nutritious, store-bought Lunchable. I would come home to my grandma’s home cooked macarone. My family would drink coffee and read fortunes from the dried grounds collecting at the bottom of the cup.
“At Armenian barbeques, newcomers would ask who the blonde haired blue-eyed kid was; I stood out. It was this dichotomy, these differences that always made me appreciate the strange, the misunderstood, and to treat all with respect, and to live with a constant sense of curiosity.
“But I think these differences were difficult for my family, the old world and the new. My mother was a progressive American woman, with a poster of Rosie the Riveter on her wall. She worked like my father, and the expectations everyone had of what happy families look like were never met.
“After years of arguing behind closed doors, my parents divorced. My father moved to England, and I went with him, having just graduated from high school. My brother, who is two years younger than me, stayed with my mother near Seattle. That was the end of childhood and adolescence. I’ve been on my own for the most part, since then.”
The Road Less Traveled
Roffi Petrosian, the modern-day adventurer, says the hardest moments in shooting the series were as he was close to the border and getting ready to film the last shots of his journey. “I knew I was close to finishing, close to being free. The seconds just kept ticking away, and I knew I had to film that one last shot. That was the hardest moment.”
For each 30-minute episode, the team shot about 15 hours of raw video, which included interviews Roffi conducted with people he met on his way through the countryside or in villages where he stayed.
Roffi’’s narration came from journals he kept in English. The first airing of the series is in Armenian with English subtitles, but the team is preparing an English version for mass distribution.