BY ZAREH AREVSHATIAN
Anahid Abad’s film, “Yeva,” opens in darkness. It is raining. A woman, holding an umbrella, walks briskly into a building at night. There she sees her young daughter who’s been waiting for her alone. We don’t really understand their situation until a few scenes later. She is escaping but despite the absence of pursuers, the film gradually becomes the tale of a woman’s attempt to run away from a violent domestic life; a narrative based on too many true stories.
Narine Grigoryan plays the title character, a woman trapped by circumstances and personal choices. Accused by her in-laws of killing her husband, Yeva is forced to flee Yerevan with her daughter Nareh and take refuge in a small remote village of Dadivank in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) where Rouben, a friend and a war veteran, and his wife Sona, unreservedly welcome her into their house. Yeva’s inner life remains hidden. We only get a hint of what has happened to her and as the narrative reveals its secrets, the film places us in a contradictory state between optimism and fatalism, and leaves us alarmingly alone with her daughter.
The film may sound like it has the makings of a strained domestic melodrama, filled with teary speeches and dangerous acts of parental selfishness, but viewers should expect a more contemplative affair. The film looks and sounds like something formed by TV conventions but it shows itself concerned with a very particular kind of female experience. This is not simply a film about an Armenian woman on the run. It is about domestic tensions, the story of women in Armenia.
Yeva is the Armenian name for the Biblical figure, Eve but as mentioned earlier, the film is not just about her. It is about generations of women living in an Armenian patriarchal society. Whereas a traditional Armenian family simply reacts to will of fate, here we have women who attempt to change theirs. The women in the film are objects of reflection and vehicles for cultural and social change. The women of “Yeva” are survivors.
Domestic violence in Armenia is often dismissed as a “family matter.” These “matters” don’t leave the boundaries of the house and are rarely reported to the police. Men also have property rights and are usually the prime owners of the house. Moreover, there is the issue of protection and/or deprivation of parental rights in Armenia and how it is handled by the law. Even though none of these issues are referenced explicitly by the film, they do form the backbone of the drama and it is to Anahid Abad’s credit that the film takes the onus to hopefully start a trend in Armenian cinema, whereby pressing and relevant social issues are discussed in a non-dismissive and non-trivial manner as they are in the violent serials flooding the television channels.
By focusing on the women, Abad has created a contradictory film: a gesture of benevolence tinged with the guilt and celebration of female power. With the exception of the police officer in charge of enforcing the law, men are not at the center of this film. They are present but the film does not revolve around them. Sympathetic to Yeva’s cause, all of them try to extend a helping hand but fail eventually.
Co-produced between Iran’s Farabi Cinema Foundation and the National Cinema Center of Armenia, “Yeva” is the first Armenian-Iranian co-production, the first Armenian film with an Iranian production crew, and the first feature film directed by an Armenian-Iranian woman. Born to an Armenian family in Tehran, Iran, Anahid Abad holds a BA in film directing. During her career, she has served as first assistant director and production manager on many Iranian films. It should come as no surprise that Abad’s first feature is set in Artsakh – a region where her paternal lineage hails from.
In her collaboration with cinematographer Hassan Karimi, Abad creates an impressive colored tableau, almost entirely in medium shots, that capture the warmth of the villagers and their home lives without seeming to intrude upon their space. There is a visual tension between the spectacular shots of the village landscapes and the drab and muted colors of the interiors as if to indicate a feeling of entrapment within a historical and ancestral space. And even though the “War” is consistently referred to and is clearly felt in the background, “family” is the thematic focus of “Yeva.”
Parts of the movie’s pleasure are to be found in scenes depicting the communal dimension of the dinner table, be it a welcoming dinner party or a local wedding. It is no secret that an Armenian dinner table is an expression of generosity. Family, friends, even strangers are not discriminated at such gatherings and Anahid Abad captures these moments quite masterfully. Nonetheless, it is how these scenes act as bridges between intimate family moments and the shocks that follow that manifest Abad’s ability to conjure up a mixed emotional atmosphere that is tender and yet poignant. The movie runs only 94 minutes, but captures magnificently the cultural and social forces at play by making the village a microcosm of an entire nation.
“Yeva” presents a full cast of actors from Armenian stage and cinema in surprisingly fresh portrayals. Shant Hovhannisyan, known to many from the police drama “Special Unit,” plays the very mild-mannered and sympathetic Rouben. Fans of the sitcom, “Full House,” might not even recognize Marjan Avetisyan, the landlady, Mrs. Tamara, from the show, as Hasmik in the movie and Rosie Avetisova, who has mostly appeared in soap operas and episodic serials, appears in a small but pivotal role in the film. The film is also populated by non-professional villagers who simply appear as themselves. It is interesting to note that lead actress Narineh Grigoryan, who is by birth from Artsakh, is the only native actor who does not speak with a local accent. All other actors in the film are from Yerevan but speak with a local dialect.
In 2018, “Yeva” was banned from participating at the International Filmmor Women’s Film Festival in Turkey at the behest of the Azerbaijani Government, which claimed the film “creates the impression that Artsakh is an Armenian territory.” Inconsequentially, the film has gone on to garner numerous awards and accolades worldwide.
“Yeva,” was Armenia’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Category at the 2018 Academy Awards and is now being distributed by New York-based Venera Films. It is scheduled to have its North American theatrical release in late October.
“Yeva” will open in New York on October 25 and in LA on November 1 at Laemmle Glendale, located at 207 N Maryland Ave, Glendale, CA 91206. For more info follow “Yeva” on Facebook.
Zareh Arevshatian is a Los Angeles-based independent film scholar.