Rites and Rituals: The Golden Apricot 2011

in 8th Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival

by Birgit Beumers

Armenian culture is no doubt very rich and the country’s history very old; yet without question the genocide of the Armenian people in 1915 has traumatised the nation, and this trauma is echoed in the works of numerous artists and filmmakers, whether they live in the country or in exile. And even if rites and rituals do not weigh down Armenia’s everyday life, they form a basis for many films from Armenia and from the region.

Moreover, before the opening night, a short ceremony hinted unobtrusively at the importance of cultural heritage and tradition: in the old and beautiful church of St Zoravor several baskets of golden apricots were blessed by three priests before the festival made its start.

The FIPRESCI jury (along with the Ecumenical Jury) considered ten films from the geographical region: this year’s selection included films from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Armenia. Asghar Farhadi’s film Nader and Simin. A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Iran), which had already won a Golden Bear in Berlin as well as numerous other awards, went on to win the Golden Apricot. It is without doubt an excellent film with an amazing storyline, dwelling on the conflict between generations but also on the issue of rituals and their importance in everyday life. Simin wants to leave Iran and takes her daughter Termeh with her, while her husband Nader wants to stay in Iran, where he has no-one to take care of his elderly father, who suffers from dementia. Rather than linking issues of emigration to social or political tensions, Farhadi subtly and skilfully investigates the way in which characters’ decisions and actions are affected by deeply personal circumstances. As the plot develops, this is emphasised through a calm and observing camera that captures the main characters’ faces in long takes. Traditions make it impossible for women to do certain things; for example it is a problem of faith for the female carer Razieh to wash Nader’s father when he has wet himself, or for Razieh to tell her husband the truth about the reasons for her miscarriage. Likewise, the men are caught in their code of honour of what it is acceptable to do without losing face. Trapped in such conventions, the characters are caught up in impossible situations and apparent dead-ends.

The theme of this first film of the competition programme set the tone for other films in the selection.

A burial ritual moves the story of Europolis, a film directed, produced and scripted by Cornel Gheorghita (Romania/France): in his native village on the Black Sea, the unemployed Nae learns of the death of his uncle, who has spent his entire life in France. Nae and his mother travel to France to comply with his uncle’s wish and bury him in his native Romania, in a wooden donkey brought for this purpose by the deceased man’s African brother-in-law. Rather than turning out the absurd moments hidden in this story, Gheorghita makes a serious road movie, where each opportunity for comedy turns into yet another human tragedy.

Several Turkish films were shown in the various festival programmes, highlighting the productivity of young Turkish filmmakers, even if Uygar Asan’s City of the Scattered (Daginiklar Kenti) is maybe not the best example of young Turkish filmmaking, dwelling on the theme of a young man’s search for his self as he tries to avoid military service. Mysteriously, the film’s dialogue often meanders into philosophical and historical meditations. When we Leave (Die Fremde) is a film produced in Germany and made by the Austrian-born Feo(dora) Aladag (born Schenk). It tells the story of Umay (played by Sibel Kekilli), who runs away from her husband in Istanbul, taking her son Cem along, to her family in Berlin. Her marriage is unhappy, her husband beats her. However, once in Germany it becomes clear that her family observes tradition and rituals even more than her in-laws in Turkey. Breaking tradition (by asking for a divorce, by finding a job and starting an independent life) means severe punishment for exposing the family. The filmmaker tells a fine story, and Kekilli is certainly a brilliant actress for this part, but the clichéd presentation of the life of a Turkish family in Germany and Umay’s predicament are too rigid to make a moving, touching and sensitive film that could take the viewer by surprise. The black-and-white modelling of characters simply leaves no scope, no flexibility, and no freedom to storyline or characters, who quickly turn into types: victim, aggressor, saint/saviour. And Kekelli’s talent looks almost wasted.

