Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Representation of Armenians in Cinema

The representation of Armenians in cinema has often been problematic.
The culture, like all other minority groups, lends itself to stereotypes and exaggerations. In films and television shows, we are often referred to as being part of a criminal organization or mob, or as Spike Lee’s Inside Man points out, Armenian culture is undistinguishable.
It’s often a surprise for audiences when Armenians are either mentioned or referred to, but it’s only rarely when the representation of Armenians is authentic.
Sideways is a film that prominently features an Armenian family, the Erganians. The film represents Armenians, not as a way of poking fun at the culture, but to enlighten viewers about their traditional culture. Sideways concerns itself with Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) who take a trip to Santa Barbara a week before Jack’s wedding. Miles, the film’s antihero is a failed author who still obsesses himself with his ex-wife, who divorced him several years before. Miles hopes their trip together will result in male bonding, which include playing golf and visiting vineyards. Jack, however, is much more playful than Miles, and hopes their trip will result in him hooking up with a girl before his wedding. The film, written and directed by Alexander Payne, makes us laugh during situations which otherwise wouldn’t be funny.
Alexander Payne comes from a Greek background. In Nebraska, where he was born, his parents owned a Greek restaurant. In addition, his first name is actually Constantine and their family’s last name was anglicized from Papadopoulos. I’d imagine “Directed by Constantine Papadopoulos” would be a tough sell in the film world. In either case, it’s apparent that culture has played a significant role in his personal life, particularly growing up in a state on the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. That’s primarily why his representation of Armenians in the film doesn’t consist of exaggerations.
It’s interesting to note that the film explores the notion of feeling trapped, which is expressed throughout the film in a number of ways. Miles, in some sense, is trapped in his lifestyle based on decisions he has made. The specific life path he has chosen has now left him feeling trapped as he seeks escape in other activities (writing a novel, becoming a wine connoisseur). There’s also the suggestion of the life of wine in its own bottle. The poster of the film shows a wine bottle tipped over sideways and shows a cartoon sketch of Miles and Jack trapped inside the bottle. In the film, Miles mentions his prized bottle of wine, a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc. There’s the suggestion that certain wines must be opened during specific time periods, further hinting that wine itself represents entrapment. In the end of the film, after going through a meltdown, Miles opens his bottle, providing audiences with a sense of release, now that the wine has “escaped” from its tight space. Jack, on a similar note, feels trapped in his life and upcoming marriage. The trip for him becomes an excuse to be with a girl before he gets married, but as the film progresses, he reassess his plans and wonders if marriage is right choice for him. In this sense, we are provided with an understanding of how marriage will further trap him, and to a lesser extent, how the Armenian family is at risk of being responsible for this entrapment.
Alexander Payne has claimed that one of the decisions to use an Armenian family was that it would localize the film. In other words, because Armenians are such a significant part of Los Angeles, their presence grounds the film in realism and makes the film inherently unique. It’s another effort in adding culture to the film, in addition to the world of wine that the film portrays.
In a number of scenes throughout the film, Jack comments on Christine, his fiancée. Jack’s comments toward her family all emphasize the family’s strict adherence to tradition. Jack tells Miles, “Christine’s dad has really been talking to me about getting into the family business, showing me the ropes… which is something, considering how long it took for him to get over my not being Armenian.” These sorts of comments show us the importance of culture and tradition in Armenian families. In the end of the film, when Jack marries Christine, their traditional wedding consists of all the ingredients; Armenian priest, bowing their heads together.
Sideways is a rare film in that its representation of Armenians is not only accurate but also authentic to its culture. The film itself is entirely accurate in its representations. The filmmaker himself made up the wine list for the film and all locations used are actual locations in and around Santa Barbara, including the Hitching Post and Kalyra Winery. The representation of Armenians in the film shows us this sense of authenticity as well. There are no caricatures with these characters. The church is a traditional Armenian church, the home in the film is typical of an Armenian family, and even the cars at the wedding are representative of the Armenian culture. The parking lot consists of black BMW and Mercedes-Benz cars. It’s never excessive, but it’s entirely accurate in its portrayal.
Sideways provides audiences with a window into the world of wine, leaving them thirsty for a glass of Pinot Noir after the film is over. In that sense, we can see how we are exposed to worlds with cinema. The Armenian family in this film, similarly, offers a look inside Armenian culture, regardless of how brief. The fact that the representation of Armenian culture is so authentic allows viewers with a sense of who we really are, rather than an exaggeration based on stereotypes.
Alexander Payne is one of the greatest filmmakers working today, primarily because of his focus on human stories. If nothing else, he has portrayed Armenians in an objective light, sharing the Armenian culture with the world.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Schindler's List... for Armenia

