Borders and Fathers

in 6th Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival

by Giovanni Ottone

Every day, all over the world, millions of people, especially teenagers and young men and women are forced to cross borders in order to look for family members, particularly parents (or vice versa), and are looking for a new start in life. Many times they face big dangers, and even death, because they run away from wars and threats or must support their relatives, or need to know their past and fatherland. 

The 6th Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival has presented many films focusing on familiar separations and reunifications and encounters between strangers turning into human solidarity. It’s a great goal for a small country, like Armenia, that has had a great history of specific culture, religion and civilization, but also a terrible tragic past of massacres and diaspora that a festival gives such interesting opportunities to show, through films, different existential itineraries. More than that, in the Caucasian and Middle East areas, marked by many political conflicts, is crucial to start at least cultural relationships between Armenians, Turkish, Kurdish, Georgians, Persians, Russians, etc. Therefore, the festival’s Directors Across Borders Programme (Regional Co-Production Forum and Armenia-Turkey Cinema Platform) is a perfect match for that direction.

We chose to review a few films that, apparently, look like road movies, but, in fact, tell real dramas and present, in different ways and circumstances, strong characters and feelings. Between sorrows and hopes, humiliations and bravery, people start to know each other, overcoming language differences, and front crucial choices. The World is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner, by the Bulgarian Stephan Komandarev, tells a sensitive story of a progressive mutual acquaintance and discovery between a young Bulgarian in his twenties, growing up in Germany and recently turned into an orphan, and his old grandfather. They travel together, through the Balkan countries, to get back his own memory, like when, in the 1980s, he was a child escaping with his parents to reach Western Europe. Despite some narrative clichés and flashbacks/flash-forwards, alternation not always effective, the film could be considered an interesting growing up tale. The Other Bank (Gagma Napiri), George Ovashvili’s debut feature, is a touching drama. The film follows the path of a poor twelve-year old refugee who lives with his young mother in a hut on the outskirts of Tiflis. He was only four years of age when they were obligated to flee from Abchasia, being victims of the civil war and leaving there his sick father. He is an apprentice at a car repair and walks around with other lonely boys, trying to get some money at all costs. When he finds out that his mother has a lover, he decides to travel back to Abchasia to look for his father. His sad and moving odyssey shows the absurdity of any kind of war that brings out the worst in human behaviour. Ovashvili is not looking for impartial realism and is able to show the soul of his characters, especially the young unforgettable Tedo, a non-professional actor.

Bonded Parallels (Khchchvats Zugaherner) by the Armenian Hovhannes Galstyan is a family drama set in two parallel times and locations: 1945 in Norway and the 1980s in Armenia. It’s the story of two women. Hanna is a strong Norwegian widow that hides Arakel, a disbanded Red Army soldier, and later follows him to his fatherland Armenia. But the Soviet powers send him to prison in Siberia and she gives birth to a girl, feeling the hostility of her mother’s lover. Laura is now a strict 42-years-old maths teacher. She is single, fiercely independent and trapped in an ordered routine. Her life will definitively change when she starts an emotional, but controversial, love affair with one of her students and at the same time receives Hanna’s diary, her unknown mother. Despite some parts being quite conventional and with an annoying overdose of music, the film show clearly how women can defy the adversities in order to live intense and genuine passions.

Be Calm and Count to Seven (Aram bash va ta haft beshmar), Ramtin Lavafipour’s first feature, is an intense observational drama set in a remote fishing village, somewhere in southern Iran. It’s an outstandingly fresh, live, but melancholic, representation of the fight for survival in a small community, somewhere in the middle of the traditional way of living and the new ways of the contemporary consumer society. The main character is Motu, a smart teenage boy who earns money, just like the other men in the village, from smuggling goods and, sometimes, people. During the night they dangerously drive a fast motorboat, to avoid the coastal police, to the open sea where they load mysterious packages. The next morning they quickly come ashore at the village beach where the local women rush to take the goods and hide them in the poor houses, defying the police patrols. Motu is always active and dreams of becoming a soccer player, but is troubled by his father’s absence, after having left the village by boat, during a storm, a few days before. He takes care of his pregnant mother and young sister. He also becomes friendly with a controversial, but paternalistic, smugglers middleman who quarrels all the time, by phone, with his wife that lives in Teheran. Finally, one day, the boy knows that his father’s corpse has been recovered and lies in a harbour on the other side of the sea. The attempt to see him one last time leads to a tragic destiny. The film shows an effective documentary realism and an intelligent control of the amateur actor’s performances. Lavafipour avoids all rhetorical and moralistic patterns. Furthermore he doesn’t manipulate his young protagonist as some others Iranian directors do with child or teenage characters. The dynamic camera work is impressive and the viewer can feel a strong sense of local atmosphere and the anxiety and the malaise of the protagonists.

Finally we must mention two Armenian documentaries, both telling possible issues for survival during and after the Armenian-Azeri conflict that took place in the 1990s, during the post-Soviet period. Border (Sahman), by Harutyun Khachatryan, who is also the Golden Apricot Festival General Director, is a small jewel. The film depicts the way of life (farming and cattle-breeding, musical parties and even a marriage ceremony, but also bombs and fire that destroy the houses) in a village situated near the conflict zone. Refugees from different places are gathered with farmers and animals in a farm to hide and recover. A wild buffalo is found in a swamp and brought there.  Harutyun’s striking way of looking directly to the people, describing the magical beauty of the nature during the seasons, but also the different behaviours and feelings, comes through the eyes of the buffalo that becomes the main actor. This impressive report, with splendid images, is a very personal portrait of the local traditions, but could be representative of the human life everywhere in divided countries (in Europe or in Asia) which are suffering with ethnic clashes. From Home to Home (Tnits Tun), the first film by the young Arsen Gasparyan and Seda Muradyan, tells the stories of Armenians and Azerbaijanis forced to leave their home because they were living in the wrong border country. So they decided on a unique deal: exchange their villages and countries, promising each other to look after the respective village graves. Following the moving interviews we feel that, for once, even the enemies can find a way to tolerance and agreement. Personally I was very touched when a man said that he received a video from his former village testifying that the newcomers had kept the promise to take care of his ancestor’s graves.

Edited by Steven Yates