Festival celebrates Armenian filmmaking

The Armenian Film Society premiered the Armenian Film Festival last week.

The Armenian Film Festival’s debut audiences celebrate Armenian resilience after a century of powerful filmmaking by showcasing films that highlight Armenian culture and self-reflection. (Tina Ter-Akopyan / Daily Trojan)

Eight years after the Armenian Genocide of 1915 left more than one million Armenians dead or displaced, Armenia looked toward the power of film to reestablish the country’s culture and heal its wounds. 

The establishment of the Armenian State Committee of Cinema in 1923 heralded a robust era of filmmaking in the nation. While Armenian filmmakers faced restrictions from the Soviet Union, they did not stop sharing stories, which continue to shape Armenian filmmakers today.

Now, a century later, hundreds gathered in Glendale from Sept. 6 to 10 to celebrate the legacy of Armenian cinema as part of the inaugural Armenian Film Festival, launched by the Armenian Film Society, a non-profit organization raising awareness about Armenian filmmakers. 

“[This] film festival is a celebration, but it’s also an opportunity to better highlight Armenia as a country [and] as a culture,” said Armen Karaoghlanian, School of Cinematic Arts alum and co-founder of the Armenian Film Society.

Armen and his wife Mary started AFS in 2015. By hosting Q&A events and posting on social media about Armenian filmmakers in the industry, AFS established its presence across the Armenian diaspora. 

As support for AFS grew, the couple wanted to find more impactful ways to bring the community together and spotlight Armenian artists, leading to the conception of the Armenian Film Festival.

“We decided to do this, mainly because we felt like we were lacking a film festival in L.A. that is for Armenians, by Armenians [and] about Armenians,” Karaoghlanian said. “We’ve been very intentional in the programming in that we want there to be a variety of stories, all windows into who we are as people.”

The festival opened at the historic Alex Theatre with the premiere of Emmy-award winning actor and director Michael Goorjian’s film “Amerikatsi,” providing audiences with a “window” into the Armenian experience. 

“Amerikatsi,” which translates to “The American,” portrays a period of repatriation in Soviet Armenia. Charlie, the titular Amerikatsi played by Goorjian, returns to Armenia but finds himself stuck in prison because of miscommunication. Here, he gazes into the home of an Armenian couple from his prison window and discovers the beauty of his culture. 

“Every Armenian truth from our past to our present [are connected] into one emotional beautiful experience,” said Serj Tankian, System of a Down musician and executive producer on the film, during a post-screening discussion. 

These thematic strains of resilience and community reappeared throughout the festival. Filmmakers Milena Mooradian and Avo John Kambourian cited the strong bond of the Armenian community as inspirations for their short films shown on the festival’s third day. 

“The strength and resilience and community is so innate [among Armenians]. That emphasis really inspired me to bring more people together to talk about things people don’t usually want to talk about.” said Mooradian, a third-generation Armenian American discussing the inspirations behind her short film “Cycles,” a Student Academy Award semifinalist. 

“Cycles” is a surrealist exploration of the menstruation cycle’s innate connection to the natural world. Mooradian wanted to foster more open conversations about womanhood with this film. 

“There’s definitely a macho attitude, not just among Armenian [men] but men in general. I want them to see the film and recognize the power and beauty of what women hold,” Mooradian said.

From a young age, Kambourian, a recent MFA graduate from SCA, was motivated to pursue a career in filmmaking by the Armenian community. 

“I was always inspired by the stories that I would hear from my parents or my friends,” Kambourian said. “Seeing an Armenian name in the credits is [also] very inspiring because it says ‘Oh, I can do that too.’” 

Now, Kambourian finds his name on the silver screen, as he presents his short documentary film, “Echoes of Kef Time” which documents renowned Armenian American musician Richard Hagopian’s journey in passing down the folk music, known as “Kef,” to his grandchildren following his footsteps.

Recipient of Best Documentary Film at the USC Industry Relations Awards, “Echoes of Kef Time” represents a specific Armenian experience that also resonates across cultural boundaries. 

“The message is that we survive by culture,” Kambourian said. “Whether what’s happening in Artsakh right now [or] what happened during the Soviet Union collapse … we’ve always come out of it with a lot of culture and self-reflection.”

The Armenian Film Festival served as an opportunity for self-reflection in the Armenian community. From a book signing with legendary filmmaker Howard Kazanjian to countless  screenings to a closing night conversation with SCA alum and producer Sev Ohanian, the festival highlighted the diversity and creativity of the Armenian diaspora. 

“Hopefully [audiences] can walk away with a better understanding of who Armenians are because they might hear about the struggles we are going through, [but] I can’t think of a better way to really understand the [Armenian] people than through film,” Karaoghlanian said. 

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