There have been endless discussions regarding Steven Spielberg and a proposed film on the topic of the Armenian Genocide.
This discuss began several weeks ago ago when an article appeared claiming the famed director would direct a film on the topic, and soon thereafter, numerous websites began reporting that the project was confirmed. The avalanche of rumors starting kicking high gear and became difficult to ascertain whether this was all speculation or if truth existed somewhere between the lines.
The articles were shared within the Armenian community and many were grateful that such a project was finally coming together. In some cases, many felt like this was “justice” in and of itself, because we would finally share the Armenian story with millions around the world.
The desperate need for such a film to be made has resulted in well-known media outlets reporting on this rumor. Steven Spielberg will not be producing this film, and I can assure you that he found out he would be “directing” the film around the same time you did. The rumor likely emerged because of his involvement with the USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization he established to record testimonies of survivors and witnesses of genocide. The picture that has been floating around of him with Carla Garapedian during a gala for the Armenian Genocide Digitization Project is likely another cause, perhaps giving off the impression that discussions have begun on a potential project.
The truth is that such a film would be welcoming. There is nothing better than sharing Armenian culture with the rest of the world, and having an influential filmmaker involved with such a project will undoubtedly reach a wider audience. The problem is that such a film shouldn’t be treated any more differently than other projects, but that seems impossible considering the Armenian community is adamant about the film. In fact, Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, which was concerned with the after effects of denial was met with criticism from the Armenian community. They felt like his film wasn’t the film we “deserved.” The problem is that a film on the topic of the Armenian Genocide isn’t the only way or most effective way to reach an audience.
There has been a wave of young Armenian filmmakers in recent years and many of them dream about making the quintessential Armenian Genocide film. There seems to be a race about who can get there and make that film. The purpose of cinema and its potential is to work together and produce a body of work – not just one really powerful film – that will form Armenian cultural identity; standing on a stage and winning an Oscar for a film on the topic of the Armenian Genocide should not be their only aspiring goal.
The illusion that we need such a film to bring us on the level of other ethnicities is foolish. Schindler’s List was a touching film on the tragedies of the Holocaust – and perhaps one day, we will have such a film – but because Armenian filmmakers are rare, and good storytellers are even rarer, we should be working toward a more refined goal, which is to produce work that accurately depicts Armenian culture.
If all Armenian creative artists and filmmakers each made poignant films, rather than become so enamored at the thought of such a film, we would perhaps do more good than any Armenian Genocide film could do. Iran, this past year, produced one of the most universal films in decades, portraying their culture and citizens without being political. The film, A Separation, focused on a husband and wife who are separating and their everyday problems. I ask, then, why we don’t focus on such films; that is, small, intimate and human films.
The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is fast approaching, and Armenians filmmakers should not be working on one film that could potentially be great. They should all come together and tell a multitude of stories.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Digital Revolution

