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Presenting an absence: the Armenian legacy in non-fiction film

In these films, the more intriguing instances appear in films made by Turkish directors, where the narratives of genocide appear, not head-on, but slipping through the cracks.

lead lead Syrian Mood Music. All rights reserved.This week’s series, 'Turkey: crisis and loss', curated by Mehmet Kurt, will unpack the connections between crisis in contemporary Turkey and a politics of loss. It is inspired by a recent collaborative Queen’s University Belfast and Bilgi University Istanbul Global Challenges Workshop which took place in Istanbul in June 2017.

The workshop chose the concept of ‘loss’ to better understand social transformation in the context of internal/international migration and displacement in Turkey. We discussed ‘loss’ both in its psychosocial reading as a form of mourning, melancholia, nostalgia, sadness, trauma, and depression and within a social-scientific frame as contested sets of relations and structures of feeling in historical, economic and socio-political processes.

Cinema and television have long shaped public perception of historical events. The portrayal of violent acts such as war, forced migration, crimes against humanity and genocide in popular culture often predominate over historical research and documentation.

In terms of the Armenian genocide, this representation has been rather limited. With more than a century having passed since the events of 1915, leaving almost no direct witnesses who can relate their experiences, and no extensive audiovisual archive of the massacres, many of the victims’ tales have disappeared with them; the survivors’ narratives, if ever uttered, often remained inside the family. There have been only a handful of fiction films from around the world that deal with the issue in recent years, and many of the non-fiction films are either family narratives of discovery or incensed historical documentaries that propagate one of the two competing accounts: either the official defensive discourse of the Turkish state, or the Armenian recounting of the atrocities.

How are the Armenian genocide and the loss experienced after it represented in films? As an absence this lack is highly elusive in terms of visual representation. The question “what is lost” is immediately followed by what remains, perhaps even more closely than in other media, as the medium searches for something that is tangible, and can be exhibited. In fiction cinema, one of the very first representations of a genocide was in fact about the Armenian massacres; based on Aurora Mardiganian’s autobiography of the same name, Ravished Armenia dates from 1919. Mardiganian stars in the film, revisiting her own trauma. The film was used to raise funds for the relief of those who suffered from the events, but only a portion of it has survived. In the 1930s, MGM tried to adapt Franz Werfel’s famous novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, but diplomatic intervention from Turkey’s then ambassador to the US derailed the project.

Armen Marsoobian argues that among the films that deal with the Armenian genocide, many do not place their narrative in the period of the genocide itself; instead, they deal “with the memory and trauma of the survivors and the generations that followed.” Fiction films like Henri Verneuil’s Mayrig (Mother, 1991) and its sequel 558 rue Paradis (1992) certainly fit this mould, as does Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, arguably the most widely recognized film on the topic until Fatih Akin’s The Cut (2014).

Ararat layers a number of narratives in a very reflexive and contemplative manner, reflecting the complexity of the issue and its surrounding discourses. 1915 The Movie (Garin Hovanissian and Alec Mouhibian, 2015) also uses a “play within the film” structure that distances itself from the actual events. But there have been several large productions in recent years that were set during the massacres. The Cut (2014), a film made by a Turkish-German filmmaker, received a lot of attention as a result, and it was followed by the first Turkish film on the topic, Lost Birds (Perdeci and Alyamac, 2015). In 2016, two similar films set during 1915 were released. The Promise (Terry George) and The Ottoman Lieutenant (Joseph Ruben). Both put love triangles between a beautiful woman, an American man, and a local man (an Armenian and a Turk, respectively) in the center of their narrative.

As far as non-fiction goes, films about the events of 1915 have existed for some time, but they are often not widely distributed, at least cinematically. Most of them make a firm statement defending either the existence or the non-existence of the genocide, depending on which the side espoused by the filmmakers. Some (on both sides) border on, or march into the territory of propaganda film. Documentaries, as they record and comment on the world we live in, have often been used to informative and/or propagandistic ends in conflicts.

However, with the proliferation of digital cameras and the relative democratization of filmmaking, the realm of documentaries is no longer limited to larger institutions, and much more personal stories can be told. The same goes for subjective and reflexive stories that deal with traumatic events involving loss, made about and by second and third generation descendants of survivors, as well as of perpetrators.

There are a number of films in this vein, several of which demand further attention. Two of these are made by Armenian filmmakers, and two by Turkish directors with Armenian grandparents. These two sets of films come from very different backgrounds. The narrative of genocide and its denial by the Turkish state have long been a vital component of Armenian diasporic identity. Works by the descendants of the survivors emerge as a way of remembering the previous generations’ stories, as well as of attempting to make sense of the atrocities that they suffered.

In The Genocide in Me (Araz Artinian, 2006) and Grandma’s Tattoos (Suzanne Khardalian, 2012), filmmakers are questioning the burden of being the descendants of survivors and what this means for their identity. On the other hand, for filmmakers from Turkey, the remembering turns into a journey of discovery, as collective memory is collectively absent. Over the last decade, the painful past of the Armenian massacres has become a topic of discussion, even though the official position still denies the 1915 genocide. During this process, there has been an emergence of interest in people investigating their own family histories. In Hush (2009), Berke Baş discovers her great-grandmother’s Armenian roots, and similarly in Diyar (2014), Devrim Akkaya investigates her Armenian great-grandfather’s past. Since both grandparents have long since passed away, the films are investigating a loss not only of a people, but of specific relatives.

