At the end of the 1940s, when all of the movie studios in the USSR were under Joseph Stalin’s strict supervision, one of the founders and the director of Yerevan based Hayfilm (Armenfilm) Studio, Hamo Beknazarian was on the list of less than a dozen filmmakers given the opportunity to make full-length feature films. In 1949, Beknazarian started work on a large scale propaganda film about the 1946-47 repatriation movement of Armenians to Soviet Armenia.
The film titled Second Caravan was scheduled for release in 1951 and it would not only tell the historic and heroic tale of mass repatriation but also contribute to its continuation. The Armenian and the Russian press was closely following the production process but despite the hype, the Second Caravan was never released.
At the time, as rumor has it, after asking to be updated on the the not-so-long list of movies in production, Joseph Stalin inquired about the title of Beknazarian’s film and asked, is the film about camels? This was interpreted as an indirect command to cease production.
Sixty-one years later, in independent Armenia, journalist, writer and filmmaker Tigran Paskevichyan, within the framework of the Coming Full Circle initiative, started work on a series of three films dedicated to the same subject - the Great Repatriation.
The first film, My Unfamiliar Fatherland is about the 1946-49 wave of repatriation or immigration. The second part, “Oh, Fatherland, Cold and Sweet” is about the lives of the repatriates or “akhpars,” as they were often called in Soviet Armenia, and the Stalinist repressions. The third part, “The Last Dream or Game Over,” is the story of disappointment and the longing to return to the countries they left behind.
Given that Soviet censorship was well in the past, none of Paskevichyan’s films about the Great Repatriation had issues with distribution, but many of Paskevichyan’s other films have time and again hit invisible walls. The documentary Alienation, about the families who fell victim to “eminent domain” declared by the state for the construction of Northern Avenue, or the documentary Armenia’s Lost Spring about the March 1, 2008 events never found a slot in the state or even private television stations. “With few exceptions, some of my films were screened on Yerkir Media and Shoghakat stations but those were films that did not touch upon acute contemporary issues,” explains Paskevichyan, “Screening the others was simply impossible and the production team did not even try to approach the stations.”
According to a 2003 law about mass media, censorship is forbidden in the Republic of Armenia, a sharp departure from the confinements of Soviet era filmmakers where any production had to be commissioned by the state and would remain under strict supervision throughout the production process.
As to why Beknazarian’s Second Caravan was actually shut down after receiving the initial green light from the red propaganda establishment when almost 80 percent of the filming was completed and all that remained were a couple of studio scenes and the audio post production, is a matter film, photography and art historian Vigen Galstyan intends to find out. Beknazarian was never able to to overturn the verdict his film had received, the reels remained in Moscow and were forgotten about. The film became Beknazarian’s last project with the Yerevan Film Studio, explains Galstyan, who has been able to locate Baknazarian’s unfinished film in the Moscow archives.
Galstyan believes the title of the film was not the only or the main reason why Soviet authorities axed its production. But to get to the bottom of the story, archives need to be studied and the existing material viewed. The digitization of the footage is dependent on finances and the Lusadaran Armenian Photography Foundation is working towards raising the amount.
“There are very few films in the history of Soviet Armenian cinema that were banned or shut down,” says Galstyan. “More often, we come across examples of scripts that never made it to the studio even after being approved, like Henrik Malyan’s Komidas or Parajanov’s script based on Andersen's fairy tales. There is one example of a banned film and that is Karen Gevorkyan’s Farewell Beyond the Border. Still, there are many films that were forgotten, or that were hardly screened and their restoration and screening should be a priority for organizations dealing with Armenian cultural heritage."
But history repeated itself, as it often does, even when change has gained ground considerably. Paskevichyan recalls that his team had an initial agreement for a screening of the film Alienation with Cinema Moscow in Yerevan. They had even transferred the fee but found out last minute that the screening had been canceled because the content was deemed “anti-state.”
A similar scenario played out when his studio’s team tried to rent the small auditorium of the National Center for Aesthetics for a screening of the film Election. “It is about the 2008 presidential election, about the political prisoners...and of course a film with such context was not able to break through the wall against freedom of speech put up by the authorities at the time. The screening failed,” says Paskevichyan. “The director of the center, Tikran Igityan, advised us to clarify the reasons with the Ministry of Education and Science, and as an explanation, they presented our team with a policy that says that you can not establish political or religious organizations in educational establishments.”
But obviously Paskevichyan’s options are different than Beknazaryan’s and many of his films are available online. Alienation has more than 99 thousand views on YouTube, Armenia’s Lost Spring has exceeded the 100,000 threshold. “Let’s hope people become freer and tolerant towards difference of opinion and criticism with time, if not, then glory and blessings to the creators of the internet. Our film about post-independence Armenia-Turkey relations, Closed Border Dialogue, has had more that 130,000 views,” says Paskevichyan.
Listen to me, Untold Stories Beyond Hatred, a documentary about the LGBTQ community in Armenia and the feature film Apricot Groves, about an Iranian-Armenian trans man living in the U.S. who returns to Armenia to meet his girlfriend’s conservative family, were two films that became the subject of controversy in Armenian just last year. For reasons not fully clarified, the Golden Apricot film festival had to cancel its Armenian Panorama program where the films were selected to be screened.
Hovhaness Ishkhanyan wrote the script for Listen to Me, where people share stories of discrimination and the problems they have had to face because of their sexual orientation. Speaking about the festival Ishkhanyan says, “One can detect a strange contradiction. The festival opens with the blessing of apricots, where the church is an active participant, while parallely honoring a director like Darren Aronofsky.”
Listen to me, Untold Stories Beyond Hatred and Apricot Groves were selected to be screened as part of the out-of-competition program but then it emerged that the church had objected to the screenings, says Ishkhanyan. “This never became a subject of public discussion but I use every opportunity to talk about the existence of censorship by the church.”
Apricot Groves, which is an Iranian-Armenian co-production, went on to become the most internationally presented film in the history of Armenian cinema. It was accepted to 80 international film festivals and won 20 awards but has had no official screening in Armenia. “No invitation from any cinema group and university, no explanation from the Golden Apricot Film Festival, no explanation from the Armenian Film Academy,” we read on the film’s official Facebook page. And despite the film’s director Heidary Oureh’s personal initiative to organize a screening in Armenia, none of the cinemas would accept it. “Dear friends, we would love to screen Apricot Groves in Armenia for you but unfortunately none of the cinemas accepted to screen it. Only KinoPark wanted to do it but they asked for $50,000 USD for eight weeks.”
As for Listen to Me, Untold Stories Beyond Hatred, the film was screened on several occasions in different spaces in Armenia-- homes and art spaces-- and came back this year in the form of an art installation by Artak Gevorgyan as part of the exhibition Fragile organized during the 15th Golden Apricot Film Festival. A writing on a red wall read, “Listen to Me” and segments from the film were on a loop next to it. One of the curators of the exhibition, Ella Kanegarian explains that through the exhibition, the rejected film “invaded” the territory of the festival and by doing so it represents elements of institutional criticism.
Causes of censorship and subjects that are censored are different at various points in time. It was the history and image of the Soviet Union, then it was the socio-political conditions of independent Armenia that paved the way for censorship, even when prohibited, to find ways of serving its masters. And only time will tell if we are meant to go to any more “post-censorship” exhibitions, or how long the wait will be for the banned to become public.
This project is funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of State.