In 2010, Michael and Mark Polish picked up a Canon 5D and shot a feature film on the streets of Paris.
The twin brothers had no budget, no permits, and for lighting, they used their iPhones.
Their case is a perfect instance of the embracing digital cinema and the positives of the recent shift from film to digital. There’s a certain sense of accessibility that has been made available with digital cinema. The tools and resources are out there for the taking. It’s simple for filmmakers to come up with excuses and reasons for not being able to make their films, such as an undeveloped screenplay or lack of good resources. If the Polish brothers show us anything, it’s that we need to stop making excuses. The shift to digital cinema also makes way for smaller, more independent projects, such as the Polish brothers’ For Lovers Only.
The impromptu filmmaking style the Polish brothers adopted for this film is homage to the French New Wave filmmakers, who also disregarded the rules and conventions of cinema. The film was distributed through iTunes (talk about changing the scope of film distribution) and made over $500,000 through digital sales. If Armenians are going to establish a sense of identity for their nation, if Armenian cinema is to reemerge, embracing digital cinema and rewriting the rules for production and distribution remains their only hope.
I see a hopeful future for independent filmmakers, but I am much more concerned with young Armenian filmmakers. I’m more interested in the creative storytellers who are sitting in their homes with wonderful ideas, who think they don’t have the means to express themselves. In today’s world, filmmakers need to be less concerned with quality. If you don’t have a camera as good as the Canon 5D, use a camcorder you have around your house. If you don’t have a camcorder, use something as simple as your iPhone.
The simple fact of the matter is the business of cinema is changing. It’s being influenced and driven with digital technology (for better or for worse). We’re going through a revolution, a digital revolution, and once we have emerged with all the rules in place, the shape of cinema will have been forever changed. We will be experiencing films and stories from around the world the same way we consume media on YouTube.
In fact, YouTube has shown us that we can all be consumers, producers and distributors. We can be our own production studio. The only thing standing in their way is themselves.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Unconstitutional Bill

The public denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offense in France. The Armenian Genocide bill, however, which calls for a similar law on behalf of Armenians in France, was determined unconstitutional.

In both instances, public denial would be punishable with a €45,000 fine or one year in jail, or both. In French law, if the public denial of the Holocaust is considered constitutional, it’s illogical for similar denial of the Armenian Genocide to be considered unconstitutional.

Nicolas Sarkozy has long supported such a bill for the Genocide, and after pressure from many Armenians, including singer Charles Aznavour, he pushed for the passing of the bill. There have been experts who have analyzed why he would act on this bill at this specific moment of time, and many of claimed that his support for the bill is because of the potential electoral votes he would receive from the Armenian population during the elections.

Turkey has continuously threatened to cancel multi-billion dollar contracts with France and have declared that their relation with France will be destroyed in the event that the bill does pass. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has even made childish claims, stating that he would never visit France if the bill does indeed pass.

Nicolas Sarkozy has had a longstanding opposition for Turkey to join the EU. François Hollande, his rival in the presidential elections, also supports the Armenian Genocide bill and has claimed that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide will be important for Turkey’s membership to the EU. It’s therefore unlikely that either candidate would be willing to create such major conflict and potentially harm all relations with Turkey over the mere 100,000 votes they would potentially receive on behalf of the Armenian population.

The French Senate had previously approved the bill 127-86 in January before the Constitutional Council of France declared that such a law would be unconstitutional. Nicolas Sarkozy claimed he would revise and resubmit the bill, but progress has ceased because of the upcoming French elections. In some sense, supports of the bill can be optimistic for its future. Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have both expressed their support for the passing of the bill. In fact, François Hollande even has plans on constructing an Armenian Genocide Museum in Paris by 2015 – the 100th commemoration of the tragic events.

The passing of the bill in France would stop Turkey from exporting its denial laws. The denial of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey is seen as an insult to “Turkishness” and is treated as a criminal offense under their penal code. The difference here, however, is that the Turkish government prevents its citizens from supporting the truth. In France, such a law would prevent citizens from denying an actual historic occurrence.

There have been a number of experts who have explained France’s decision to support the Holocaust instead of the Armenian Genocide. These experts believe that France has a law against denial of the Holocaust because they had a firsthand connection with the Holocaust and that they feel a sense of responsibility on their part. In either case, we need to protect both genocides, instead of providing an advantage to one or the other. If a law exists in France that claims the public denial of the Holocaust is within the boundaries of freedom of expression, then the same should apply for the Armenian Genocide.

