Preserving Armenian Stories Top on Agenda of Filmmaker Garapedian


By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — Filmmaker Dr. Carla Garapedian is hopeful that the new agreement on the digitization of the archives of the late Dr. J. Michael Hagopian by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute will preserve the interviews captured by Hagopian in perpetuity.
During a talk at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), Garapedian explained how the Armenian Film Foundation, which was founded by Hagopian, and on whose board she serves, is collaborating with the Shoah Foundation to preserve the 400 survivor testimonies that Hagopian recorded.

The Shoah Foundation Institute, now part of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, will digitize the Armenian oral histories, making that collection one of the largest of Holocaust and Genocide testimonials. The aim is to add similar testimonials from other countries, including Cambodia and Rwanda.

Basically, the Armenian collection will be shared with Shoah, “without losing ownership.”
Garapedian spoke about the Shoah Foundation, which was started by director Steven Spielberg after he completed the movie, “Schindler’s List,” about the horrors of the Holocaust (incidentally with a screenplay by Steve Zaillian). “A number of survivors contacted him and said ‘get my story,’” Garapedian said.

The foundation’s aim is to record as many oral histories of Holocaust survivors as possible, much like what Hagopian started with the Armenians. There are currently 52,000 testimonials on film. The interviews were originally kept in Spielberg’s office on the Universal Studios lot, but then he started to worry about properly housing them so that they do not deteriorate. As a result, he started working with USC.

“He thought the best place for the collection was at a university so that they can try to understand and analyze” the testimonials, she explained. One advantage of USC was that it had “major grants coming in for digital technologies,” she explained.

To complete the work within the next year, the Armenian Film Foundation needs about $400,000; the rest of the $1.5 million cost for the Armenian testimonies’ digitization will be absorbed by the Shoah Foundation.

“The number one issue is preservation. Second, let’s say we preserve. Then what? How do we see them? We have to go to Toronto to see them.”

Efforts are being made to keyword every minute of every interview. Challenges include the different names of the cities and towns, whether Armenian or the new Turkish names, as well as variations of spelling. Eventually, the goal is that anyone interested in very specific searches, such as one for a woman from Kharpert, can execute such a search. Prof. Richard Hovannisian will be advising the group on the indexing.

Garapedian called Hagopian a “friend, mentor and colleague,” whom she first met while she was in London as a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Politics, and later, a BBC newsreader.

At that point, Hagopian was deeply involved with trying to interview all the survivors he could. “He was in a race against time to record their stories on film,” she said.

Garapedian said one reason she admired him so much was that “he started the Witnesses Project really seriously when he was 72 years old.” When Hagopian died at age 97 in 2010, she said, he was in the planning stages of a trip to India for a follow-up interview.
“To his dying day, not only was he working, but he was looking forward to his next project,” she said.

In the 1970s, Armin T. Wegner had sought Hagopian out, she said, to show him a box of photos from the Genocide era, photos that have since become defining images of the Genocide. “Michael interviewed him. He became the first witness,” ironically. “There were a number of German medical officers” who took photos during the Genocide, and all the photos were in Wegner’s collection.

In addition to Hagopian’s work, there are 800 testimonies from the Zoryan Institute on videotape. There are also survivor material on VHS and audiotape at ALMA and UCLA.
“The idea was to get all the stories for posterity,” she said.
“When you see and hear a survivor, it’s not just the factual information. They impact, apart from that, on a human level,” Garapedian said. “They [the viewers] get the feeling of the person’s experience.”

Currently, about 1,000 interviews from the Shoah archives can be seen by the public at http://dornsife.usc.edu/vhi/clipviewer/. The rest are available only to those using the university Internet.