During what might have just been the hottest week of the year in Yerevan, Armenia, I had the opportunity to attend the 19th annual Golden Apricot International Film Festival (GAIFF), what many have called the largest film festival in the Caucasus region. It’s been five months, and I’m still reflecting on my experience.
It had been two years since the pandemic cast its shadow and the world seemed to stop moving, and three years since I left the US for Armenia. When the pandemic hit back in 2020, FF2 – which had been exclusively covering women filmmakers up until that point – continued its work from home. But as the months dragged on and movie theaters stayed closed, we realized we’d have to adapt our content to a world that seemed to exist more and more online. Now, we’ve diversified our subjects, covering women artists across all mediums, but I sometimes miss those days of film festivals and movie screenings in brick and mortar theaters.
The Golden Apricot International Film Festival
Established in 2004, the Golden Apricot International Film Festival was named for the Armenian apricot, prunus armeniaca, which is so loved in Armenia that its color is featured on the country’s flag. During Soviet times, the Armenian SSR was a filmmaking hub. After the collapse of the USSR, lack of funding paired with geopolitical turmoil would leave its film industry – along with a number of other industries – to stagnate.
GAIFF was one of several initiatives that would not only celebrate Armenian filmmakers, but introduce its audiences to other films from around the world.
GAIFF was one of several initiatives that would not only celebrate Armenian filmmakers, but introduce its audiences to other films from around the world. The festival would also encourage the development of new films while facilitating connection between filmmakers and audiences.
GAIFF’s mission is to build bridges and foster dialogue between different cultures. It welcomes films representing diverse ethnic groups, religions, and nations that depict the human experience. Taking place in Yerevan, it’s also a place for regional filmmakers to present their work. It features both regional and international features and documentaries as well as short films, tributes, and retrospectives. It even has a competitive section specifically for films produced by filmmakers of Armenian descent.
Women Filmmakers at GAIFF: A Recap
Held online in 2020 and back in theaters in 2021, GAIFF is one of the few film festivals that has never canceled a single edition. And this year, the city was abuzz with anticipation for its comeback. I scanned through the festival’s screening schedule and felt an excitement I hadn’t felt in some time. There was so much to see, and only eight days to see it. With the memory of the Athena Films Festival buzzing in my head, I set out to catch as many films as possible that were either written or directed by women, Armenian or otherwise.
I set out with a mission to catch as many films as possible that were either written or directed by women, Armenian or otherwise.
A Trip to Spain
I kicked off the festival with Piggy (in Spanish, Cerdita), a 2022 Spanish-French thriller written and directed by Carlota Pereda and based on the short film of the same name. The film is set in the Spanish countryside, where “Sara” (Laura Galán), an overweight teenage girl, is tormented by local girls in the village during the summertime. When her bullies are kidnapped by a strange man in a white van, Sara is presented with a dilemma: should she help the police rescue them or seek vengeance for their cruelty?
Pereda sets up this dilemma well, demonstrating, almost from the very beginning, the ferocity with which these girls verbally attack poor Sara before they are taken. As the situation worsens and the entire village becomes involved, Sara grows more anxious, but also seems to harden in a way that is thrilling to see, going from helpless victim to independent agent.
Another Spanish film I saw was Carla Simón’s Alcarràs (2022), which is set and shot in Alcarràs, Catalonia, and features a non-professional cast of actors speaking a Western dialect of the Catalan language. A rural drama, the film explores the slow disappearance of agricultural activity in the local economy, and how that affects the lives of a family that has been making its living growing, harvesting, and selling peaches from their family orchard. Though the plot unfolds rather slowly, the film itself is visually rich with shots of the Catalonian countryside and covers an issue that is little-explored yet hugely impactful on agrarian economy.
The Documentary Circuit
It was a real treat to spend time traveling around the world as I followed the remarkable lives of remarkable real people, starting with Marie Surae’s I Am Not Lakit (2022), a film that follows 23-year-old Saleh as he tries to make a life for himself despite a law that bans him from basic rights. In Lebanon, a “lakit” or illegitimate, abandoned child, has no rights to citizenship, travel, education, surname, or acceptance into any of the 18 religions recognized in Lebanon. Saleh, born to a Palestinian mother and abandoned by his father as a baby, seems doomed. Still, he refuses to give up, and slowly learns how to read and write while searching for his place in a society that seems hell-bent on refusing him one.