Film scholar Thomas Elsaesser, while discussing traces of Holocaust in films of the New German cinema, speaks of a double absence of Jews: one is the physical destruction of Jews and their property, the other is a mental absence in “the thoughts and emotions of the Germans themselves,” until the late eighties. Nonetheless, he argues, there are instances of parapraxes, or unintended intrusions. Similarly, I believe that in these films, the more intriguing instances appear not in works by Armenian diasporic filmmakers who tackle the issue head on, but in films made by the directors from Turkey, where the narratives of genocide appear to slip through the cracks.

Obviously, the directors are aware of this and choose to keep these moments in the films. In Diyar, we see how family histories come out, as the grandson of one of the perpetrators graphically recounts his grandfather’s stories of massacring the Armenians as a young soldier. In Hush, this intrusion is much more subtle. Several pre-teenager boys who play on the street and seem to have no care in the world start talking to the camera and profess no knowledge of the fact that an Armenian used to live in the house they are standing in front of. One of the boys however, makes several mentions, seemingly unprompted, of the fact that Armenians used to live in this town. Ordu is not particularly known as an Armenian town, at least less so compared to other cities further East, so the boy’s insistence on bringing up the Armenians signals to a history that has been covered, and yet still simmers right beneath the surface. This loss, of a whole group of people and their memories appears to be something that still haunts the characters.

Not Every Day is Spring (2016)

An even more subtle example is Haig Aivazian’s Not Every Day Is Spring (2016). The film, which premiered at the Montreal Biennale last October, then screened at the Berlin Film Festival and !F Istanbul Independent Film Festival in February. Aivazian is not strictly a filmmaker, certainly not a documentarian, and considers himself to be more closely aligned with the contemporary art world than film circles. Perhaps as a result of this, his work, although not dealing directly with genocide, migration, or loss, carries multiple layers that I believe very much include the idea of loss and remains.

Not Every Day Is Spring documents the legacy of Udi Hrant Kenkulian, an Armenian oud player who made significant contributions to Turkish classical music. Throughout the film, musical performances by Turkish, Armenian, and Arab musicians are interspersed with images of contemporary Istanbul, as well as of unidentified and desolate stretches of land. There is no voice-over and barely any conversation. For those familiar with the city, it is recognizable that most of the images come from the Gezi Park in Taksim, which was the home of massive anti-government protests in 2013. In these images however, the park is barely populated. It is only at the very end of the film that we see a brief text which explains who Kenkulian was and what some of these locations are, naming the empty lands as specific border areas surrounding Turkey.

Deserted Gezi Park. All rights reserved.The opening credits are overlaid on long, static shots of the Istanbul Radio, where Kenkulian’s compositions have often been performed, and at its end, the film ties the radio to the preceding images by saying:

“In the process of building the radio station, the vast Pangaltı Armenian cemetery was destroyed, its marble tombstones dispersed and integrated into the city’s architecture. The destruction also made room for the Hilton Hotel, Taksim Square and Gezi Park, turning the area into the iconic centre of the new metropolis. In 2013, when bulldozers began to demolish Gezi Park to build a shopping complex in its place, they exposed remnants of the Pangaltı tombstones, before being blocked by mass protests.”

All of a sudden, the blank images that we have been witnessing turn into representatives of a troubled past, into remnants of what has been lost. The empty spaces come to signify locations of great upheaval, whether they are where the Gezi protesters once gathered, or lands that witnessed massacres and forced migrations over a century ago. Likewise, the musical pieces that separate the film into chapters are residues of a musical culture that dominated these lands. A few songs belong to Hrant Kenkulian, others are from the general region, and some are anonymous. The same song could be adopted by the Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Greeks, or any of the other local cultures; in some cases, the same song has been translated into a number of these languages. Although the music comes from an old legacy, it is still present and prevailing.

One of the most joyous pieces of music in the film is played by a young group of musicians in the streets near Taksim. The song is sung in Arabic, but it is familiar to Turkish audiences as a beloved local song of the 1970s. The credits refer to the song Fattoum Fattoume, and the same song had popular versions in Azeri and Armenian as well. The credits also reveal the identity of the musicians as the Syrian Mood Band ( see above), bringing all the questions about loss and displacement to the present, and reminding us that these issues are far from staying put in a distant past.

About the author

Melis Behlil is an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Chair of Radio, Television and Cinema Department at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, Turkey. She has been a visiting scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Research Associate at Stockholm University, and a member of the Global Women’s Cinema Network. Her book, Hollywood is Everywhere: Global Directors in the Blockbuster Era came out from Amsterdam University Press in 2016. She writes film reviews for various publications, co-hosts a weekly radio show, and is a member of the Turkish Film Critics Association, of which she has served as president in 2014-15.


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