A similarly stern approach to tradition lies at the heart of the Kazakh film The Daughter-in-Law (Kelin), the debut film of scriptwriter Ermek Tursunov. Set in the second century A.D, the film explores a ritual wedding, where the (future) daughter-in-law (kelin in Kazakh) is in love with another man. Yet she succumbs to her fate, having tasted the fruit of passion before her wedding. When her husband is killed by his rival, the bride obediently becomes the wife of her brother-in-law, a pubescent young lad. The film’s setting in the mountains of Central Asia strips it of any concise indicators of time, making it possible to read the film as a contemporary story. The film remains silent, as words are unnecessary in a world ruled by tradition and rituals. The obediently performed rites are juxtaposed with a rare openness about sexuality that bears the strong imprint of co-scriptwriter Aktan Arym-Kubat (Abdykalykov), whose trilogy about his adolescent son Mirlan (Selkinchek/The Swing, 1993; Beshkempir/The Adopted Son, 1998 and Maimyl/The Chimp, 2001) has garnered numerous awards at international festivals.

Arym-Kubat’s own most recent film, The Light Thief (Svet-Ake, 2010) is, of course, all about rituals: “Mister Light” (as Svet Ake translates into English) breaks with the law when he resets the electric meters for the elderly in his village, who otherwise cannot afford electricity. He tries to break with the tradition of inertia when he takes the village’s fate in his own hands by constructing a wind-engine to generate electricity. Yet he resists stubbornly the corrupt and vulgar attempts of the “new Kazakhs” from town to take away the land and use it for building — in a fine gesture to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard — summer residences for the rich. He is rescued through a ritual when he falls off an electricity pole after being struck by electric current: he is buried in the soil up to his neck and comes to life again. And he is killed in a ritual act, his body being torn during a race of horses. He objects to the abuse of rituals when he ends abruptly the belly dance performed by a local girl for visitors, which turns the ritual into an act of prostitution. Without tradition, man loses his self; fighting for tradition may cost his life. This is the conclusion that Arym Kubat draws in his film. Set against the backdrop of the toppling of Kyrgyz president Bakiev in 2010, Arym-Kubat also underlines the damaging effect of government policies for remote areas of the country, but also the widespread corruption.

The only Armenian full-length feature film, Artak Igityan and Vahan Stepanyan’s Sunrise over Lake Van (Armenia), is also concerned with tradition: this time of an Armenian marriage. Dikran, an Armenian émigré living in the United States, finds himself a new wife — from Yerevan. His son, in the meantime, is in love with a Turkish girl. Grandfather Garabed, a survivor of the genocide, regularly participates in protests against the Turks, but — whilst unable to forget the past — also finds it impossible to turn away his grandson’s girlfriend. The film combines a portrayal of the preservation of traditions and ways of life in exile with a romantic story, yet — as many Armenian-produced films — almost obsessively ties in the traumatic theme of the genocide. Funded through the National Film Center, it is clear that cinema is used for political agendas, but it would appear that such social command hampers the developments of cinematic language. Against this backdrop, the short film Loading My Life by Harutyun Shatyan (which received no less than three awards) was a most refreshing breeze in Armenian cinema, based on the director’s autobiography and shot in a manner that turns his life into a cinematic and multi-media experience.

Ebrahim Saeedi’s Mandoo was produced in Iraq and financed by the Kurdish Regional Government’s Ministry of Culture and Youth. It is an extraordinary film not so much in the story of a family torn apart between Iran and Iraq and reunited when one man with wife and children, as well as his sick father, crosses the border to join his brother in Iran; and not because of the “arrogant” western character, the niece who is a doctor and breaches in her conduct all ethic codes and traditions; but because of the cinematic device of telling the story through the eyes of a dying man, who is (dead at the end of the tale) never shown on screen. We only hear and see what he hears and sees. The stunning cinematic technique allows the viewer to realise the odyssey of a man and of his people, not in a blunt narrative manner as was the case in the Armenian story, but in an emotionally touching manner, as the audience hears him inhale and exhale, pant and wheeze, and finally expire.

Many of the films from the region seem to be dominated by a concern with tradition, with the past and the necessity — yet impossibility — to break away from it; in all cases the obsessive concern with traditions, rites and rituals stifles man’s development and has a killing force.