There is no doubt that the tragic events that took place in 1915 were genocide. In fact, we don’t need a bill or law that criminalizes denial of the genocide or imposes a jail sentence and fine for those who express their opinion. The problem lies with favoring and France’s decision to call the Armenian Genocide bill unconstitutional, while having a similar law in place for another genocide.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Armenia's Position in World Cinema

The film festival season has been over for several weeks, and one in specific, I feel, showcases films from around the world better than others.
The AFI Film Festival included films from all around the world, showcasing international films in world cinema. These film festivals are opportunities for film lovers to catch up on films from diverse countries in a forum that allows audiences to see films that could potentially never even see a release in the United States. The participating films and countries for this year included Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Turkey), Alps (2011, Greece), The Forgiveness of Blood (2011, Albania), among others.
These films are all part of their respective nations, and national cinema becomes a complicated term to discuss when explored in depth. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, Japan) and Kinyarwanda (2011, Rwanda) are perfect examples of this complication. The films both won the World Cinema award, even though their filmmakers are both American. The films are still considered to be Japanese and Rwandese, respectively, because of their origin of finance.
These films, and national cinema in general, play a significant role in globalization, and cinema itself provides us a look into other cultures. These films teach us about their cultures and share their identity with the rest of the world. This is particularly important with countries such as Armenia, which are not major tourist destinations in comparison to other countries.
In the case of national cinema, funding and financial support from governmental institutions help establish such film culture. The Armenian State Committee of Cinema helped shape Armenian identity in the early years of Armenian cinema, providing us with exceptional films and filmmakers, but since then, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain governmental funding.
The current state of the industry seems to be focusing on television shows rather than motion pictures. This shift is undoubtedly because of production costs; television shows are being produced for little or no money, allowing a separate forum for exploring engaging stories.
The notion, however, that a feature film will be expensive to produce is false. Iran’s film that participated at the AFI Film Festival was, A Separation (2011, Iran). The film was produced for $500,000 (Kinyarwanda was produced for a mere $400,000) and was one of the most talked about films of the festival. The film is about real people in real situations, exploring Iranian culture and identity through melodrama. So, what’s the real reason that the Armenian nation never participates with a film? If a film can be produced with such small budgets, where are the stories that we can share with the rest of the world?
The filmmakers from Armenia have spread across the world and many of them are perfecting their craft in other nations. The filmmakers still working in Armenia are then faced with difficulties in financing the projects. That’s precisely where governmental funding should kick in, decreeing a fixed amount of finances to various filmmakers. In a digital world, production costs drop dramatically, and instead of making one or two major films, we can now afford to produce five or six (or more) films on small budgets and through a digital workflow.
These organizations can further advance Armenian film culture and allow its filmmakers to become part of international cinema. In the same manner that films from decades ago explored the cultural changes at the same, the cinema of the present can explore the rapidly evolving climate and emphasize individual potential.
If Armenians can shift their focus from television back to cinema and take their creativity and ingenuity to motion pictures, we can establish an international presence in world cinema.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

PHONY 2012

Joseph Kony is a bad guy. This much we know and can all agree.

The Ugandan war criminal, who runs the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an organization known for kidnapping children, turning them into sex slaves and soldiers, is the subject of a viral film that has generated over 85 million views in less than three weeks. Jason Russell, the director of the film, KONY 2012, calls for immediate action and tells his audience "KONY MUST BE STOPPED." The 30-minute film was released on YouTube on March 5 and hundreds of people have voiced their support for the cause with tweets and shares.

The filmmaker's goal has been to raise awareness and have people worldwide know Joseph Kony by name... among other things.

Joseph Kony is currently number one on the International Criminal Court's most-wanted list, so again, there's no question about the fact that he is a criminal. The problem, however, comes on the part of Jason Russell himself and whether his film is meant to educate viewers and raise awareness or simply commercialize these conflicts.

KONY 2012 fails in addressing the fact that Kony and his band haven't been active in Uganda for years now. The LRA has moved onto other countries, but the film doesn't urge action outside of Uganda. The film instead portrays Ugandans as helpless victims at a time when Kony isn't their biggest concern.

The film also fails in educating its audience about the conflicts. Jason Russell, who interestingly enough was detained last week for masturbating in public in San Diego, uses his five-year-old son, Gavin, as means of simplifying these issues. In showing his son images of Kony, he points out that Kony is the "bad guy," whereas others, such as Jacob Acaye - a former child abductee from Uganda - is a "good guy." In effect, the filmmaker treats his audience as five-year-olds, oversimplifying these issues as if we, like his son, are uneducated about the world.

