'I Want my Films to be the Start of Debate'

25.05.2012, Viewpoint

Լրագրող, արվեստի քննադատ

Filmmaker, writer and journalist Suzanne Khardalian was born in Beirut, lived and studied in France, then moved to Stockholm and began to shoot documentary films for Scandinavian TV companies. 

Khardalian confesses that she's in love with conflict. Being an international relations expert, she often finds herself in conflict zones and shooting films about conflict regions (mainly in the Middle East). She focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Vietnam War, the issues of Laos' ethnic minorities, life in India, and in recent years, the revolutions in Egypt and Syria.

Khardalian comes to Armenia often, but it was only on April 24 of this year that audiences in Armenia had a chance to view her documentary "Grandma's Tattoos" (2011) about the fate of women during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Gender and genocide have appeared on a single platform in the fate of Khardalian's grandmother Khanoum, who at a young age was raped, enslaved and held captive for several years, being forced to bear the marks on her forehead and hands for the rest of her life. Women were viewed as property. This painful genocide secret, of which her grandma never spoke, Suzanne Khardalian has managed to turn into a tender and personal film that raises many questions.

Many people watched "Grandma's Tattoos" since it aired on Al Jazeera's English channel. Is television more preferable than movie theatres for you?

When it comes to distributing film, festivals are secondary. Personally, I'm not really interested in festivals. Usually, by the time our team begins a new project, we've already sold the rights to different TV stations. If in the future our films are sold in the festival market, I'd only be happy about that. 

By the way, I found out a few days ago that "Grandma's Tattoos" will be screened also in Japan and Latin America — this means that a few million people more might watch it.

262

Basically, the film lives by its own fate.

Yes, especially due to the Al Jazeera channel, which broadcasts to audiences in Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia. Television is a wonderful opportunity to get your message to the public. After the screening of the film, I received feedback from so many surprising places — an Afghan soldier wrote a letter, an African woman… it's all very inspiring. 

Some filmmakers in Armenia say that they shoot films not for everyone. Can this be so?

Of course, there are artists who create only for their own satisfaction. But I think there's no sense to create if no one will read, see or hear your work. There's an inexplicable elitism in this approach. If I'm making a film, I want to introduce as many people as possible to my perception of the world. And television provides this opportunity. 

Have you managed to watch local Armenian television?

I watch some programs back in Stockholm. To tell the truth, I have nothing to say about Armenian stations — well, they mainly offer entertainment. Of course, I understand that television all over the world is like that, but there are also public channels that have a clear mission and fulfill another function (I assume that this same public message is noted also in the Armenian public TV broadcaster's documents).

If you want to be entertained, you can get cable — the public channel doesn't have the right to emphasize only entertainment because it will have serious problems with the law.

In 2007, you said that you're not preparing to make a film about Armenia since there's no conflict here. Do you still think so today?

Now there's more so a factitious, exaggerated conflict. I think the authorities in Armenia make everything about state security — it seems as if every small move is a matter of security. Say, for example, the roads have to be repaired. The authorities say that it's not ordinary work but rather an important issue of security for the country. This is a particular style of partially dictatorial countries: in order to keep the population in a state of trepidation, the image of an abstract enemy is constantly raised and everything is explained in terms of self-defense, which results in an atmosphere of fear.

Of course, we all know quite well that Armenia is surrounded by non-abstract hostile states but every failure and success cannot be solely connected to the enemy. The danger is never going to go away (even if we flirt amorously with Turkey and Azerbaijan every day), but it can't be constantly exploited and all the problems explained by the need for defense. 

263You've made many films and reports on third world countries. Do you get the impression that the situation becomes explosive through revolution, when the state apparatus begins to work separately from the people?

Yes, that system works not for the people but for itself, ensuring its longevity. But I understand very well that Armenia is that strip of land, that starting point on which (if we want) it's possible to build a new collective future. There simply isn't another possibility. The vision of Western Armenia is too distant to become reality. Many nations have such dreams. The American Dream, for example, is about self-actualization, and the state has the mission to ensure this actualization (it might even invade Afghanistan or Iraq in the name of defending the interests of its citizens).

