“Unfortunately, the life of documentary films becomes more complicated”

Nune Hakhverdyan

Art critic, journalist

Filmmaker Tamara Stepanyan, living in France, belongs to the generation that because of fate lived in several countries during her childhood and in these different environments acquired new experiences, new knowledge, and a new nuance. She is one of those young filmmakers who unwittingly are a bridge between their birthplace and the world, since they felt and experienced mobility (both emotional and physical) with their own skin. And then tried to insert that into film.

Stepanyan’s latest documentary film, Those from the Shore, won the Golden Apricot prize in the Armenian Panorama competition at the 2017 Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival. The film is about migration and the trace that years of waiting leave on people.

The film’s main characters are Armenian asylum seekers in Marseilles, who wait for months and even years for confirmation of their status and necessary papers. They’re expecting that life will change.

But as we know, waiting also has an opposite side, which prompts and mentally justifies the inaction and emptiness of the present. From the endless waiting, not only feelings, but also the overall reality freezes. And you along with it…

Those from the Shore is the poetic record of this frozen situation with the filmmaker’s assertive emphases. Stepanyan has created a film that with its prolonged format and some manipulative movie tricks (for example, from the filmmaker’s questions, which should get the main characters out of their coma and take them aside, but which the filmmaker herself needs) shows small and unnoticed people who live in the shadows, for whom escape is not a physical act but an existential one.

Stepanyan is preparing to shoot also a feature film (working title: As the Sky Permits), which is a dramatic and revealing journey from France to Armenia. This genre (odyssey) is a return to the important point, which is often the starting point itself. That is, eternal migration.

These days the topic of migration is often found in art, particularly in film. There’s also the stereotype that exploits the image of the poor and disenfranchised immigrant. Ultimately, we forget that there exists the right to freedom of movement.

Migration is a current issue in the world today, but I think not in Armenia, where emigration has increased.

It’s interesting that now, a reverse migration situation has been created — Armenians who went to Syria are coming to Armenia. Of course, they’re returning to escape the horrors, but, in any case, it’s changing Armenia. Living abroad, I understand how painful and difficult it is to see refugee families in temporary lodgings in inhumane conditions. Many, going through this journey, simply become ill.

My job is not to judge anyone. I try to understand, begin a dialogue about alienation, longing, waiting. To see how a person’s body changes in this process.

I know people in Marseilles who’ve gone mad in the process of waiting for legal status. It’s very difficult to see, for example, a lone man singing Armenian songs in the street…

One thinks, if there’s a house and I’m full, that’s already good. Another misses the taste and smell of Armenia. It’s harder when waiting is approached philosophically.

In the film, you tried to be impassive. But at the same time you asked questions whose answers your main characters didn’t have. And the result was artificial pauses.

The film was shot over a year, and many things were revised. Yes, I tried to work impassively. Waiting can’t be understood and depicted in a few days; time is needed, to see how the state of anticipation is transformed.

I understood that this is an infinite process. Even if the refugees get papers (in fact, very few do), a question arises: and then what? There’s a woman who’s been waiting for 30 years and she too doesn’t know why…

Papers don’t solve all the problems. I think it’s the same in Armenia.

Of course, all countries have their problems, France more so, which is truly a humanitarian country and helps its refugees even more than it helps its citizens. 

Documentary films that describe a problem often pretend to be more. For instance, poetic, universal, allegorical (this is noticed also in your film, particularly with the long, static, prolonged sea shots). Is it hard to be more straightforward and dynamic?

If the allegorical layer is removed, a documentary film will become a television reportage. 

This is specific to auteur films, where the auteur [filmmaker] tries to turn her voice in its own way into a film negative. Naturally, the structure of a film can be more straightforward when the main characters  are simply talking about their lives. 

I don’t like putting films into precise boxes: auteur, festival, commercial. I merely shoot a film and don’t know what will happen in the end. It might also not work out, that happens too. In any case, I try to find something new and not be satisfied with what’s already been done.

And how is the fate of documentary films arranged? A film is shown in the festival and then on television…?

That’s the best case scenario. In France, there are very few channels that show auteur documentary films. Basically, it’s ARTE, which is a bright light for creative documentarians. But these films are shown only on Tuesdays and only at 1 am. Unfortunately, the life of documentary films becomes more complicated.

For film to make it to television, it’s necessary to do the festival circuit, get awards, and only in that case can different channels take an interest in the film and purchase it. 

Tamara Stepanyan with her family. Photo by Zaven Khachikyan.

My two films (Embers and February 19) were shown on Armenia’s public television, but I never received money. Actually, I’m very happy, and I would want my new film to be shown too and for the dialogue on migration to continue. 

I don’t know how it’ll happen, since in any case Those from the Shore is psychological and personal but contains political elements, which of course are expressed in an indirect way.

Problems appear better when you view them from outside. What sort of problems does Armenia’s film production have?

If you look at it from outside, there’s the impression that Armenian cinema is in a very sad state. There are talented young people who have an interesting way of thinking and interesting projects. But we’re missing a film school, general film education, that is, shooting, editing skills, and so on.

I would like for the film industry to open up.

Generally, film is a phenomenon that must have a way out. Film people have to go out, mingle, learn, come, and go again, create new platforms and use them…

Basically, start a migration?

Yes. I myself studied in Denmark and Lebanon, and my film Embers has been shown in more than 30 film festivals. And I learned something new from all those places.

But in Armenia, filmmakers have few places to express themselves. There’s the impression that they’re in a closed, obsolete environment, sitting in sludge. And it would be great if filmmakers with interesting ideas would be able to find new platforms to express themselves and learn. 

You won’t get anywhere by remaining closed.

It’s surprising that film projects become successful when the filmmakers bypass state structures.

The selected filters applied by state structures are incomprehensible. No one can explain who and based on what principles projects that receive financial support are chosen.

The selection at most must be open and transparent, so that everyone has the opportunity to participate. Recently, for example, the question of Armenian films participating at Cannes Film Festival was raised.

Till today, that was done in such a closed way that living in France, I myself didn’t even know that there will be an Armenian Pavilion at Cannes. 

Cannes has a big film market, and I, as an Armenian filmmaker, could’ve participated, try not only to sell my films, but also to help establish new connections. There are a few good filmmakers living in France, but all of them were left out of Armenia’s attention.

I hope one day that too will change. And the cinema movement happening in Armenia will become more animated, transparent, and with many voices.

In fact, interesting and new voices aren’t few; they are simply not heard. 

Interview by Nune Hakhverdyan

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