By Vahan Ishkhanyan
Last week, on the penultimate day of the Golden Apricot film festival, Canadian-Armenian actress Arsine Khanjian met with writers and artists from Bnagir literary magazine at NPAK (Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art) to share her impressions of the second festival.
Khanjian had brought to the festival two movies in which she has roles. Her husband, director Atom Egoyan, served as chairman of the festival’s jury.
The actress called this year’s festival a great success and praised organizers for the improvements that were made since last year’s inaugural event.
Arsine shares with Armenian artists her perspectives of Armenia’s cultural future
“It is fantastic to put Yerevan on the map of cinema art,” Khanjian said. “To create a cinema institution in Armenia is, indeed, a very good idea, but we are excited like in Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic).”
Khanjian recently was at the Karlovy Vary film festival, which is now in its 12th year. She compared the environment of the Golden Apricot with that event.
“Young people would come to the festival, would spend the night near the cinema houses only to be able to buy tickets the following morning. Simply, when people come to festivals to watch films it is already a big step.”
Drawing a comparison, she said that the Yerevan festival had made a giant step forward within a year. Last year the halls were empty, it was not organized well, and only works by Armenians were presented:
“We thought with Atom – what if the halls in Yerevan would be empty like last year? But it didn’t happen. While Karlovy Vary emerged within 12 years, then Yerevan made a giant step within just a year, especially taking into account the fact that funds are scarce. Guests, the quality of films, there were the best films that we would see in Europe and the interest among the audience – all tickets had been sold out.
“True, there were some organizational difficulties, but it is not only the problem of the festival, the country has difficulties. Nevertheless, it was a great surprise, and Atom and I will surely become participants in the years to come.”
The actress, who has appeared in such films as “Ararat”, “Sweet Hereafter”, “Exotics”, says that Armenia can enter the international arena through culture, in particular through cinema: “It is vital for the state that it acknowledges that our politics is a little thing in the world, it is invisible. The economy is more ridiculous, but when we (make an impression) with the weapon of art, we will be successful. If a low-budget movie is interesting, a French distributor will make every effort to show it to the French audience.”
For developing cinema art Khanjian said it is necessary to develop a state concept and to assist directors. Instead of allocating funds from the state budget to shoot only a couple of films, the state should spend the same amount of money to produce numerous low-budget films. Most of her husband’s films, she said, were produced with state assistance.
The actress said she was distressed by a statement made by President Robert Kocharyan during one meeting with guests and jury members.
According to her, the President said: “We do not need Fellinis and Parajanovs, but we need to develop commercial movies”.
“The President’s words took the guests aback,” said Khanjian.. “But the president has the right. If a film director said he would shoot Parajanov, cinema would not become Parajanov (there are so many films dedicated to Parajanov that even a festival was held). The president is not a fool, and he is knowledgeable on cinema. The question is how to explain that not everyone is a pseudo-Fellini and that Parajanov is not a wrong idea, Parajanov is worshiped in Europe today.”
The following day, the couple met the president again: “I said we had made a dangerous and wrong remark, Parajanov and Fellini are the gods of world filmmakers.”
Khanjian herself once worked in a state agency assisting cinema and video development, and when her son was born she decided to continue her career as an actress only: “This model is familiar to me. There may be no studio demand now, as digital technologies have advanced immensely, and one can produce a film with the same quality using digital technology. An artist has an opportunity to spend a much more modest sum of money, some $5,000 instead of $50,000, and create a film.”
Khanjian and Egoyan twice met with President Robert Kocharyan during their visit. Khanjian says the President shares their concern about developing cinema in Armenia. She said, too, the president is aware that money designated for such purposes does not always reach its intended recipient.
“The president himself said that they give large sums every year to one or two persons to produce films, but the money does not reach the films and he said that these sums become personal sums. He said that the ministers of culture will not be able to advance culture, in the same way as the economy will advance.”
Khanjian also spoke about her role in the film “Sabah”, in which she plays the part of a 40-year-old Muslim woman who breaks patriarchal concepts and family taboos inside herself and embarks on a romantic relationship with a Canadian.
“Of course, it will not go down in the history of cinematography. But I was interested in the material. By scenario the woman is 40 years old, and not 20, which would be of more interest to the audience. The film director (R. Nada, an Arab by origin) who was young and had done only short films, said she would rather target a 40-year-old for whom it is more difficult to change her habits than a 20-year-old. I wanted to show that a 40-year-old will try to let herself change, which is very hard to do,” said Khanjian, who herself is 46.
The other film is “Stone, Time, Touch” whose director Karine Torosyan was attending the meeting. The film tells about a Canadian-Armenian woman’s travel around Armenia. The woman had come in search of her national identity.
Khanjian was born in Beirut and says that when they lived in Lebanon, she didn’t have this question: “When we lived in Lebanon I never asked myself who we were, because we had structures, a school, a church, the policeman was Armenian, the shopkeeper was Armenian. Many didn’t even speak Arabic. We were prohibited to communicate with Arabs. Why? Because we were to marry an Armenian only.”
Khanjian left Lebanon at age 17.
“When we went to America and Europe, the reality changed. Some were assimilated, those who didn’t want to get assimilated, but didn’t have a possibility to remain Armenians, as there was no school, and were left in a state of mental commotion as they could no longer know whether they were Armenians or Americans, or Canadians. The issue of identity does not look to be that easy for us. I have lived in Canada for 30 years, I have represented Canada in the cultural domain, but during the festivals we say we are Canadians, but at the same time of Armenian descent.”
The issue of identity is more difficult for Karine Torosyan, as she left Lebanon for Canada at the age of only 8. The Canadian-Armenian woman in the film discovered a world different from the Armenia she dreamed of, the disaster zone where people live in domigs, with poverty met everywhere, with long-suffering women who toil in the village and say they didn’t have a single happy day in their lives.
Torosyan says her identity is mixed: she is not 100 percent Canadian, nor is she 100 percent Armenian. Through this film she wanted to understand who she was. Upon completing it, she says she has learned that she is more Canadian than Armenian.