“Tevanik,” a dramatic film about the Karabagh war, was shown in various cities of the US in January, and its director, Jivan Avetisyan, came from Armenia to speak at these different venues. They included Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Jersey, Washington, DC and Boston. There were various local cosponsors. In the Boston area the Sayat Nova Dance Company (SNDC) was the host, and filled to capacity the West Newton Cinema for the evening. Arick Gevorkian, US representative of the film, traveled with Avetisyan from Los Angeles to participate in the presentation.
Prior to the start of the film, Apo Ashjian, SNDC director, thanked the audience for its support, and said, “I myself have seen this movie three or four times already, and every time I watch this film, I take away with me something different. It is meaningful films like this that give our community hope strength and the will to persevere to do what we all do on a daily basis in this community.”
This is a very beautiful film, in large part because of the breathtaking images of the Karabagh countryside. The film is constructed somewhat unconventionally, with three parallel segments portraying episodes taking place during one day in a Karabagh village in 1991 from the perspective of three Armenians — Aram, Astghik and Tevanik. These Armenians are all children or young adolescents, so they view the world differently than adults would, but villagers of all ages have important roles in the film.
The filming took place in the Karabagh villages of Badara and Kachen during the summer of 2013. It is not only the scenery and plot that are authentic; the actors in the 81-minute-film speak in the Karabagh dialect of Armenian (English subtitles are provided), except for the commander who was from the diaspora and speaks Western Armenian. Avetisyan said he felt that “the film would have been false if it were not in the Karabagh dialect.”
Each of the three sections of the film is about loss due to war. Little Aram’s mother is Azerbaijani and his father Armenian. When the village is surrounded by Azerbaijani forces, the Armenians turn on his mother and tensions become dangerous, forcing her to leave with her younger son. Aram and his father are left behind, thus the family is shattered and the happiness of Aram’s childhood ends. This segment is subtitled “Sonnet.” The second part, subtitled “Elegy,” focuses on Astghik and other women around her. She loses her friendship with Aram and her father, brother and grandfather to the war.
The third part, subtitled “Saga” [Ask’], goes further in depicting fighting. The 14-year-old orphan Tevanik is present in all three parts of the film. In the last section, he is chosen to help the commander scout a desolate region. Suddenly an Azeri sniper attacks and Tevanik decides to take vengeance.
The movie deliberately has an ambivalent ending. The one thing shown clearly is that the villagers decide to disobey an order from the high Armenian command to retreat. They put their lives on the line for their homes.
Jivan Avetisyan, in an interview after the Boston screening, declared that how the story ended was not important. The point of the film was basically that war was bad and had its tragic effects even on those not on the frontlines. The film, though about Karabagh, could also be about any other war.
Avetisyan himself was born in Karabagh and lived through the difficult times of the war, which naturally affected his childhood. While his father and brother fought on the frontlines, he stayed in the basement with his mother and sister, reading under candlelight. The memories of this period remain indelible for him. As a filmmaker, he works on this topic as the one that is closest to him, and he feels film is the best way to present the history of Karabagh to non-Armenians.
Avetisyan worries that “Nobody talks about Karabagh anywhere in the street. When people talk about Karabagh and the Armenian Genocide in the street the way they do about the Holocaust, then at that time everything will become okay. We must reach that point.” He believes that “Film can affect people. Furthermore, political leaders are also people, and they have families too.”
Avetisyan feels that the Karabagh war was forced on the Armenians, and the latter’s victory has led to a certain degree of mythologization. He declared: “People have already forgotten what war is, and the bad things that are connected to it. I am a proponent of peace. Its value will become more apparent if we continually talk about the price of war. We will thus keep war at a distance from Karabagh.”
Though at present he works as the chief director of Yerkir Media in Yerevan, preparing television documentaries as well as films, he said that “artistic films are his love.” One such film can take three to four years to make for him. His forthcoming film probably will take around 30 months. Avetisyan said, “And you have to continually work on it. A film is more jealous than a jealous woman.”