After Armenia's independence, there were many attempts to cooperate with the Diaspora, but we weren't able to use the Diaspora's potential correctly. In your opinion, why was that?

We can speak constantly about the relations between Armenia and the Diaspora. Unfortunately, the language to speak with the Diaspora hasn't been found yet. I think, first of all, the Soviet attitude toward Diasporan Armenians has to disappear. Armenians in Armenia regard Diasporans with some disdain. This is more so an issue of mentality, which very much impedes contact. Personally, I'm thick skinned and can withstand a lot, but I see how much that attitude makes Diasporan Armenians uncomfortable. They think, Armenia is a good place, but it's not my homeland; my homeland is Western Armenia [modern-day Turkey].

I want to remind you that Israel generally wasn't the Jews' homeland, but it became the homeland even for those Jews who lived in London or China. But an Armenian living far away with ideas of a dream homeland is not accepted in Armenia. There are invisible cultural obstacles that don't allow an Armenian to feel comfortable and at home in Armenia.

I think a Diasporan Armenian has to be accepted as he is today — without criticism, because he didn't become Diasporan of his own will. And an Armenian living in his subconscious needs to develop [and grow]. Even a person who hasn't spoken Armenian in years has national 'sprouts' within him, which are waiting to be watered and assisted in growing. And we expect this process from you [Armenians living in Armenia]. One of those 'sprouts,' for example, is art. Pomegranates and apricots are illogical and transient symbols; it's much more important to encourage an Armenian to reach his heart through art. 

264And along with this, all Armenians shouldn't be made into being the same; on the contrary, we can enrich ourselves only by combining all of us and 'upgrading' our perceptions. Television and the media have a great role to play in this.

The pain of the genocide not yet digested and the (still unconscious) victory in the Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] War are perhaps those subjects that Armenia's media industry (particularly TV documentaries) addresses either in great pathos or in fear.

The genocide, the war are not topics that inhibit us; on the contrary, they are opportunities to strive toward proportion. We have to be able to turn that which happened to us, the pain into a unique sort of capital. 

I myself, like all Armenians, bear a heavy burden of the consequences of the genocide, but I don't feel myself beaten, swallowed or ruined. On the contrary…

I think children, keeping alive the memory, have to be able to live stronger and with a greater will. Each nation turns every refuge in its history into capital. Of course, there are positive and negative meanings in this, but you have to be able to use your history, to think about finding new paths — which includes also using the power of TV channels.

As a journalist, you have often been in states that have experienced revolution. Can it be said that social networking sites played a big role in revolutions?

I more so study how revolution enters people's homes. I think the importance of Facebook and Twitter is exaggerated. Social networking sites are good tools to undertake something but nothing more. The issue is the constantly transforming revolutionary situation and people. In Egypt, for example, the situation is much worse now than before the revolution, because the Islamists have assumed power. And that revolutionary who allowed his wife to go out onto the street and sleep in the square as a sign of protest now doesn't allow her to leave the house — even if she wants to go to the dentist. The liberalization movement that was created (which is quite artificial) was, in the first place, a blow to women… the Islamists are trying to discredit that huge movement of women that arose during the revolution and to force women to return home and continue to live quietly. 

And this is an issue for all of humankind. Women make up more than half the world's population, but half of humanity doesn't allow the other half to participate in global events. For me, feminism is an important movement — simply, you shouldn't do someone else's bidding (through different grants), but try to shape society's problems unaided. I think women in Armenia also have many problems.

And what are those?

Young women feel that there are invisible barriers created in society for them. I wouldn't want my remarks to be construed negatively because I love Armenia very much. I simply want Armenian women not to present themselves so naively and not allow others to treat them as if they're getting ready for a sale. 

"Grandma's Tattoos," in a very interesting way, is linked to these days in Armenia and perhaps this conversation about women arose as a continuation of the film.

I'm very happy if that's so. We shouldn't shut our eyes and say that everything is well. I always want my films to be the start of debate.

Interview conducted by Nune Hakhverdyan

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