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Armenia Uncovered: A Lens from History to Reality?
ARMENIA UNCOVERED! - I was fortunate enough to attend last week the premiere screening of this documentary in a beautiful theatre in London. Andy Simonian, Kev Orkian and Raffi Tanielian came together as director, presenter and producer to put together this 78-minute documentary. Costing roughly €250,000, this project strives to mirror the modern-day Republic of Armenia to a British (and Armenian-British) public and also export it to other parts of the world such as the USA or Australia.

12 September 2019   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Armenian Genocide

The majority of those watching this premiere screening were - quite rightly - impressed by a documentary that had much energy and many different shots as the irrepressible presenter covered so much territory in Armenia itself as well as in the autonomous enclave of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh for the rest of the world). Kev has an energy that simply draws a spectator to the documentary, and the slick direction of the themes ranging from churches and genocide to IT hub and nightlife was truly engrossing.

So let me draw back from the initial and unadulterated wow factor that I also felt alongside many others and focus a little more objectively on a documentary that is quite unique both in its objective as well as its portent.

  • To get ARMENIA UNCOVERED, we must not forget the historical context. Armenia was one of the Soviet Socialist Republics and only gained its independence in 1991. Before independence, it represented a spiritual home (in the broader sense) for many Armenians but it was an under-developed place. I recall my mum visiting Armenia during Soviet communist times: she was so happy to be there, but she still thought it was dour.
  • Armenia is also a landlocked country in the Transcaucasia region, between the Black and Caspian Seas, bordered on the north and east by Georgia and Azerbaijan and on the south and west by Iran and Turkey. In other words, it is surrounded by two hostile neighbours and another recalcitrant one. Ironically enough, the only favourable border it shares is with Iran. So the geo-strategic realities are challenging to say the least.
  • Moreover, like other former Soviet republics, Armenia was ruled for many decades during post-independence by a clutch of oligarchs and corrupt politicians or functionaries who sucked the welfare of the population to feed their interests. The new government led by Nikol Pashinyan, following the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’, has not yet managed to understand statecraft or even statesmanship although they are learning on the job.
  • The Armenian Diaspora, almost twice the number of Armenians living in the Republic, has ambivalent feelings about their spiritual homeland. There is abundant love and passion on the one hand and then there is a lot of cynicism and misgivings on the other about the political, religious and economic institutions of the country. Rudyard Kipling’s aphorism that ‘never the Twain shall meet’ sometimes proves to be tantalisingly accurate.

As I watched the documentary, all these perceptions challenged me - and rightly so. The buzz of energy with the young men and women, the sense of humour, the breathtakingly scenic vistas, the delicious foods as well as the monasteries that are replete with history, made this documentary not only a must-see but also a great advertisement for Armenia. So let me dilute my own abundant enthusiasm with some personal comments that might be helpful for the future.

  • I realise that the crew filmed hours upon hours of material, but the golden rule for a documentary is that it should not go beyond 45 minutes - or at most an hour. Some Armenians might be enthused to watch a longer documentary on Armenia, but foreigners who are learning about a new topic are not expected to have the same patience and their attention span is rather ephemeral. So short and sharp is at times better than long and languid, even if the material is outstanding.
  • Why not think of weaving all the material together into a series that uncovers Armenia in Parts 1, 2, 3 and even 4? I know that I am delving here in an area that is not of my expertise, but this is just a random thought.
  • The documentary also features short interviews with Baroness Caroline Cox, Stephen Pound MP and opera-singer Anaïs Heghoyan - as well as the inextinguishable Charles Aznavour. And although it also features Serj Tankian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, it should perhaps consider interviews with other non-British personalities - even Armenians who hail from the Arab World - if the aim is indeed to appeal to a worldwide audience.
  • I looked around me in the theatre. The majority of the men and women were Armenian British, but the aim of such a documentary for me at least is to draw in non-Armenians who will be willing to spend their money to go and visit Armenia on their holidays and in so doing discover its multiple sites, attractions as well as human realities. I realise that this is the thinking of the producer too, but so it needs to be pursued vigorously, since there is a latent ethnocentrism in the Armenian psyche that at times overlooks this necessity.
  • The documentary shows Armenia as a modern-day and cosmopolitan country without referring also to the many poor people and penury-ridden realities. Outside the bubble of the capital Yerevan, there is endemic unemployment, electricity cuts, many shortages and much despair. No wonder that so many Armenians create ways of emigrating to seemingly greener pastures. Ignoring such realities might be good to maintain the feel-good factor of the documentary, but I would have personally welcomed the sharp contrast between swathes of the country that also need to be developed and improved in the future. Such a contrast will have made it more real for me and egged me on a bit more in terms of engaging with the needs of the citizens.
  • Yerevan also reflects an increasing multi-ethnic reality too. There are Iranians visiting regularly and even staying in the capital. The same is true of Indians who transit through Armenia on their way from India to other countries but end up working there. There are even many Armenian Syrian families living in Yerevan who fled the war in Syria and are struggling to settle in Armenia despite the acute cultural differences. Walk down some of the thoroughfares of the capital and you come across many kebab places run by them! Moreover, in the small village of Aknalich, some 20 miles west of Yerevan, the world's largest Yazidi temple will soon open formally as a tribute to the resilience of Yazidis who fled the 2014 ISIS-perpetrated massacres in Iraq.
  • As a final comment that might also sound a bit facetious, any follow-up documentary could focus a tad more on the older generations. The youth are our future, and I am the first one to blare out ceaselessly this reality, but hard facts are inescapable too. Armenia needs money as much as it needs mega-investments or beautiful young people. As the producer himself avowed during the Q&A session after the screening premiere, the annual budget of the Ministry of Tourism in Armenian does not exceed a paltry €250,000. Older generations have more money, and Yerevan is not always cheap. Ergo, the appeal could be more inter-generational.

I am not trying to be critical, because it could well be that all these unused reels lie somewhere in the editing suite but never quite made it in this documentary. However, I also would argue that this film is far more a travelogue than it is a documentary that would explore all other facets of Armenia.

So despite my sparse observations, I applaud the three gentlemen for their vim, their vision, their oomph and their determination to produce this film after thirteen days of non-stop shooting across the Armenian heartlands. It is a premiere in its own right, and a credit to their commitment. I certainly could not pull it off myself.

However, let us all be even more entrepreneurial, and let us push the envelope further. Let us be more demanding of ourselves and therefore also become more ambitious. That, after all, is how we build dreams.


© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   12 September 2019


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