It was a real treat to spend time traveling around the world as I followed the remarkable lives of remarkable real people in the documentaries I saw.
From Lebanon, I made my way to Naples, Italy through Victoria Fiore’s Hide and Seek (2021) and its young hero Entoni, a child born and raised in a family dealing in organized crime. Both Entoni’s grandmother and mother don’t want him or his younger brother Gaetano to grow up to become part of the mafia like their father and grandfather, but the cycle is already in motion. In one scene, Entoni stands outside of the prison where his father has been detained and waves a red bandana to say hello. In a later scene, it is Gaetano who is waving the bandana as Entoni sits in prison. Several such parallels are drawn, and the audience is reminded that the cycle inevitably continues, no matter how hard one wishes to escape it.
During the last and possibly hottest day of the festival, I sat down in a stuffy, un-airconditioned theater to watch, fittingly, Fire of Love (2022), a documentary from Sara Dosa that follows the lives and careers of daring French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft via archival footage. It was fascinating to see the tapes they had collected throughout the years, with close up shots of lava oozing and splashing and hardening that mesmerized. I felt I was peering into another world entirely, one of intense beauty and immense danger. This doc can be streamed on Disney+, and I highly recommend you do so!
Kicking off the Armenian favorites was Nairi Hakhverdi’s documentary film Sweeping Yerevan (2020), which follows matriarch Marina as she works to support her partially blind husband and three children, mending clothes and cleaning for a local school by day and sweeping the streets of Armenia’s capital by night. Having suffered hard times since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marina strives to nurture education and musical skills in her children, hoping to give them a better life than she had.
Having lived in Yerevan for the past three years, I was moved by this movie, which gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who we tend to ignore. These older women in yellow vests who sweep the streets in the middle of the night had always struck me as a peculiar sight. Nairi encourages us to really look at them, and recognize the humanity in that which we’ve come to ignore.
Perhaps my favorite part of the festival was the short film series, where I watched Victoria Aleksanyan’s 12-minute short film Crossing the Blue, which tells the story of “Anoush,” a mother who took her young son and left Armenia for the United States to escape from an abusive husband.
What I love about this film is the unconventional and innovative way it tells the story. Anoush has been forced to return to Armenia, and the only dialogue we hear is that between her and the customs officer as his probing questions pick away at the story she’d rather conceal. We see her as he does, through an opening in a glass windowpane, and feel the weight of all that she carries, the grief she has brought with her.
One of the most anticipated films of the festival was Inna Sahakyan’s Aurora’s Sunrise (2022), an animated feature which tells the true story of Aurora Mardiganian, who, after surviving the Armenian Genocide of 1915, journeys to America to tell the world of the atrocities committed by Ottoman Turkey. Through newly unearthed archival footage, we also see parts of the silent film in which she starred, Auction of Souls (1919), which depicts the atrocities she and thousands of other Armenians faced. There’s lots more to tell about this film, so stay tuned!
On the final day of screenings, I made sure to catch Nora Martirosyan’s Should the Wind Drop (2020), an Armenian-Belgian-French drama in which an auditor is charged with appraising the Stepanakert Airport in the small, breakaway Republic of Artsakh in the South Caucasus to see if it meets international aviation standards. Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan to the East, the republic is populated by Armenians. As somebody who visited this land before fully understanding its history and significance to the Armenian people, I found myself relating to the auditor, “Alain” (Grégoire Colin), as he begins to connect with the locals and understand their struggle for self-determination.
Despite the heat, it was a joy to be back at the movie theater watching films that would take me to places I’d never been and tell me stories I never imagined. Here’s to many more film festivals!
© Roza M. Melkumyan (12/16/22) FF2 Media
Learn more about the Golden Apricot International Film Festival here.
CREDITS AND PERMISSIONS
Stills from Sweeping Yerevan (2020) have been provided by director Nairi Hakhverdi and are used here by FF2 Media with her permission.
The photo of Moscow Cinema in Yerevan is sourced from Wikipedia Commons.