Armenia is hosting the 15th Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival from 8 to 15 July. “Way Back Home”, a short documentary by filmmaker Seda Grigoryan focusing on the “Justice Within Armenia” initiative taken by the Diaspora Armenian artists, is set to screen within the Armenian Panorama section. Canadian-Armenian actress, film director and producer Arsinée Khanjian, who is the protagonist of the film, has also arrived in Armenia to take part in the film festival. Kinoashkharh has talked to the famous actress over issues regarding the Golden Apricot, Armenia’s cultural policy, civil stance, homeland, Diaspora, and censorship.
Kinoashkharh: Mrs. Khanjian, you are in Armenia on the sidelines of the Golden Apricot. When it was newly founded, many did not believe that it could bridge Armenia to the world through cinema. Do you think the Golden Apricot has fulfilled that mission?
Arsinée Khanjian (A.K.): When it comes to gaining recognition and some reputation in the world, yes, I can state for sure that the Golden Apricot has coped with that issue. It enjoys quite a high reputation especially in Europe. Many famous actors, directors and producers from countries known as major filmmaking centers have already visited Armenia especially to attend the film festival. For people who had never been to Armenia, the Golden Apricot turned into the horizon through which our country could be recognized. Since the film festival has managed to attract good funding expect for the past years, it also served as the best way for the guests visiting Armenia to familiarize themselves with the Armenian culture, enabling [them] to visit various sights across Armenia, to observe the Armenian architecture, etc.
The problem is that new film festivals emerge annually across the world; film production itself has changed its nature, tools and content. Today major filmmaking companies, like Netflix, Amazon and others, are coming into existence. The organizers of such festivals being held in small cities and sometimes even in villages, receive substantial state funding. Unfortunately, not long ago we lacked the independent state structures that could provide significant funding to this festival, among other cultural initiatives. In this context, the Golden Apricot is facing serious problems, including financial ones, which also greatly affect the festival’s moral side. During its 15 years of activity, the festival had to prove its importance to the Ministry of Culture annually, explain its mission, objectives, etc. The replies that came were oppositional, even senseless at times. You see, even this year, before May, there was a serious funding issue, the talks even went that the festival might not take place. Fortunately that problem was dealt with.
All the cultural festivals across the world come across financial problems, but unlike those of the Golden Apricot, they are logical and surmountable, not insoluble. This very inconsistent state support is to blame for the fact that the results of the 15-year activity of the festival are not fully appreciated for Armenia, the Armenian culture and filmmaking. We have always faced an issue of state support, including financial assistance, since, unfortunately, Armenia failed to pursue a clear-cut cultural policy.
Apart from the Golden Apricot, I can also bring another example. I was deeply touched when I had an opportunity to prepare a play for the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin that was dedicated to Armenian Genocide survivor Aurora Mardiganian and was titled “Auction of Souls”. The performance has been included in the permanent theater playlist for 3 years already. In 2016, I received an invitation to take part in HIGH FEST with this performance, which was certainly pleasing, but the problem is the High Fest International Performing Arts Festival could not afford covering at least some costs of its participants; the support was only technical. Director of Maxim Gorki Theater Shermin Langhoff provided financial assistance at that time. I strongly believe that after the revolution, which seemed impossible a few months ago, the attitudes towards the culture will change among other things, the post-Soviet approaches to the sphere will disappear and the support will not be solely moral.
Kinoashkharh: You did not take part in the Golden Apricot festival over the past few years. What was the reason behind it?
A.K.: The reasons were different, starting from the heavy workload up to moral issues. In recent years, different oligarchs sought to grip the film festival they had no idea about in exchange for providing financial support. In some sense, it was one of the reasons behind Atom Egoyan’s resignation as the festival director.
Kinoashkharh: You met with Minister of Culture Lilit Makunts only a few days ago. What are your expectations in terms of systemic changes and approaches adopted in the sector?
A.K.: On the same day I also met with the Diaspora minister, and the very meeting with both ministers inspired hope that the systemic changes will really happen. I saw something I had never come across before: there was a clear cooperation between the two ministers and the structures led by them.
I believe this revolution was a wonderful event not only in political terms, but also in terms of bringing about systemic changes. Before this, I had cut all my ties with the Ministry of Diaspora since I am confident the activity of that structure was not aimed at strengthening the Armenia-Diaspora ties, but breaking them.
I am confident the government should have a clear perception that there is a vital need for systemic changes. The notion that all state structures in this country work for the same purpose and with the same vision should be grounded. The key impression I received from this visit is that the new authorities have a clear insight into the challenges facing them. In addition, they clearly realize that there is not only a need for changes, but also a possibility. We must give them some time. I am talking about reasonable time. It is not necessary to destroy everything and build anew. There is a need to make continuous changes, find out the sick circle and replace it with healthy one.
Kinoashkharh: You are a Diasporan. In general, Diaspora is a very interesting phenomenon in terms of its identity and perception of homeland. In recent years, the Diaspora has reformulated its attitudes towards Armenia. What do you think, will Armenia be able to restore relations with the Diaspora and become a unified center for it?
A.K.: Yes, the Diaspora has changed its attitudes towards Armenia. Armenia, for its part, must change its position on the Diaspora. Inviting people [to return] to the homeland is not enough. Favorable conditions should be created for people to live, work and make investments here. I can assure you not everyone will repatriate. There will be people who will want to return and establish themselves in Armenia. Others will tour the country several times or make financial investments in their homeland. It is important to understand that the Diaspora is not homogeneous. Differences exists not only between the traditional and newly formed Diaspora, but also between the Armenian communities established in different cities of the same country. Differentiated, also programmatic approaches are to be adopted towards the Diaspora. Armenia should clarify for itself what it wants inside and outside the country.