The film fails in educating its viewers about the conflict in Uganda and rather uses filmic techniques, such as rapid editing, to emotionally exhaust its viewers. The film repeatedly tells its audience that we must "stop at nothing" and takes us on an emotional roller coaster. In using an emotional narrative rather than an educational one, Jason Russell convinces his audience to donate to his efforts by having viewers purchase a $30 "action kit," which will go toward bringing Kony to justice. This itself becomes questionable; if a filmmaker wants to raise awareness through a documentary film, he wouldn't use an emotional narrative to persuade his viewers to donate money to him. The film, however, does just that; by the time the filmmaker asks you for $30, you're wiping away the tears in your eyes just to grab your wallet.

The backlash the film has received claims that a significant portion of the money donated to the project goes to travel expenses and filmmaking rather than efforts in helping find Kony. There have been several open letters to the filmmaker, asking where the donated money actually, but we'd assume the filmmaker has too busy masturbating in public to immediately have answers for us.

In addition, the timing of the film and its title, KONY 2012, is more concerned with commercial interests than anything else. In effect, the filmmaker commercializes the Ugandan conflict in which thousands of people have lost their lives. The title of the film itself speaks to the upcoming presidential elections, drawing attention to itself, as if he were selling us a product rather than making an educational film.

There's no question whether the subject of the film, Joseph Kony, deserves to be brought to justice. It's clear that he and his organization is responsible for thousands of deaths; what's questionable is how we use cinema and documentary films to bring attention to these conflicts and issues. In the case of one filmmaker, he feels the need to commercialize off these issues. In simplifying these conflicts and making Kony the clear "bad guy," he urges his audience to do the right thing and donate money to him, which he assures us will "stop Kony."

Friday, March 16, 2012

This Film Will Be Subtitled

The increasing difficulties that Armenian national film culture faces – in particular, a lack of resources and finances – is an obstacle that prevents us from creating films. There are, however, other difficulties that keep us from sharing the films we already have with the rest of the world. In this sense, these problems are self-inflicted.
These difficulties come in the form of a lack of programming in theatres and a lack of subtitles on home media. The most important thing, in terms of having Armenian films seen, is access. The lack of access prevents audiences from seeing films that are part of Armenian culture and restricts Armenian culture in establishing a sense of identity.
The older generation remembers watching Armenian films as they were released. They also grew up watching older films on television, such as Pepo. These films were engrained into their sense of culture. They grew up knowing these characters and stories and anticipated new film releases. The younger generation, however, and the Diaspora, in particular, is less familiar with these films. The lack of access to these films keeps us from seeing these works and learning from them.
The production of more films will shape Armenian national film culture, but that itself will take time. The other option we have in shaping Armenian film culture is to share the films that we currently have with audiences. If the Alex Theatre, for instance, began programming Armenian films and screened a film a month, audiences would be reintroduced to these films. The older generation would flock to the theater to see films they haven’t seen in years, whereas the young generation will have an opportunity to see films they otherwise never knew existed.
There are a number of revival theatres that program and screen films of all cultures. There are film festivals that focus on programming international films for audiences. The only opportunity, at the present moment, that allows classic Armenian films to shine on the big screen is the Arpa International Film Festival. If we could, however, interest theatres to begin programming Armenian films, this will create a venue for sharing these films.
This, then, brings up the question of, how these films would be screened. This ties into the second problem we face, which comes in the form of our only other way of consuming media; DVDs. These films, many of which are available on DVD, lack an option for subtitles. If theatres begin screening these films, DVDs are one of their few options, unless a print of the film is available. The lack of a subtitle option, however, becomes problematic. This prevents non-Armenians from discovering Armenian cinema; all foreign films available online can be purchased and watched, regardless of language, because almost all are equipped with English subtitles. The few Armenian films we have on DVD lack an option of subtitles. This problem – which is an easy fix – prevents us from sharing these films with the rest of the world.
The resolution of these issues, both of which have simple solutions, will allow the current line of films reach a wider audience. These films have been ignored, but if given a chance, these films will captivate audiences, now more than ever, because of their minimalism. These are measures we can take upon ourselves, because instead of being the source of these problems, we can take responsibility and make sure the rest of the world sees what we have to offer in terms of cinema.