SUDDHA in the land of Girni

The magnificent Ararat peak greeted me when I first landed in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia - a country that was once a part of the erstwhile Soviet Union Bloc. The snow peaked mountain was just majestic. I just could not take my eyes off it.
I was there in Yerevan along with my feature film SUDDHA (The Cleansing Rites) to attend the Golden Apricot International Film Festival that was held from 9-14 July 2007. With me in the vehicle was Ms An Cheong-sook, a film critic from South Korea. Her gaze too, was on the Ararat.

Mount Ararat is one of the tallest of the peaks in the area. Armenians often boast that that it can be seen from anywhere in their country. It is presently located just beyond its borders, in the Turkish territory.

It is said that during the Biblical times, the Noah’s Ark had landed in Mount Ararat. Some archaeologists quote satellite images and swear that the remains of the Arc are still buried somewhere in the snow peaked mountain. Some others say that it’s just a myth.

Armenia is a country that is rebuilding itself in its new found freedom. Literally, one can see a lot of high rise constructions coming up in the city of Yerevan, blocking the infamous view of the Ararat. Presently, there is a real estate boom; its economy heavily dependent on tourism.

It is surprising that there are hardly any direct flights to its capital. I had to make a nine hour travel to Moscow, had to undergo a layover of another nine hours which got painstakingly extended to twenty; and had to finally take another three hours flight to back to Yerevan. And my plane had almost flew over Armenia to reach Moscow!

The Golden Apricot International Film Festival is just in its fourth year. But its director Harutun Khachatryan, a filmmaker himself, has already managed to associate it with the Rotterdam and the Pusan Film Festivals. Apart from the usual retrospectives, competition and non competition sections, the festival also had a pitching workshop for Eastern European filmmakers.

SUDDHA (The Cleansing Rites) was in the competition section. I was pleasantly surprised when after the screening, people observed and talked about the sound design of the film. I had proudly designed it myself and this was the first time someone had noticed it without me having to blow my own trumpet!

The public screening had around forty members watching the film, including a few Indian students. Many decades back, apparently the Armenians like the rest of the Soviet Block, had swayed to the tune of Raj Kapoor and his ‘Awaara’. Indian Cinema is identified with the song and dance routine. It was indeed heartening to see the public take a liking to this small non mainstream digital film made in a language that many in India itself do not know of.

I saw ‘Alexandra’ a Russian film directed by Aleksandr Sokurov. It is about an old lady’s visit to her grandson serving in a Russian military camp situated within the Chechen Republic. The film does not have any war sequences, yet it is a brilliant portrayal of anti-war sentiments. ‘Climates’ by Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a co-production between France and Turkey. It is a subtle study of relationships and loneliness and it had won the FIPRESCI award at Cannes in 2006.

Faruk Loncarevic’s ‘Mom ‘n’ Dad: Reality Show’ is a stubbornly slow paced movie that portrays the daily monotonous life of an elderly couple staying alone in Bosnia. But for the irritating mock commercials that are interspersed in-between, I thought the film has an essence that came across quite fluently. ‘Love Concurs All’ which had made a name for itself and its director Tan Chui Mui, both in Pusan and Rotterdam film festivals is a nice little Korean film about love and faith.

‘Tressette- A story of an Island’ has an unusual story about a bunch of card players in a deserted Island who are trying to recruit a fourth player when one among them dies. Croatian directors Drazen Zarkoviae and Pavo Marinkoviae have succeeded in subtly portraying the humorous interpersonal relationships between the sparse inhabitants left in the island.

There are only a few Armenian films being made these days and almost most of them are funded or co-produced by the cultural department of the Armenian government. ‘The Priestess’ by Vigen Chaldranian tells the story of a priestess of an Armenian temple in Girni, in a violent era which saw Armenia adopt Christianity as a state religion thousands of years back.

In my brief stay in Yeravan, I noticed that the Armenians are proud of the fact that they are the first state in the world to adopt Christianity. But in this film, an Armenian historian is in search of his country’s identity that goes beyond the Christian era. The temple of Girni is the only pre-Christianity temple standing in Armenia today. It is a pity that time did not permit me to visit and gaze at this historical temple.

The genocide of the Armenians by the military in Turkey during the First World War lingers heavily in the collective subconscious of the Armenians. The fact that a production company from Italy with funding from Italy, France, Bulgaria, Spain and the United Kingdom had to make a film on this subject is a reflection of the state in which the Armenian Film Industry is presently in.

‘The Last Lark’ directed by the Taviani Brothers was the opening film of the festival. It talks about one such Armenian family caught in the genocide. Although a few men from the Turkish delegation who were attending the Film Festival later told me privately that the film was too simplistic and heavily one sided, the Armenians gave a standing ovation to the film that lasted more than five minutes. The clapping never seemed to stop!

During the festival, I have had the opportunity to acquaint myself with some wonderful people. Critics – Klaus Edgar, An Cheong-sook, Anna Gareb, Zaven Boyajyan; Producer -Behrooz Hashmian; Distributor - Hans Hodel and directors like Pavao Marinkovic, Peter Lom, Sergy Bukovsky and Celine Gulekjian.

Hrant Hakobyan the veteran Armenian director, with whom I have had many intense discussions about India related issues like Satyajit Ray, Raj Kapoor, the Richird Gere - Shilpa Shetty kiss saga and the likes of it; signed off my trip with the comment – ‘Deep in my heart I do believe that there is a deep connection between India and Armenia’.

How wonderful it would have been if this would result in a co-production between the two countries. It would come very much in handy for me, because as such I am finding it difficult to raise the necessary money for my second film.

I realized only after I came back to India that maybe people in Armenia too may be thinking about the same lines - looking to the rest of the world to fund their films. The breed of directors are the same, the world over!

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