In addition, I believe a vital need has arisen to strengthen the Armenia-Diaspora ties not only as a state and community, but also on the level of civil societies. Armenia has its own vision on the Diaspora, the latter – on Armenia: both of them are far from reality. We have a problem of recognizing each other. But, first of all, we need to stop reproaching each other and deciding who is more Armenian. Something very unpleasant happened to me right here, where we are sitting and talking now. A person who later assumed a senior post in the previous government, came over and pushed me rudely to say: “You, Diaspora Armenians, why do you think you are more Armenian than we?” This topic must disappear from the Homeland-Diaspora dialogue. We must stop judging each other. I recalled another case when one of the employees of the Ministry of Culture said: “Shame on Atom Egoyan.” I asked, why? He said: “Because he does not speak Armenian.” This is nonsense, which, if preserved, will take us to nowhere.
Kinoashkharh: We talked about the Diaspora in general. I would like you to specify your relations with Armenia.
A.K.: I belong to Armenia and Armenia belongs to me. Nothing has changed in our relations. Today they are the same as back in 1991 when I stepped into Armenia for the first time. Then the process of getting closer to each other followed. I can’t even help smiling when walking along the streets. It must be due to my excitement; here every place has its memory, its story and all of them all beloved to me.
The only thing that has changed is, perhaps, the fact that before my detention two years ago my relations with Armenian were mostly built in the culture sphere. I felt connected with Armenia, was following all the developments, but did not reserve myself the right to express a civil position. I had already cut some ties with the then authorities of Armenia, had turned down Serzh Sargsyan’s invitation to participate in festive dinners on the sidelines of the Golden Apricot. I certainly had my position, but I did not express it very actively. Since the moment of my detention I just realized that I should not expect anyone to have my rights exercised. Yes, I am not an Armenian citizen, but I have a clear notion in civic realities. In this case why can’t I speak about my homeland? If I, as a Diasporan, feel that responsibility towards Armenia, it should also be accountable to me.
Kinoashkharh: My next question refers to those developments. Did your attitude towards Armenia changed after them?
A.K.: Many things changed, but not [my attitude] towards Armenia. The Diaspora changed its attitude towards me. Especially the traditional Diaspora has always sought to stick to the “status quo” to prevent unrest and upheavals in Armenia. In this respect I have always stated that our greatest danger does not come from outside – neither from Turks nor Azerbaijanis. Our greatest danger lies inside, and it was our fear and desperation. I hate fear, perhaps because I am a descendant of the Armenian Genocide survivors. Fear is the greatest obstacle one can face. I believe the only way to dispel fear is to struggle. I am a fighter by nature, I am an activist.
When that story happened in 2016, many from the Diaspora would ask me: “How would you dare to visit Armenia and mix up everything?” And last year, when we were taking part in the [parliamentary] elections already as observers, many began accusing me and the rest of the art workers taking part in the “Justice Within Armenia” civic action of having some foreign forces in our back.
We were constantly asked what we knew about Armenia to reserve ourselves the right to meddle in its domestic processes. At that time I simply advised those people to pay a visit to Armenia, observe the life outside Yerevan and talk to people. I would tell people that I said nothing, I just conveyed the message of Armenian citizens to the world. Americans have a good saying, “Do not kill the postman!” I was simply a postman who delivered news from ordinary people. After those events I visited Lebanon. I gave only one interview during that whole period, since strict censorship was ruling the community media.
After that detention, I also experienced great changes. I realized that if I could raise my voice against the Rwandan genocide or the horrors in Somali, why can’t I speak up about the developments in my homeland? Who should decide when and under what circumstance I should be an Armenian? I am the one who can decide and I can’t keep silent.
Kinoashkharh: Your connection with Armenia has always been visible, especially at crucial times. You were again in Armenia two months ago during the revolution period. Are you spotting any changes today?
A.K.: I personally think this was a revolution of smiles. People walk along the streets and smile. Exactly one year ago when we observed the elections here, and the election rigging cases came to light, we did nothing. I headed to Artsakh on the next day. Many people encouraged us to “take to the streets and protest, many will follow you”, but we understood that we were not the ones to be followed, but we needed to back those who would stand up and protest. And it turned into reality one year later.
We were also repeatedly told that Armenia did not have a chance for changes, but it did change. We would be mistaken to think that this happened overnight. No, this was the result of many years of accumulation [of discontent], with an opportunity for it created today. It became possible since people realized that change does not come from outside: it is neither the second coming of Christ nor the initiative of a few. Change only happens from inside. The changes are obvious for me, only I desperately want them to be continuous.
Kinoashkharh: “Way Back Home” by Seda Grigoryan is set to be screened on the sidelines of the Golden Apricot in a few days. It tells about your mission fulfilled in 2017. What can you say about the movie?
A.K.: This movie is very personal to me and very close to my heart. In addition to the fact that it is valuable as a documentary, it is also a very interesting piece of road movie genre, although it was not meant as a movie at the beginning. I have known Seda for a long time, but I especially felt her support at the time of my detention.
I think I would not be able to carry out any activity in Armenia without her in the past two years. The shootings that served as the film materials took place occasionally in different places and under different circumstances. Seda, due to her free spirit, provided a strong support to the “Justice Within Armenia” initiative. She was already studying in London when she asked me at one of our regular meetings to make a film based on the shootings. It was a great honor for me.
Later I understood that this movie is very important to me, since it factually documents my relations with Armenia, creating a unique chronology. I usually do not take notes and never think about documenting my visits. Seda’s movie, I think, is also extremely important in a sense that it clearly shows what happened in the Armenia-Diaspora relations. This is a unique message especially to the Diaspora about the fact that each person can make a difference.
Interview by Sona MARTIROSYAN