He finds the challenges of his work different from that of the Soviet period. He said, “I learned from the masters who were the cinematographers of the Soviet Union. Now we have freedom, but no money. Then there was time and money.”
Avetisyan’s oeuvre consists of 14 documentaries and seven films. Most of his important previous work has focused on Karabagh. His prior film, “Broken Childhood,” relates a true story about an Azerbaijani attack, supported by Russian troops, on the Armenian village of Maragha. It tells the story of a six-year-old girl who is taken captive and held by an Azerbaijani woman who hoped, in vain as it turns out, to exchange her own captive child for this Armenian. Avetisyan also has made a documentary called “Gharabagh: Taknvats Gandz” [Gharabagh: Hidden Treasure].
The script for “Tevanik” was initially written by Arnold Aghababov in 1996-1997. Years after he passed away, Karine Khodikyan expanded it to feature-film length. Armenia’s National Cinema Center in part financed the film, and individuals also helped through Avetisyan’s Fish Eye Art cultural foundation. The president of the Nagorno Karabagh Republic, Bako Sahakyan, and the NKR government greatly facilitated the making of the film. The Karabagh army made all the war scenes possible, he added.
“Tevanik” premiered at the Moscow Cinema in Yerevan in May 2014 and in Artsakh in June, and has been shown in various European cities. It has won a considerable number of awards, including: Best Screenplay at the Los Angeles Arpa International Film Festival in November 2014; Best Feature Prize in the Armenian Panorama Competition at the Golden Apricot Film Festival in July 2014; Audience Favorite Award at the Silk Road International Film Festival in Xi’an, China in 2014; and Most Original Work in the International Feature Films Competition of the Overlook 2014 Film Festival in Rome. It was also shown at the 67th Cannes Film Festival.
Avetisyan pointed out that the importance of having such a film shown internationally was well understood by politicians and states. The Azerbaijani government sent a letter of protest to the Lithuanian government about the participation of Artbox, a Lithuanian company, in the production of this film.
Arick Gevorkian, who coordinated the film’s tour through the US and supported Avetisyan’s work, was introduced by Ashjian after the film’s showing to speak further about the importance of films like “Tevanik,” as well as the financial difficulties involved in filmmaking in Armenia and Karabagh. Ashjian admiringly declared about Gevorkian that “He is a one-man show. He is a businessman, a lecturer, and an event coordinator.”
Gevorkian declared that the financial cost of making “Tevanik” was $176,000, but if the assistance of the NKR government were to be monetized, the total cost would have been roughly half a million dollars. While this may be a trifling sum compared to Hollywood budgets, it is extremely difficult to raise in Armenia. Yet with this small sum, a film was produced that, according to film critic Carlos Aguilar, was a contender in the 2015 Academy Awards. The problem is that Avetisyan and his team did not have enough money to market the film appropriately.
Avetisyan wants to do things differently with his new film. Called “The Last Inhabitant,” it is about the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sumgait, the Karabagh conflict and related events. Its trailer was shown to the Boston audience. Several internationally famous actors have agreed to participate in it at greatly reduced rates of compensation. It will be filmed in the summer of 2015, with an approximate cost of $250,000. Avetisyan still is in debt for $95,000 of this total. The US tour of “Tevanik” was intended to raise money for this new film.
Gevorkian said, “Film art is the only way for us to make our voice heard in the world. Our enemy works to make sure we cannot make these films. If we cannot raise some $40-50,000 now in five or six communities in the US, let us not talk about the Armenian Cause. There are no corporations helping us. We are raising $500 here, $1,000 there.”
The Hyasa Center (hyasa.org), a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, is the US vehicle for fundraising for the film. Gevorkian is the head of its entertainment division. In Armenia, Avetisyan has an organization called Fish Eye Arts which also does fundraising.
"The Armenian Mirror-Spectator," January 31-February 7, 2015