Last March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a worldwide lockdown, I was busy putting together a passion project of mine: a panel on Armenian women filmmakers. I moved to Yerevan, Armenia, in the fall of 2019 to teach university students English as a Fulbright scholar. During this time, I also worked as a volunteer helping to organize that summer’s upcoming Golden Apricot Film Festival (GAIFF), the largest annual film festival to be held in the Caucasus featuring films from the region and beyond. I reviewed film workshop submissions, edited film treatments, and met promising new Armenian filmmakers, male and female, creating insightful and inspired art in and of Armenia
I was both surprised and impressed to find a blossoming film scene in the country. Most of all, though, I was captivated by the bold, talented women telling unique, compelling, and meaningful stories for the local community. My panel was a way to learn more about these women and their projects and spark interest in the larger community. The event was to occur on Monday, March 16th, 2020, at the office of an organization called Birthright Armenia, which provides young Diasporan Armenians the opportunity to connect to their ancestral homeland while volunteering with an Armenian organization or company of their choice. Unbeknownst to us all, community gatherings would not be possible for some time. With the pandemic showing no signs of going away, I decided to put my panel plans on the backburner.
Now, just over a year later, I am happy to report that the SWAN: Armenian Women in Film panel has become a reality. On May 24th, 2021, at the Birthright Armenia office, I facilitated a panel with three bright, talented Armenian women filmmakers, Lilit Movsisyan, Emily Mkrtichian, and Victoria Aleksanyan. We discussed their past, present, and future projects and their unique perspectives as women on the Armenian film scene. We also screened clips from their work.
Lilit Movsisyan graduated from the Yerevan State Institute of Theater and Cinematography with honors in 2009 after debuting her student film, Voiceless. In 2011, a short clip she filmed was featured in the opening sequence of Ridley Scott’s documentary Life In A Day. Subsequently, her short Me Too (2012) won three prizes at the Syracuse International Film Festival. In 2013, her feature Caucho received six nominations at the National Cinema Awards of Armenia and won the award for Best Actress. Movsisyan was selected as a Talent in Sarajevo in 2015. Her latest short, The Trial, was in competition at the 2019 Golden Apricot Film Festival.
Movsisyan is currently producing a documentary film, Fight, selected for the EurasiaDoc co-production forum and has won the Best Pitch prize at the 1st Film Producers’ Panarmenian Forum. Focusing on a young girl in an Armenian village who dreams of becoming a veterinarian despite her dogfighting father’s objection, the film facilitates discourse on tradition, patriarchal values, and family relations. Movsisyan has also been developing the feature-length film Elena Cake, which tells the story of a transgender, Armenian woman living in Yerevan. Movsisyan has participated in various film and production-related workshops and continues to dedicate her time to telling Armenia’s untold stories.
Emily Mkrtichian is an Armenian-American filmmaker whose work touches on themes of memory, place and identity. Her work includes the immersive multimedia installation Luys i Luso, an exploration of music’s effect on spaces lost to genocide a century before. In 2019, her short documentary Motherland premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. It tells the story of the women who shake tradition and risk their lives to rid their country of landmines. 2019 also saw the premiere of Mkrtichian’s sci-fi short Transmission at the BFI Flare Film Festival, about a couple searching for each other between worlds.
Mkrtichian is a City of LA Arts Activation Fund recipient and a Locarno Film Festival Open Doors Grant recipient. She is also a Flaherty Seminar Fellow, a UnionDocs Summer Lab Fellow, and an alumna of the Torino Film Lab. She is currently working on her first feature documentary film, There Was, There Was Not. Supported by the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, the film focuses on four singular women living in the long-disputed territory of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). It captures their lives at times before, during, and after war.
Victoria Aleksanyan was born in Armenia but spent much of her career working in the U.S after receiving her Master of Fine Arts Degree from Columbia University. Her student short student film Caregivers premiered in the country of production, Armenia, at the 2014 Golden Apricot Film Festival and was subsequently screened at film festivals in the U.S. It went on to win the award for Best Foreign Picture at Sunset Film Festival. For just over six years, Aleksanyan lived and worked in New York. Her professional experience includes an executive producer credit for the feature documentary The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West, acquired and distributed by First Run Features. She worked in the documentaries department of HBO, assisting Academy Award-winning director and producer Ellen Goosenberg Kent.
In 2018, Aleksanyan moved back to Armenia to realize her dream of producing films and photography projects. She takes an active part in Armenia’s film industry reforms. Since 2019, she has collaborated on various film productions with producer, actress, and founder of Hoshkee Film, Armine Anda. Since 2020, she has worked as an adjunct professor at Russian-Armenian University, teaching in the film department. She is currently preparing to premiere a new short film, Deep Sky Blue.
Even as the Armenian film community has grown to include many talented female filmmakers, issues like sexism and the rigid perpetuation of a particular perceived cultural narrative still exist. During the panel, Movsisyan described an incredibly fascinating example of both problems in action. She had been developing a film to tell the story of a war veteran suffering PTSD and his wife, who helped him through his trauma. When Movsisyan approached the National Cinema Center of Armenia for potential funding, she was rejected. The board members did not want content that might compromise the accepted, perpetuated cultural narrative that Armenian men must be strong and that serving the country is noble. Such control not only does a disservice to artistic freedom but also limits the larger community’s perception of what is normal in life, barring authentic, relatable stories from being told.
Yet, these barriers, along with overall scarcity of people working in film tech in the country, do not stop these filmmakers from doing what they love. When asked why they chose to continue working in Armenia, all three thought it was obvious. This country is their home, and it holds stories that are not only worth telling; they demand to be told.
Support Women Artists Now (SWAN)
SWAN stands for “Support Women Artists Now” and aims not only to recognize but support female artists across the world. Though this year’s official SWAN Day was March 27th, 2021, SWAN is a year-long, life-long initiative. It isn’t enough to have a day or even a month celebrating women and the work they do. We must lift the voices of women every single day. It was a pleasure to contribute to this initiative across the globe, here in Armenia.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (6/8/21) FF2 Media
Photo: The city of Yerevan is nestled beneath Mount Ararat. (Wiki Commons)