Garegin Nzhdeh: Armenia's Pathetic Response to 'Media Wars'

29.01.2013, Critique

Art critic, journalist

Many were cautiously tense, waiting for the film Garegin Nzhdeh. On one hand, the film not yet screened had become the source of several amusing memes [where the pathetic phrase "Ya Garegin Nzdeh!" ("I am Garegin Nzhdeh!" in Russian) heard in the film's trailer was mocked]; on the other hand, the film inadvertently became associated with propaganda (especially since its premier coincided with the presidential election campaign period and it was promoted first of all by members of the ruling party). 

The first remarks made at the premier of the film on Jan. 28, 2013, were by PanArmenian Media Holding Director Vazrik Sekoyan, who said that battles now take place not on the battlefield, but in the mediaspace, arguing that the film Garegin Nzhdeh was produced to fulfill this need to participate in "media wars". The filmmakers also noted that with this film they are satisfying the demand of making future Armenians more patriotic. 

And so, a situation was created assessing the film from different angles (military-patriotic, heroic, emotive, the disciplining of future generations), while blatantly ignoring the fact that a film's aim, first and foremost, is to tell a story. 

And no matter how factual the story is, it has to be able to converse not with theoretical (Armenian), but with today's audience members (Republic of Armenia citizens).

And here, interpretations are not only permitted, but also preferred. Generally, the right to freedom of interpretation is no less valuable these days than the right to freedom of expression. All characters and ideas that have hardened and stagnated find new life thanks to fresh and ambiguous interpretation.

A source full of energy never suffers if it is treated confidently and intelligently by others (even in the hands of an improper or unskilled commentator it doesn't lose its energy). And opinions that Nzhdeh is "our everything" and we can't "touch him" are not only groundless, but also dangerous. 

We have to touch it. Scrutinize, rearrange, and examine it even. Especially, since the First Republic of Armenia's creation, "Bolshevikization," and relentless spur of military operations make up a large, contentious layer of history that is practically not addressed in cinema. 

In 1918, Armenia was de jure independent, full of bright individuals and heroes, who were later destroyed, scattered around the world, or became "small," becoming one of the screws making the repressive system work (the parallels are obvious). 

And in the period  of the 1920s to 1940s that was simultaneously being built and destroyed, full of fiery and fake ideology, lived Garegin Nzhdeh — a man who loved Armenians, the Armenian language, and his hills, and thought of and searched for solutions, entered the system (the Dashnaks, Bolsheviks) and got out, and fought with enemies not only outside, but also inside the country.

These parallels definitely crossed the minds of Garegin Nzhdeh screenwriter Krist Manaryan and director Hrach Keshishyan; historical codes have remained the same over a hundred years. The clash between the individual (the hero) and the system (the power of conformists) is more than obvious in Nzhdeh's fate.  

But the authors of the film because of domestic cautiousness (I don't want to say conformity) decided to smoothen the harsh edges of the era and present Nzhdeh's story on two platforms: pathos and sentimentality. They either weren't able or didn't want to do more. 

In the film, Nzhdeh basically makes an oration, gets irritated, and pathetically shakes his hands (this is mainly done by one of two actors playing Nzhdeh — Artashes Aleksanyan). In fact, it's unclear why two actors are needed, especially since the actor playing the younger Nzhdeh — Shant Hovhannisyan — is a much more prepared and refined actor than the shouting, passion-flaring Aleksanyan.

In any case, the problem is not so much the actors as the content they have to work with. The filmmakers really didn't give the actors anything to work with; that is, they gave them neither dialogues nor opportunities for context or parallels. And this is most clearly evident in the case of Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova, who is simply powerless to show all that for which she was called to be in the film. She has nothing to work with. 

When the director and screenwriter give to the actors a small amount of space for interpretation, it works. For example, the character clearly developed and endowed with a hero's magnetism is commander Poghos played by Khoren Levonyan. A small role, but one that is remembered the most and obliges the audience to contemplate the limits and sacrifices of becoming a hero. Levonyan is actually a major actor, and no matter how "petty" he becomes as a television host, in cinema, he is at once scintillating (which is not an exaggeration). 

The aim of speaking about the actors is really to speak about the content; that is, those scenes of which, at the end of the day, the story is comprised. 

A film that is based on historical facts is always in a risky domain. And don't forget this isn't a documentary film about Nzhdeh; it's not even a complete collection of facts in book form — a lot is in the realm of myths and assumptions, which undoubtedly complicates the work of a director making a fiction film.

He is forced to explain something that, to a great extent, is obvious. He is also forced to be more cautious —  to counter accusations of inaccuracy. 

And so, a cautious director unfamiliar with the scale of widescreen cinema creates the type of story that he does well — melodrama. But, on the other hand (likewise, obliged), mixed up with the genre of pure melodrama is the pathos of patriotism. And so he prefers to remain on the surface and not become submerged in a torrent of interpretations where he might "suffocate."

And so it is that Nzhdeh's (and in a metaphorical sense, Armenia's) story as interpreted by Hrach Keshishyan is comprised of fruitless attempts at creating a family, speeches articulated by shouting, and a quest for cooperation with various international forces (including German national-socialists) — likewise fruitless. 

The filmmaker brings Garegin Nzhdeh's struggles, emigration, and imprisonment to the point of squeezing the heart out of his native land and holding the grandchild he never saw. And this opportunity of Nzhdeh's is given by his "torturer," the brutal agent of the Soviet security agency that preceded the KGB, who is "infected" by Nzhdeh's greatness and allows him a proper goodbye to his native land.

This is an interesting and humane finale, but because of the framing of the scene and the pathetic emphases of Soviet acting school (as well as Armenian soap opera drama) it becomes a mockery. 

Getting this interpretation into the big screen cost quite a lot of money ($7 million USD) and resulted in lavish praises (apparently, the melodramatic aspect appealed to people the most). 

Of course, it's great that a feature-length film is shot in Armenia and initiated by local TV stations (now a single holding company). But it's more encouraging if this film (with its unilaterally pathetic and sentimental plot) reminds people that everything needs to be reviewed — especially heroes, slogans, ideas, and names enshrined on bronze statues.

And perhaps it will motivate the younger generation to conduct its own examination and dive into a man's fate and his ideas, who perhaps, was always outside the system (even when he was a part of the system). And the system, in the end, destroyed him.

Nune Hakhverdyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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