Several years ago, when Armenians across the globe were preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide that created diasporan communities from the Americas to the Middle East, Avo John Kambourian thought about what he could add to the conversation.
It wasn't lost on Kambourian that among those killed on April 24, 1915, the day recognized as the start of the Armenian genocide, were intellectuals and artists. "We talk about the 1.5 million [people killed during the genocide]," says the Sherman Oaks–based filmmaker inside a Little Tokyo coffeehouse, "but we don't talk about the individual people and what they did, the innovators and what they achieved, and what sort of cultural loss came out of it."
Kambourian wasn't just interested in the stories of individuals from the past. He started thinking about artists of Armenian heritage who live today and who he says are "underrepresented." He opted to focus on present-day Armenian-American artists who have woven pieces of tradition and history into their work. The result is Echoes of Survival, a series of five documentary shorts that will screen in full at Arpa International Film Festival on Saturday, Nov. 4.
Arpa, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, isn't specifically an Armenian film festival, but a significant amount of its offerings come either from the country of Armenia or from filmmakers in the diaspora. "Twenty years ago, there weren't really a lot of platforms for these filmmakers," says Haig Boyadjian, executive director of the Arpa Foundation for Film, Music and Art and producer of this year's festival. "The vision was to give people a platform, not an exclusively Armenian platform but a platform in Hollywood with other international films."
This year's offerings include Dalida, a French biopic about the international singing sensation whose life came to a tragic end in 1987; The Heart of Nuba, a documentary that goes inside Sudan's Nuba Mountains; and Intent to Destroy, a documentary about Armenian genocide denial and the making of the film The Promise. There are also two films that deal directly with LGBT issues in Armenia, the documentary Listen to Me: Untold Stories Beyond Hatred and the feature Apricot Groves. According to Boyadjian, the festival sought films that make a "social impact," including movies that look at human rights issues and/or explore identity.
For Kambourian, who was born in the San Fernando Valley to ethnic Armenian parents from Syria, identity and filmmaking intertwine. When he was 20, the filmmaker took a break from college to join the volunteer program Birthright Armenia. In the small country in the Caucasus, he worked for a documentary film studio and taught at an after-school program focusing on photography and film. In 2012, he returned to the country when he was hired to document an art show. He traveled quite a bit, eventually making it into Turkey for the centennial of the genocide, where he visited places once inhabited by Armenians. Those trips helped shape the work he would do back in the United States.
Echoes of Survival takes viewers into the lives of artists across the United States and looks at how identity has shaped their work. In Chicago, artist Jackie Kazarian uses her grandmother's lace as a silkscreen for an abstract painting. In New England, Armenian-American musicians gather at a Greek restaurant to jam. In Los Angeles, Ara Oshagan goes through the photographs he has taken within Armenian communities here and abroad.
Oshagan is the grandson of a writer who was rounded up with the intellectuals during the genocide but managed to escape. "Genocide is a huge break," he says by phone. "It's not only a break in life and in the loss of the land …but there's this huge cultural break, a break in imagination."
He adds, "The diaspora starts officially with nothing after the genocide. They have to sort of create something out of completely nothing after the genocide."
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And so you start over. "In one sense, that is very much a difficult place to start from," Oshagan says. "It is, also, a point of creativity. A point where now you start mixing with different cultures, different languages, different ways of life."
Oshagan was born in Beirut. He was a child when his family left for the United States at the start of the Lebanese civil war and he is currently working on a book focusing on Beirut. He says that much of his work explores the "hybrid identity" that comes with being part of a diaspora. "A lot of my work is about trying to say that there is no one identity but it's a constant flux. Identity is a process," he says. "In your constant shifting between different ways of thinking and living and speaking is where our identity realizes itself."
Similarly, Kambourian is piecing together the many facets of cultural identity in the vignettes that comprise Echoes of Survival. That's reflected in the documentary's title. It's not about the tragedy, but rather what came out of it. "As bad as it was, there is this silver lining," he says of the genocide, "which is us."
20th annual Arpa International Film Festival, Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sun., Nov. 3-5; Echoes of Survival screens Saturday, Nov. 4, at 4:30 p.m. arpafilmfestival.com.