"A Story about People in War and Peace": The Destructive Impact of War — An Armenian Trauma By Klaus Eder

in 4th Yerevan Golden Apricot - International Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

15 years ago, Varden Hovhannisyan worked as a journalist and cameraman for television. CBS News, the German WDR and the Australian ABC sent him to shoot conflicts that break out after the downfall of the Soviet Union, mainly in the Caucasus region (which indeed is a focus of conflicts). Beginning of the 90s, he filmed the war in Karabagh, between Armenia, his homeland, and Azerbaijan, the neighbor country. No need to unfold the outlines of this territorial conflict (Armenia and Azerbaijan both laid claim to this mountainous region between both countries, a conflict which has calmed down but has not been solved); the film doesn’t talk about the historical or political dimensions of that war. Varden Hovhannisyan doesn’t show “the war”. He shows a group of Armenian soldiers (and a nurse with them) who fight, in a small place of a few square meters high up, against an anonymous enemy, with poor and old equipment. He films them loading their guns, firing; he films how one of them is wounded and two comrades carrying him back; he asks one of the soldiers to address himself, before the camera, to the family back home. Scenes of war. The images are raw, accidental, not planned. There was probably no time to think of aesthetics, and the footage was used for television news ‘only’.

15 years later, 15 years older, Varden Hovhannisyan comes back to this footage, in his documentary A Story about People in War and Peace (his first work for cinema). Why? Why now? He doesn’t belatedly comment and evaluate the war. Again today, he does not take an official Armenian or Azerbaijan point of view. He had a simple and convincing idea. He asked and researched where the soldiers of then are, and what they do nowadays. It took him a year to find them. He again filmed them and talked to them. People in war, people in peace. The same people. The same?

From this material, Varden Hovhannisyan composed a network of six-eight stories. Some of them are emotionally touching. The story of the soldier for example, whom he films, today, at the shore of a lake, and who has problems remembering the then young journalist — not because he does not remember but because he obviously tries desperately to wipe out his memory of the war. Or the story of the soldier who after the war could not get over it and ended in a madhouse, with a broken personality (don’t we know this from US films on Vietnam?). Or the nurse, a brave young woman who after the war decided to stay with the army, because, as she says, she likes this life. Two stories are very short. Two soldiers, you see them in a group portrait at war, died in the last days of the war.

Varden Hovhannisyan speaks a personal commentary, unfolding the different stories from his personal experience and participation. In the English version which I saw, this commentary is by far too personal, at great length, sometimes even a little pathetic and with un-reflected clichés. For an international release of his film, he should revise it: the confrontation of war and peace is strong enough not to need too much of additional information, sometimes even some text inserts could do it. Also, the editing could be improved. The peace scenes could have another tone. This may reflect the difficulties of making the film, building it up from material shot in a distance of 15 years, and finalizing it in Armenia, a country without a film industry nor production facilities worth mentioning. However, this is not the point, especially because it’s a first film.

Rather, the film remembers (in spite of its obvious weaknesses) a painful chapter of the country’s history, a chapter which is necessary in order to understand the Armenia of today. Varden Hovhannisyan does not care about politics. What he focuses on is the destructive impact of war — not during the war, not to be measured in bombed landscapes and cities and buildings, not even in the number of dead, but afterwards, in the psychology of the people, in the social structure of society and its inner state. If it were the US, we would call it the Vietnam syndrome. Armenia is much smaller; the Karabagh war was much smaller as well. Only, there’s no reason to take it as less grave. War is war, and the consequences are equally horrifying, no matter if hundreds or hundreds of thousands of victims are concerned. Varden Hovhannisyan’s film shows, without saying it, an Armenian trauma. It shows broken characters, destroyed families, wounded souls.

Varden Hovhannisyan’s A Story about People in War and Peace takes cinema — maybe even without being too conscious about it — as a means to talk about these wounds. The filmmaker as a public figure plays the role of the social conscience of society, not by knowing answers, but by putting questions about the people’s collective historical experience and memory. It’s unexpected and surprising in post-Soviet Armenian cinema. You may sometimes even wish that Western documentary filmmakers confront their public in that daring, unprejudiced, un-ambitious, un-ideological way with its own past and present.

The Karabagh war: add the genocide less than one hundred years ago and you understand something about the inner state, the intellectual and spiritual frame of mind of the Armenia of today.